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Does a Career Have to Be a Rocket?


This idea that we must focus exclusively on advancement as a career path needs an overhaul.  We sacrifice “out” into a broader life experience and “around” into a more meaningful context when all we worry about is  “up” in our work lives.

A while back I did a presentation about giving older workers a way to keep working on a flexible basis.  That’s important, but it’s only part of the picture.  A wise 40-year old who spoke to me after the speech hammered this home when he said “You need to do something for those of us standing in line who deserve a chance to lead, too.”  He’s right.  This is not  just a case of letting the venerables of the company show up when they feel like it.

“Career” entered the corporate lexicon in the 1960’s.  Since then, the assumed career path is “Work hard, climb the ladder.  Work harder.  Climb higher.  And higher still if you can.  Then retire.”  And fall off the ladder instantly.

The going-up is full of stress and the going-down is way too abrupt.   Why do we keep doing it this way?

The current economic mess makes us yearn for the up….up….up.  But is a rocket the best analogy for fashioning a career?  It assumes one launch and then a climb into the stratosphere to great things in a steady trajectory –and then oblivion.  We miss so much with this  mindset. Careers can have any shape.  The best versions allow you to live the rest of your life at the same time.

So back to the dilemma of giving retirement-aged workers meaningful opportunities and young lions the chance to prove themselves as leaders.  We need to do both, but to get to that point, we need to change our sense of career trajectory.  A good career is not just a case of going up and up and up.  It also needs to include a well-thought stage of coming back down.    The way we currently do it is an  ascending straight line with a precipitous fall once we get to retirement.

An inverted “U”– with salary changes in sync with workload on the mature end (and in sync with learning curve on the young end)–would be far more effective.  This would be good for employers who wouldn’t be paying fulltime salaries to people who are starting to throttle back unconsciously.  It would be better for employees since they could stay involved longer and not deal with the abrupt changes and resulting physical and emotional perils of the traditional version of a career end.  And it would give the young lions earlier access to the domain.

Eventually, companies large and small will use their most experienced people as mentors and coaches rather than regular cogs in the wheel to get the most benefit from their extensive experience.  Then younger leaders shouldering top roles will have access to wise counsel as they move into their leadership roles and far more extensive resouces for learning what their new roles involve.  At the same time, older workers will know their expertise is valued even as they are paid for fewer hours.

We need to get rid of the idea that throttling back implies a demotion to make this work though.  Cutting back on workload–with a resulting reduction in pay–in late career should be an assumed part of a career path.  If we were really good at this, going to half time when kids are young or to care for a sick loved one would also be accepted practice.   We need to learn to value this kind of flexibility rather seeing it as a flaw or mistake when somone adopts it.

But we’re still fixated on rockets—launch, go into orbit, and stay there.  In reality, careers are more a series of attempts with varied outcomes and additional launches.  Consciously deciding what level we are shooting for each time we launch would be so much smarter.  With a young family or an ailing loved one, we shouldn’t shoot so high.  When we’ve already achieved a lot, moving from leading to giving wise counsel–and making room for other things in your life–can be energizing.

A career is more like the space shuttle than the booster rockets that get it into space.  Yeah, there is a big deal launch, and a lot goes into getting ready.  But a shuttle does more than one mission.  It handles the garbage as part of its return duties.  It corrects problems it didn’t create.  And sometimes it gets into dilemmas that weren’t supposed to be part of the mission.  But most to the point, it’s really good at COMING BACK DOWN.

We need to learn to “come back down” as part of a career path.  To throttle back as needed so that the rest of life occurs for the entire trip.  We need to launch more than once and when something doesn’t work, launch again without any of the current “failure” mindset.

The ultimate value of a career is not in the height of the trajectory.  It’s in the quality of the life you lived while you were in it.

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