The body of work: A career is not a ladder, but a zig-zag path through experience

Yesterday a young candidate asked me, “If you were me, what would you do? Go for this new position, stay and get promoted, or wait for something better to come along?” He seemed bewildered, almost distraught with the weight of his decision.

We’ve all experienced this feeling. I said to him, think of each career step not as a ladder to climb, a good or bad decision, but as an opportunity to stretch yourself, gain insights, and learn new things. Your career will be marked by the total body of your work.

By constantly selecting — devouring — opportunities for personal development (isn’t this what a promotion is?), you will differentiate yourself, prompting others to take notice because you become a solution to their problem. The result, over time, is advancement. The path is not linear or always up. It is a zig-zag road defined by failures, heartaches, satisfaction, and celebration. Responsibility is heaped on those who don’t always aspire to it.

Meanwhile, back to our candidate. Rather than grab every new experience that comes his way, he’ll need to establish his bearings. What is he good at, how does he need to develop, and what is his ultimate destination? The sign-post marking ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ should be based on which direction provides the best or fastest opportunity to acquire the skills and competencies that are critical to reaching his goals. Waiting for the promotion is a mindset that often results in getting passed over. Clarity of purpose will lead to a life of surprises.
Just for fun, take a fresh look at Yojimbo, the Japanese period film directed by Akira Kurosawa. Toshiro Mifune portrays a masterless samurai, or ronin, whose counsel is sought by rival gangs because of his unique ability to provide a solution to each. I’m reminded of the film because the main character also faces a fork in the road. His achievement is measured by his terms.
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