From here to there – the (non-) linearity of careers

Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer
8 min readJun 11, 2024

--

I recently left my job at TU Delft to create some space to further explore my career. As part of my farewell, I wrote a story for my colleagues about my perspective on shaping careers. I’m sharing a short version here.

Goals

We live in a society that is driven by goals: running a marathon within four hours, sustainable development goals, learning objectives, the IPCC 1.5 degree target, final attainment levels, losing five kilos of body weight.

Goals are good. When you have a goal, you can make a plan and strategically make decisions.

Imagine wanting to bake a cake. I personally think I bake a pretty good apple pie. My goal is clear, I want this apple pie, this afternoon, using my proven recipe. I create a shopping list and go to the supermarket. I shop super efficiently because I know exactly where to find all the ingredients. I go home and bake the cake super efficiently because I know exactly what to do. My cake is perfect and I have it ready for my birthday visitors exactly when they arrive that afternoon.

Imagine wanting to bake a cake without a clear goal, but rather a vague sense of what you’d want to achieve. I might want to bake a nice cake to eat with my friends for my birthday. I would go to the shop, wander around, not knowing what to buy. Maybe I would run into one of my neighbours, who would ask me how I was doing. I would say it was my birthday and that I was wondering what cake to bake. “Happy birthday!”, says my neighbour, and he recommends baking a pumpkin spice cake. I like pumpkin spice but I’ve never tried baking it. I think it’s hard. My neighbour says he thinks I can do it and gives me his recipe. I start looking for the ingredients, but I can’t find the nutmeg. While I stand searching for it in front of the shelf with spices, a woman asks me if I’m alright. I say yes, it’s my birthday and I want to bake a pumpkin spice cake but I can’t find the nutmeg. “Happy birthday!”, says the woman, and she tells me she loves that cake. She introduces herself and tells me that her grandmother in America used to bake that cake for her when she was a little girl. Because it’s my birthday she shares her secret recipe with me and recommends using a special spicemix that they only sell in the small shop around the corner. I had never noticed there was a little shop there. When I go in I discover many products I don’t normally buy or use. The shop owner helps me out and shows me where to find the special spice mix. She asks me what I need it for and I tell her I am going to make a pumpkin spice cake for my birthday. “Happy birthday!”, she says, and gives me a couple of cake decorations for free. I go home and bake the cake using my neighbour’s recipe, the spice mix and the cake decorations. It takes long, because I keep having to stop to read the recipe again, but in the end I manage. The cake is good. It’s not perfect though and it took ages.

Working with goals is better. It is more efficient, and the outcomes are better.

Or isn’t it?

Sometimes goals and particularly the measurable indicators of it become obsessions. A citation score, our number of followers on social media, the grade for an exam, the ‘cum laude’, the best paper award, the rankings, a number of likes on LinkedIn. Such targets might inadvertently distract us from the joy and purpose of the things we do. When Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte Hoytema recently won the Oscar for filming Oppenheimer he said that winning the Oscar was never his goal, they just wanted to make good movies.

As you might know I’m interested in complexity and in systems change. In systems change practice we don’t talk about goals, because complex systems don’t have clear measurable end-goals. Rather, we talk about a ‘directionality’. We need a sense of direction to make the first steps, but then we learn along the way if we still need to go in that direction or if we need to change track. In our research we call this a non-linear or evolutionary approach.

Maybe the pumpkin spice cake wasn’t so bad. In the end, it was just a first prototype that can be improved over time. I learned something new, met some interesting people who encouraged me to do things I had never done before, discovered some new places and ate something I had never eaten before.

Whether we need a goal and plan, or just a ‘directionality’ depends on the context we’re in. When we consider our life paths and careers, we tend to think of it as being linear: you set your goal and then you create a plan to work towards it.

A linear perspective on shaping careers. Image © Lucy Klippan, Good Point Design.

