If you’re looking for the secret to career success, there’s always the linear career path: work hard, don’t make too many waves, stay on the boss’s good side, wait for promotions, go to company picnics, and look to change companies only when necessary – after putting in enough time right where you are.
I’ve seen this not-so-secret formula work well for many people and am not in any way saying it’s the wrong way to go. But for a lot of us, it might not be the best way … nor the most interesting way … to build a career.
So what is a non-linear career?
It’s one where you break the rules a bit. Perhaps some job hopping, especially at the beginning. Or, if like me, throughout most of it and even built into my career once I became a consultant.
Or you decide to go the entrepreneurial route and take a risk on starting your own business. Or you simply don’t worry about each job leading seamlessly and successfully to the other on paper.
Secrets for the non-linear career growth path
But for those of you who need more action – and are willing to take more risks – the “non-linear” career path could be the one that will make you happiest in the long run. Not that it’s without bumps.
Still, with some helpful career “secrets” those bumps and transitions will go a lot more smoothly:
- See opportunity where others see only problems. Similarly: Give yourself credit for all that you have, rather than getting stuck in what’s missing.
- You know where the obstacles are (human and logistical), but rather than focusing on what might stop you, you focus on how to get past them in ways that don’t burn bridges behind you.
- You believe in yourself and your ability to handle and learn new things based on what you’ve been able to accomplish in the past… and you can communicate this well-founded inner confidence naturally and effectively. It’s important to recognize your strengths. Conversely you don’t ride on empty air.
- You seek out new paths.
- You are not afraid to take on calculated risk and fail … but if you do fail, you know how to take it in perspective, dust yourself off and move on with resilience.
- Similarly, when a boss or coworker doesn’t see how great you are, you look for ways to move forward and even grow – and you don’t get stuck on past hurts.
- You look for ways to make things better without blaming others. Time spent blaming is time you could spend accomplishing.
- You know how to publicize yourself effectively. Don’t wait in silence hoping someone will see all you are. Let people know about things you’re working on by making it part of an interesting story. Not bragging … sharing your excitement!
- You look for opportunities even when doing jobs you don’t enjoy. Do your work well and with a great attitude, but also keep your eyes and ears open for something else you could suggest or offer to take on in addition to the work you should be doing, something you would enjoy.
- You know how to connect to people on a trust level and build relationships that are TWO WAY. These are the ones that last and can really come back to help you later on.
- You know when to hold them and when to fold them. Sometimes it’s just time to move on.
- You know in your heart that you will always find a way … even if the way is different than you first imagined.
Dealing with self-imposed obstacles
In my own non-linear career, I admit that I got a good percentage of the jobs I went after, even when changing fields. And even when not having all the experience (even a PhD in one case).
I did this by showing (in my resume, cover letter and words) that I really understood what the employer needed, and by emphasizing what I had (including transferable skills) and could bring to the job. And I didn’t worry too much about what I didn’t have.
Although where I saw a chance to educate myself about a particular topic or enhance some skills before an interview or right as I started the job, I did so enthusiastically. Always helps to have more skills – especially those an employer in your next chosen field would appreciate!
Don’t minimize your past experience!
On the other hand, I know someone now who is looking for a slightly different career who will have to “repackage” her linear resume. She has many talents, but all she can see right now is what she’s missing.
She’s having trouble seeing things in her own work and volunteer history that actually speak to where she wants to go next. And how she sees her past influences how she approaches her entire job search … how she describes herself in her resume & cover letter, how she handles networking, and even her informationals. But she’s making good progress – and so can you!
A bonus of well managed non-linear careers
Funny thing is that when you follow a career path based on things you love and using those skills you most enjoy – and when you make an effort along the way to manage the obstacles and next steps as suggested above – at the end of it you may be surprised when you look back.
There in that long non-linear career, if you draw a line backwards, often you can actually see a linear path of sorts. One that slowly builds toward where you are now. In a way, it turns out to be the path of what your heart chooses for you, even before you know what you really want!
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