Imagine a career that doesn’t flat-line

We often hear the words ‘career’ and ‘job’ being used interchangeably. However, the two terms are distinct and the sooner we can tell them apart, the better will be our outlook. A job pays the bills and gives us something to stay busy with. A career, on the other hand, is the story we tell about ourselves today and in the future. Mohandas K Gandhi’s job was to be an advocate in South Africa, but his career was built as the Mahatma, the father of a Nation.

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Early on in life, a job can often be confused with a career. After all, a job is a summation of the achievements we have had so far — how we performed in school, which college we went to, and what short-lists we made it into. A small cog in the wheel wants to become a bigger cog and then move on to a bigger wheel and continue to become the largest, most important cog. An analyst must be promoted to a senior analyst’s position in 18 months and a senior analyst must get another promotion and so on. That is the story of our future that we tell ourselves. We imagine a linear trajectory that extends far into the future; a trend-line that points northwest, upwards always and to the right, travelling in an unbroken straight line.

But inevitably we fail. Everyone does, at some point in his or her career. Perhaps, a promotion is delayed, and the world comes crashing down on us. ‘That friend who copied my notes in college, that good-for-nothing, now has a higher title than me!?’ This sets off a downward spiral of soul-searching and job-hopping, losing more energy and motivation, and hopping again. Many of us, then, end up spending our entire lives being cogs in wheel after wheel, committed to a life where making a living comes before being lively. Things need not be this dismal. A career will have many twists, turns and surprises. And who doesn’t love surprises?

The flatline

Not many people actually look forward to surprises. A career graph that goes up will also occasionally go down. Most of us dread that downshift in our jobs, fearing that this one downward dip spells doom, and that our careers are over. Because we are uncomfortable with taking risks in our jobs, we are condemned to making safe choices that limit our decline but also limit our rise/ increases. We choose the flatline because it’s safe.

Fans of television programming already know that a flatline is dangerous. A flatline on the monitor next to the patient’s bed represents no heartbeat, no life, and no surprises. What is true on the hospital bed is also true in life. The story of a life is interesting only when it isn’t predictably flat. Surprises keep the story alive, full of mystery and wonder.

When it comes to building the story of our career, it is best to imagine a line that moves like a river, meandering sometimes, turning back on itself at others, but always progressing towards the ultimate goal under the weight of gravity. Your career will have its own gravitational pull that directs it. Some jobs may take us through uncomfortable turns, but ultimately the career will flow in the direction that it’s destined to go in.

Steve Jobs, in his famous ‘Connect the dots’ speech made the same point. His most notable career successes came directly as a result of the soul-searching and learning that he embarked on after he was fired from his job as the CEO of Apple Computer. But he didn’t know that when he was fired. He could only connect these dots when he came back to Apple and took it to new, unprecedented heights.

This is a leap of faith. You have to learn to trust that your career will move according to its own gravity, and that a change in fortune at one job does not mean the end of a career. Use every surprise to learn something new about yourself. Trust that every bit of learning will carry you forward in your career journey eventually. Trust that the dots will connect. And they will.

Distinct entity

The cultures in many countries are built on conformity. People try to fit in by looking like each other, behaving like each other, and thinking like each other. Companies are exactly similar. Over time, they acquire a certain culture of conformity. New people joining the ranks are encouraged to dress like the others, talk like the others, and think like the others. You can fit into this machine only if you behave like an inter-changeable cog. Early in our careers, we try to mould ourselves to the culture of the company and trim our personality to fit in.

The passion we bring into our lives is the force that determines the trajectory of our careers, just like the gravity that draws the river to the ocean. This passion is the deep well of energy that wakes us up every day and makes us come to work. This passion is what gives us the energy to take on challenges and bounce back in the face of adversity. This passion is what will take our careers to greatness and fullness.

A little bit of passion dies every time we clip our wings. Every time we conform to the norm, we empty the well of passion a little more. An inter-changeable cog brings no passion to the party. He/she only always looks for a shot of caffeine, just to stay awake at work. By mid-career, the cog has no passion left, only mouths to feed and momentum to maintain. This career has flatlined. It’s dead, dammed, and damned.

A river’s destiny is to flow down under the force of gravity until it meets the ocean. But rivers and careers can be dammed and held back from meeting their destiny. Don’t cut yourself back to fit in. Find the place where you can be yourself fully… a full expression of your personality. This is what is meant by destiny. Get to know yourself, and get to be yourself. Self-realization is the ultimate goal of all human endeavor.

Interesting personality

You can tell a cog at a social gathering. The cogs in the industrial machine really have no personality. No interests outside their work, their office politics and their career ladder. Don’t be a cog! You’ll make a bad party guest. Human beings evolved before the job market was around. Not many jobs have the breadth to take in the full range of any human’s interests and passions. If you recognize that your passion can’t be contained in any individual job, you will easily see that the answer lies in having multiple interests outside of work.

Some people read. Others write essays (like this author), while many others sing or paint or volunteer. Take a good inventory of what you’re interested in and create a career that isn’t just limited to a job or a series of jobs. This is what will ensure that the light of your passion doesn’t go out even if there is a storm in one part of your life. This gives your career resilience. To sum up, spend some time at the beginning of your professional journey to know yourself. Create a career that isn’t limited to a series of jobs. Be ready to welcome surprises and never settle for a career that has flatlined.

This article first appeared in print at this link.

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