Until about four years ago, I firmly believed that advancing in my career meant moving up an organizational hierarchy to different levels of authority. I must admit that I believed it greatly, until I admitted that it was not for me.
In every workplace role I have ever served, it has felt the same. When I was a retail worker, the next step was supervisor, then assistant manager, then manager and then further up the ranks. As a public-school teacher, I was told that if I wanted to advance, it would mean becoming an assistant principal, then a principal and so forth. Since starting my career journey in higher education, it has been the same thing — the goal was not just to be promoted as a faculty member but also to rise to a position of vice-chair, chair or dean.
I must admit that I went into my current position still thinking like that, until I did not. I had a moment in 2017 where I stopped and realized that, at my core, I do not want to be the person in the corner office, running everything. But that also does not mean that I do not have goals and am not ambitious. Instead, my focus has shifted from thinking about advancement and career growth as more than just the vertical. For some, that is the path they are on, and I hope it works for them. But I know at my core, as I am sure others also do, that I am not developing primarily to advance in titles and organizational authority anymore. People view career advancement and growth in different ways, and in the paragraphs that follow, I raise questions as a way to provide advice about how to think through what it might look like for each of us.
What Guides Your Work?
Each of us has some sort of guiding principles, whether we realize them or not and whether they are explicit or implicit. For me, I want to know that I have somehow helped another generation of professionals, scholars and others to grow into whatever type of professional person they want to be. For some people, it is providing financially for others. For others, it is promoting change, influencing public debate, making a difference in the world, or a variety of different reasons.
I have heard motivational speakers talk about the importance of having a personal mission statement. Despite that sounding trite at times, I do advocate that we at least identify or consider our individual goals for our professional lives, regardless of what they may be. I mention this because if your goal is to change how a sector of industry does its work or how a university operates, one path is to advance through an organizational hierarchy. But there are other ways.
Indeed, we each should explore multiple options for meeting our professional long-term goals. Returning to the example of my own experience, what changed for me was that, as I tried to advance through a hierarchy, I realized I was not using my strengths. I found that while I had a vision, determination, and leadership skills — traits that often help someone advance vertically — those were not my best areas. When I tried to sound convincing or bold, I felt and sounded untrue to who I really am. I am at my best when I am connecting with others one-on-one, influencing others, brainstorming, designing new ideas collaboratively and consulting with people to help them solve problems or develop themselves.
The moment I had that realization was just another day sitting in my office, with no major events happening. I just suddenly recognized that my professional life resembled that of someone who loved and was good at one sport being asked to play a completely different sport — and then struggling.
Now that I’ve identified that my professional strengths are in connecting and consulting with others, and influencing a field or discipline that way, my goal now is to impact my areas of research and professional practice through growing a web of people who know and respect the work I do. That goal helps me meet my personal mission statement. For each of us, that mission statement and the ways to fulfill it will be different. But in my case, I did not recognize it until I stopped and considered additional options.
What Would Success Look Like?
The answer to this question also varies for each of us, whether it is saving up money or resources for children or other descendants, reaching a certain level of organizational authority, impacting an area of study through research, developing treatments or diagnostics for problems, or something else. For me, success will be knowing that, ultimately, hundreds of scientists will improve the lives of their students because I helped them develop as teacher-scholars at colleges and universities across the world. For dear friends and colleagues of mine, however, success is the amount of research they achieve, diseases they treat or even the offices they hold — whatever works for them.
Thus, I urge caution and reflection — that you carefully consider if how you are measuring success is the best gauge for you, the one that will help you to truly be the best you can be. I know many familial, social, societal and organizational factors can influence us. But if circumstances allow, I encourage all of us to reflect on whether the standard we choose for success is one we know we can meet because it aligns with our strengths and personal mission and vision.
What Comes Next?
I suggest that, at some point, you at least think through a long-term plan — or better yet, multiple possible plans. Think about what you want the legacy of your career or life to be, consider how you want the professional/working years of your life to conclude. Focus on what fits you best: what fits your personal mission and vision, your professional advancement options, and your definition of success.
That said, I also ask that you be kind to yourself if you need to change your plans along the way, because our lives rarely work out exactly the way we expect. In fact, I suggest thinking about variations of what success looks like for you. And that requires more than having a backup plan. It involves always being willing to explore new possibilities for how you can achieve your goals and grow and advance in your career.
In other words, you should always remain receptive to new ideas, as you never know when they will come to you. In my case, I found myself considering a significantly different option for my career path on one mundane workday. Since then, I’ve tried to keep myself open to new ways to grow as a professional beyond what I first think, or am told on a regular basis, is the usual or only way.