In reality, careers often don’t play out like that and represent a pathway that looks more like the non-linear systems change approach in which you set a ‘directionality’ rather than a strict goal. There is an interesting book — written by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans — with the title ‘Designing your life’. I often used it in the workshops that Rebecca Price and I ran about student wellbeing and resilience. In the book, they write that you don’t need to know exactly where you are going, but that you can learn to know whether you are going in the right ‘direction’.

You don’t need to know exactly where you are going, but you can learn to know whether you are going in the right direction — Bill Burnett & Dave Evans

To know that you are going in the right direction you need to have a ‘compass’, and the compass consists of your view on work and on life: what does work mean to you? and what gives life meaning? The book also explains that it is not just about reflecting, but also about creating and testing ‘prototypes’ of career steps. Where each step and experience helps you understand what works for you. The book is full of exercises to find answers to these questions. And I have been working with Haian Xue and other colleagues on developing such activities for our students.

A non-linear perspective on shaping a career — image © Lucy Klippan | Good Point Design

When I was a student, we did not talk about these things. I learned the hard way.

I grew up with the slogan ‘een slimme meid is op haar toekomst voorbereid’. A smart girl is prepared for her future. Basically, it meant that girls were encouraged to get a higher education degree so they could get a job and be financially independent. This sounded like a reasonable goal to me, in addition to wanting to start a family before I was 30. I was one of the first generation in my family that was able to go to university, and I was very happy when I finished my design degree at TU Delft and landed a job as a teacher at the University of Twente afterwards. I also got the opportunity to start as a researcher which eventually became a phd in user centred design. The content of the job was not planned, but I was financially independent, I loved the teaching and the phd was interesting enough to keep me going.

My next goal was the family. But we were not lucky and in 2010 we had to give up on our dream to have children after a couple of years of fertility treatments. I was completely devastated, and it took me a while to get back on my feet. In addition to this all being very sad, we were now also faced with a future without any clear goals. I really had no clue what to do with my life or with my career. But after a lot of therapy, conversations with friends, and reading self-help books, I gradually started to feel better. I started to realise that even though this life was not what we had hoped for or expected, I was still a young and healthy woman, and I could better do something meaningful with my life. I also realized quite quickly that this phd in user centred design was not meaningful enough for me, and I started searching for something that would have more societal impact. My compass gradually started to take shape and I learned that what matters for me in work is to make meaningful impact in society, to create meaningful relationships with the people around me, and to learn together, which I often find in teaching.

My compass first pointed at Australia and my husband and I both quit our jobs in the Netherlands, so I could start my job at the Design Innovation Research Centre in Sydney. After a couple of years I then moved on to the UTS Transdisciplinary School, where there were more opportunities to get back to teaching and to learn together. And while we were very happy living and working in Australia, we also realized that for us it was important to be closer to our family, so our compasses started to point back at ‘Europe’. TU Delft was not a ‘goal’ on my career map, but when I was asked to apply for the position it sounded like I might be able to continue my work on societal impact here and connect to some other interesting people. I will be honest, it did not sound like the ‘perfect job’ to me, but that doesn’t matter. It was just another ‘prototype’ and over the past five years I have managed to shape it into something that worked well for me.

But in the last year or so, my compass has started to itch again, and I feel it is now time to move on and find a new prototype. And while I don’t have a clear goal yet, I am looking forward to discover new places, meet new people, and learn something new. I might even bake a pumpkin spice cake.

It’s not the destination or journey that matters, it’s the company. — James Norbury

And while I am moving on, I am also sad to leave. People say it’s not about the destination but about the journey. I recently read in a book by James Norbury that ‘it is not the journey or destination that matters, it’s the company”. I couldn’t agree more.

I am immensely grateful for the connections I have made to students and colleagues and the things we have learned together. I would like to thank you all for working and learning together with me over the past five years. I hope to bump into you at some unexpected places in the future.

References

Burnett, Bill & Dave Evans (2016). Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived Joyful Life. Knopf.

Norbury, James (2023). The Cat Who Taught Zen. Michael Joseph Ltd.

--

--

Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer

I'm a researcher, educator, and designer with an interest in systemic design, complexity, transdisciplinarity and public & social innovation - views are my own.