What is a career?

Seems obvious. Seems like everyone has one. “What do you do?” is the first ice-breaker that most adults ask each other on planes and barstools and tailgates.

If I deliver pizzas during the day to pay the bills, and code apps all night long for free because I love it, then how do I answer that question? What do I do, after all? Am I a delivery driver? Am I an app developer?

If we can assume that the dictionary is a representation of how most people understand a word, then here’s what a career is to most people:

career — an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.

Since it mentioned “occupation,” let’s see how people understand that word and the words included in its definition:

occupation — a job or profession
job — a paid position of regular employment
profession — a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification

All together, it follows that most people would agree with the following:

A career is a paid position of regular employment, especially one that involves prolonged training and formal qualification, undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.

Now with that operational definition, we can figure out if my pizza delivery job or my app developer side work qualifies as a career.

The pizza delivery job is paid and regular employment. So one point there. But it involves no prolonged training or qualifications, and I don’t plan to have it for very long. I also don’t see any opportunities for progress. So, not a career (for me).

How about the app developer work that I do at night for free? Well, it’s not paid, and it’s not regular employment. But it does involve prolonged training (learning how to code) and I do plan on doing it for many, many years. I also see lots of opportunities to progress as I can become a better developer, work on important open source apps, release my own apps, and ultimately manage other developers. I guess the answer is that, for me, it’s more of a career than not.

That being said, if one of my fellow delivery drivers saw her job as the first step in a long career of pizza shop management and even owning and franchising pizza shops, then it could absolutely be a career for her.

So, pizza delivery driver can’t objectively be disqualified from being a career. Similarly, I’ve worked with people who develop apps just to pay the bills and don’t have any interest in making it into a career.

It appears that a career isn’t as clear cut as many of us in the workforce development space think it is. We tend to operate with the mindset that a) everyone wants or needs a career and b) an occupation and a career are basically the same thing.

But as we saw above, that simply isn’t true. An occupation is just a job or profession. A job is just a paid position of regular employment. A career? That’s something more.

Jobs don’t make a career. Continued work in a profession makes a career. A career takes up a significant portion of a person’s life, whether that involves one job for 20 years, 20 jobs for 1 year each, or no job at all but years of nights and weekends dedicated to building apps or cooking meals. The job is a building block of a career, but not the career itself. And it can be replaced by moonlighting, or volunteering, or ministering. A job is just the most common manifestation of applied, focused work. But it’s only one of many ways one can construct a career.

Getting a college degree doesn’t mean a person instantly has a career, either. Sure, a career involves prolonged training. Maybe even formal qualifications. But that training must be put to use before it becomes part of a career. It must be utilized in the pursuit of a focused line-of-work. Training itself is not a career. Continued work that utilizes that training and builds upon it to enable opportunities for progress — that’s a career.

We must be more precise with our words when we guide people into or out of a job. Understanding the difference between an occupation and a career can mean guiding someone to a dead-end job or a progressive step in their life’s work. Understanding a person’s motivations for the job they hold can uncover whether it’s a meaningful career for them, regardless of whether that job would be part of a career for anyone else.

So to my pizza delivery drivers out there, if you’re in the first job of a long, healthy career in food service and restaurant management, I say go for it. Treat it like a career — because that’s absolutely what it is. Take yourselves seriously. Your life’s work is just as important as the next guy’s.

But if you’re using your pizza delivery job to pay the bills, and your true passion is building apps at night or painting landscapes or singing, I say why wait? A career needs thousands of hours to truly be considered a career. It needs cultivation and focus. Find a way to get the prolonged training or credentials you need to do what you love, and differentiate yourselves from the amateurs. Become a professional _________, whatever that blank may be.

And finally be proud when you answer the question, “What do you do?”