Job progression – paradox for our time

IMAGINE yourself driving in the country and being totally lost. Beautiful countryside, great looking sheep, but you’re not where you want to be. You stop to ask directions from someone who looks like a local.

He tells you: “Oh, that’s easy. Keep going along this road for a while until you cross a bridge and then you’ll see a big abattoir on the right hand side of the road. Well, about a mile before you get to the bridge, turn right. The place you’re looking for is at the end of that road.”

Sound logical? If so, read it again. Now, I’m not knocking country people and their sense of logic – far from it. But there’s a principle here that applies to how we make career, and indeed, life decisions. Life is best understood backwards, but we have to live it forwards.

This principle is not mine. I first came across these ideas in a book by Charles Handy, renowned management phi-losopher, called The Empty Raincoat. In it, Handy explains the paradox of how our lives are so easily understood in retrospect – sometimes only once we have reached the abattoir. The trick is to know when to make the right hand to turn to where we want to go.

Think of the progression of your time in a job in terms of a graph (See graph1).

This graph is typical of many life cycles – products, companies and careers. You start off slowly, growing into a new environment. (Point A) As your confidence builds, your performance escalates and you start to reap the rewards of your earlier efforts (Point B). Life is looking good and you are really enjoying your work. You’re thinking “No need to change just yet – I’ve worked really hard and I might as well enjoy the ride.”

Point C is where things start to turn pear-shaped. Work doesn’t seem as much fun anymore – you’re not learning anything new, you don’t like the direction the company is going and your job looks like it might be under threat from the new girl who’s just joined. You do what you’ve always done but it doesn’t seem to be getting you the results and recognition that it used to.

Point D and you’re staring disaster in the face. Redundancy. Loss of motivation. Boredom. Anger. Or all of these and more. It’s not a nice place to be.

Consider the scenario in Graph 2.

Our challenge in creating and managing a successful career is to know when to take the second curve. Getting off the path we are on requires energy and the confidence that some sort of success will be achieved along the new curve. Paradoxically, we find real energy for change as we approach or reach point D on the first curve. When someone loses their job, they must find a new curve or perish. At point B, it’s very tempting to sit back and be complacent. Who wants to give up a job that you’ve spent months or even years getting to grips with? This is what you’ve worked hard for, right?

Wrong. Or is it?

What ‘s the secret to a career of successive second curves?

Always assume you are approaching point B. This may sound radical, but it is a fail safe way for you to avoid career redundancy, boredom and burnout. You are never going to know for sure where point B is, but if you are always preparing for the second curve, chances are you’ll see the opportunities well before you reach your peak on the first curve. In practice, this means being constantly aware of the external forces that shape your industry and the careers within it.

Can you approximate your position on the curve? Yes. Think how you feel about your work when you get home. What would you say to your partner/flatmate/cat?

I’m on a huge learning curve and work is such a challenge right now;

I’ve finally got to grips with what I’m doing. I’m actually starting to feel competent; or

Work has lost its edge – I feel like I need to be doing something else.

If you answered a) then you’re somewhere between points A and B. If b), you’re somewhere very close to point B. And if c) rang true to you, then lookout! The downhill slide is not far away.

(c) people, do not fear. It is never too late to think like a person who answered (a) or (b). And it’s definitely never too late to find that second curve. Your challenge will be finding the motivation and vision to make that leap.

And (a) people, don’t think you can put it off. You’re in the best position now for considering what you want when you get to B.

Why make the change at all? What’s wrong with cruising in your job and living for the weekend? Nothing. But remember this. Many people who are made redundant are the ones who thought they had made it – their job was secure because they had done the hard yards and the company would look after them. Of course, we know now that nothing could be further from the truth.

To put it from a more philosophical viewpoint: “The rung of a ladder was never meant to rest upon, but only to hold a man’s foot long enough to enable him to put the other somewhat higher.” Aldous Huxley illustrates life’s paradox. The time at which we achieve our goal is the time we should already be considering new directions. There is no end point, no nirvana where everything suddenly becomes blissful. Well, there is, actually – that point is called death. And if you think you’ve reached that point and you’re still breathing, then you’re even worse off – you’ve ceased to grow. You’re stagnating. And what type of life is that?

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