Finding your pathcherry blossoms close up

I am working on this talk for Velocity 2012 in June.  I am actually super excited about the presentation because I think I have a witty theme (which makes fun slides easier) but also because there is so much great content and advice that can fall under this umbrella.

And as I was thinking about “leveling up” in your career and your life, one of the things that kept coming back to me is that very few people actually know what they want the next level to look like.  In other words, they are moderately happy at their current roles but dissatisfied because they want more – but may not even know what more could be.  They cannot visualize their success or desired outcome.

For example, when I finished school I started my career as a developer.  I loved writing code in school, and I really enjoyed it at work (although being a small part of a big project was never as thrilling as owning the whole project as I was able to do on my own personal projects and in school).  I remember a 1:1 I had with my boss’s boss – my first skip level meeting – and for the sake of this post let’s call him Bob.  Bob asked me where I wanted to go with my career and what I wanted to achieve.  I told him how I wanted to grow into being a senior technical leader – a software architect or principal engineer; and that the technical ladder was one of the reasons I had chosen to work at Microsoft.  I was so convinced of this outcome; I hadn’t even considered other alternatives.  I didn’t know, what I didn’t know.

Fast forward several years, and I have reached a level of discontent in my career – I no longer just want to write code and complete projects but I want a voice in what I am building, and even what other people are building.  I started going to meetings in place of my manager, and I get more involved in specifications, technical requirements and estimating and scheduling work. Eventually this results into me moving more formally into a management role, which actually plays my strengths and passions and now I can honestly say I bring a lot more value to the role in this capacity than I could have as a senior technologist.

However, finding this path wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t clear cut either.  But this post isn’t about my path –so below are some ideas and suggestions that can help you determine yours.

Look at the past.

Tony Robbins said once that “the past does not equal the future”, and while I am a big fan of his work I don’t actually agree with this quote.  I know his intent was to inspire and empower people to change, but in reality the past is often the best predictor of what is to come.

For example, if I told you about two people.  Both worked as a software engineers and spent their days coding and contributing to projects at work.  One of them, let’s call him John, desired to become a manager.  He wrote this down as a goal and had a basic plan written out on how he could achieve this goal.  John does his very best at his job, learning about new technology and working hard on his projects.  The other, let’s call him Steve, spends his weekends reading leadership books, and finds time to meet with other leaders in his organization to learn from their experiences.  He was always posting articles about leadership on his twitter, and contributing those ideas to those around him.  Steve works hard at his job, but he doesn’t necessarily have a goal or a plan to move into a management role.

Which one do you think would end up as a manager or leadership role on their team?  Who would you bet your money on?

The activities that you do now can suggest what lies ahead in your future.  What are you doing that is related to your work that you enjoy the most?  Is there a job or role that can leverage those things?

Take the temperature of your present.

If you were to rate your career right now on a scale of 1 to 10 what would it be?  For most people this is likely somewhere around a 6-7, although potentially lower.  Do you know what it would take to be a 10?  Have you defined your success yet?

When you first start a new job or position you start learning at a rapid pace.  This is very fulfilling for overachievers because you are being challenged and learning something new.  However, after 1-2 years (or potentially less depending on the role and your skill set) some tend to plateau and start to feel discontent.   For people who are goal oriented or focus on success, this can be a hard period, because they mastered the role and must look around outside of that definition for more goals and challenges.  At this point many just jump to another role, or job, without really thinking through what the right next role or job is for them.  I know I have been guilty of this behavior.

However, this can lead you down a path where you will never reach your 10.  Sometimes to really find your 10, you have to go back to 2-3, to start over and really reflect on your motivation and goals – and this can be very hard or difficult.  It can be very hard to break past 7 though, since it can be more work to reach 8 than it took to achieve the 7 in the beginning (such as starting your own business, or pursuing a new profession).  And moreover, for many of us there is a fear that sets in making you feel like the 8, 9, or 10 is unattainable or out of reach.

Just don’t get stuck at your 7.

Create a plan of how to get to your 10.  Write it down.
If you don’t know what your plan is then a good next step is to take the time to reflect on what your 10 looks like.

go confidentally in the direction of your dreams, life the life you have imagined.  -henry david thoreau

Defining your success metric.

Think about the times in your life where you worked on something and it seemed completely effortless.  When everything just flowed and you seemed utterly happy and at ease with the task at hand.  What was that like?  What were you doing? Look through your past experiences and be open to what you may discover.

What are the topics that you find yourself thinking about often? Are there ideas or topics that keep you awake at night? What ambitions did you set aside when you were younger that may be worth revisiting?

Many people will say to look at your passions, but I think that it can be misleading.  For example, I love playing video games, but I don’t think I would ever be happy with a job where I played video games all day.  In fact, I think I would be embarrassed of that career.  You have to pick a path that makes you proud of what you do; one that will align with your values and motivation.

One exercise that is useful is to write your 3 greatest strengths, and then your 3 greatest weaknesses (and if you aren’t sure, ask those around you who will be honest and tell you the truth).

How can those fit into a career?  Research and educate yourself on the possibilities.  Who do you know in those roles now?  What are their backgrounds?  How did they get there? And are you motivated enough to build the skills and experiences you need?  How many books or articles have you read on the topic?

Allow yourself time to transition and figure it out.  Keep iterating on your definition of success. There is no rush to find you true path.

Once you know your desired outcome and have defined your success metric, then it is just a matter of progress and defining next steps.  However, that will have to wait until another post.

If you have any more ideas, tips, suggestions or articles feel free to leave them in the comments!

[top cherry blossom image courtesy of the lovely and talented photographer, Vanessa Johnston]


Related Posts: