There is no such thing as a linear career anymore, not in support nor anywhere. Instead, careers have evolved into a spiderweb of alternatives and interconnected options. They all might or might not take you where you can do your best work. There is no one path to your destination. Maybe there isn’t even a destination, but rather a combination of responsibilities that make you thrive. Given the spiderweb of options, there are two different ways to look at your career: reacting to opportunities that present themselves (reactive flow) or an intentional selection of activities (conscious creation). One isn’t necessarily better than the other – and you’ll most likely shift from one mode to the other during your career.
Reactive flow: you react to your career
This is a great way to look at your career if you are not entirely sure where you want to go. If the question “where do you see yourself in five years” sends waves of terror down your spine, this is your current preferred career plan. You prefer to take things as they come up, learning new things as challenges arise. This does not mean that you are not interested in your career or that you have no direction at all. It merely indicates that you prefer to find out what’s possible without constricting yourself. Looking at your career like a river that adapts to the terrain and works with obstacles instead of fighting them can be a very successful strategy, both at the very beginning of your career as well as once you are established.
Since this state of your career requires external input, it’s crucial that you surround yourself with people that can challenge you. It may be a team lead invested in your growth. Maybe its your spouse who constantly pushes you towards expanding your horizons. It might be a mentor inside the company who makes sure you hear about new projects you could be part if. Or maybe it’s a friend in an adjacent industry who shares the latest training course they did.
As you are exploring, say yes frequently. Try stuff that’s outside your comfort zone (for now). Participate in discussions you don’t know a lot about (yet). Get involved with projects that technically are not part of your role (yet), but that could lead to other interesting options.
Keep in mind that the reactive flow isn’t only an option at the very beginning of your career. It can just as well add a fresh breeze to an established career: What would happen if you said “yes” more often?
Conscious creation: your career reacts to you
Some people start out with a very strategic mindset and a clear vision of how their spiderweb looks like and which nodes they need to cover. I always envied these people. Having a plan from the get-go sounded so relaxing. The whole “follow your dream”-advice is kind of mute if you don’t have a clear-cut dream. However, even if you were not born knowing what you wanted to be when you grow up, after enough time of reactive flow, you’ll get to a point where you have some clarity around what you enjoy, what you are good at, and what you need to thrive. This can include different things: type of projects, team size, company size, responsibilities, culture etc. That’s the moment where you can shift your focus from exploring to a more strategic decision-making process.
Instead of saying yes for the sake of exploration, you start to say yes to selected projects that make sense within you personal spider web. It’s still a non-linear web with interconnected nodes, and you make sure to visit those nodes that make most sense for your career growth. You shift your intention from “yes to everything” towards “does this make sense in terms of what I want to achieve”.
To make the best out of this moment in your career, map out your spider web. Define where you’d like to be in 5 years, what you’d like to be doing and where. Talk to people who have gotten there. Check the job descriptions of roles that sound like they would be a good fit further down the line. Map out the nodes that you want to visit and compare every new project and request with these nodes. Be intentional about the choices around where to spend your professional (and personal) time.
Now is the time to say “no” to the things that are outside the nodes you want to visit and focus on what you need to learn instead.