The story of hiking: a career growth analogy
People occasionally ask me for advice on their career development and promotion. There’s no simple way to answer this question because everyone’s career goals and paths are unique, but I find that hiking is a perfect analogy to describe what it means. When I presented this analogy at our Design team’s all-hands at DoorDash, it seemed to resonate with many folks, so I’d like to share it more broadly in the hopes that it helps others with their journey.
Everyone has a different destination, and it’s up to you to decide where to go.
Your career is a personal journey, so no one else can choose your destination for you. Not your manager, your parents, or friends. Whether it’s a small change (tackling a moderate trail in a nearby park), taking a more meaningful step (hiking an advanced trail in Yosemite), or reaching for the highest position in your field (climbing Everest), you need to own that decision for yourself.
I also advise people to think of career growth as a long ascent rather than a straight climb, so it’s important to focus on the journey up rather than focusing on the peak. Think back to your last hiking experience. As you trekked along the trail, you probably heard the sound of birds chirping and streams running, smelled the fresh breeze, and enjoyed seeing the verdant life all around you. You wouldn’t have had as much time to enjoy your surroundings if you had kept your attention solely on the mountain top.
Keep in mind that there are also many different reasons for going on a hike. You can go hiking for exercise, to clear your head, or to just enjoy the sights. In the same way, career growth can mean different things to everyone as well. Some use it as means to develop their hard and soft skills, to make themselves more desirable candidates for future opportunities, or to build their inner confidence, energy, and maturity.
Career growth is not synonymous with promotion.
This is another important point that I like to stress whenever I talk about career growth. Think about promotions and levels the way a hiker might think about the current altitude: an objective indicator that your elevation has changed.
Just like being obsessed about the elevation can distract you from the joy of your hike, focusing on your level and making it to the next title shouldn’t be your career goal as it’ll only distract you from the joys of developing as both a person and as a professional.
Focusing too much on titles can also be fraught because it can lead you to compare yourself to others. Imagine that you’ve started out on a hike with someone and they pull ahead of you. Or, someone who started later than you passes you on the trail.
You might be inclined to feel jealousy or to doubt your own progress. But remember that everyone goes at their own pace, and you shouldn’t second guess how far you’ve come just because someone else is moving at a different speed.
It usually takes longer to advance to the next elevation as you ascend higher, as well. It’s much easier to make progress when you’re starting out at the base of the mountain. Similarly, most people advance quickly at the start of their careers. If you start out as an entry-level, you can advance to a junior level in less than a year. But someone at a higher level like a VP might have to work for multiple years (or even decades) to advance to an SVP level.
One final point about promotions that I like to make is that it’s a way to acknowledge your achievements, not an achievement itself. Going back to the analogy of the hike, reaching a new elevation isn’t the accomplishment, but rather a marker that signifies all the hard work you put in on the trail.
This is why rushing for a promotion is also dangerous: it might put you at an elevation that you aren’t acclimated to, and present challenges you’re not ready to take on yet.
Then you might ask…
How do you know when you’re already hiking at a different elevation and you’re ready for a promotion?
In my perspective, there are four indicators to keep in mind:
- You’re already performing at the next level. Your skills and impact should favorably compare to those of your colleagues who are already at the level you want to achieve. One way to gauge this is to look at your company’s job ladder definition and see what the expectations are for that level.
- There’s a clear delta in your growth since your last performance review. Being able to improve and grow is important, especially if it relates to development areas that were raised by your manager during your last performance. Assess whether you’ve made tangible improvements on those areas consistently since then. You should be able to objectively identify the progress that you’ve made,
- You’ve become your manager’s irreplaceable go-to person on critical business. Make sure you are an invaluable and trusted partner to your manager. Your manager plays the biggest part in initiating and carrying out the promotion process, and they must be the biggest champion of yours. Here’s a relevant article I wrote about the topic of “managing up” last year. (Article link)
- You have built a track record of great collaboration and visible influence, and many cross-functional champions are advocating for you. Promotions in most companies are done through several rounds of cross-functional calibrations, and having many champions pounding the table for your promotion can help greatly.
When these four objective indicators are evident, you’re probably already hiking at the next elevation, and your journey of continuous growth and success is well supported by your surroundings.
What has your personal ‘hike’ been like so far?
Like many others, my personal journey up the mountain has taken many interesting turns and detours. Every job I took has enriched my learnings and elevated my career aspirations even higher and further. It has also been humbling to take a part in many colleagues’ career journeys over years. Career growth is something everyone experiences at varying levels and depth, and I’d love to hear your story as well. Feel free to comment away or reach out to me for more discussions!
Special thanks to Tae Kim, our amazing Content Strategy lead at DoorDash, for helping me with this article.
Helena Seo is a Head of Design at DoorDash. We’re actively hiring seasoned talents in all UX functions. Please visit our career page and check out the Design section!
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