The Best Careers Are Non-Linear

One aspect of US careers is regularly talked about privately amongst friends and confidantes, but is viewed as verboten to talk about publicly or with prospective employers: a successful professional career is not generally a linear upward growth progression of sequential, larger successes. Most business careers have similarities with professional athlete careers:

  • Performance ups & downs: failure mixed with success within a specific tenure & role at a company; failure on a specific project, product or tenure at a specific company followed by success elsewhere
  • Situational circumstances: sometimes taking a leadership role, while sometimes taking a backseat to others
  • Performance dependent on specific systems and variables: coaches/leaders, complementary team members, cultures, playbooks, markets
  • Intense competition against others: on the same team and externally
  • Duration-specific performance: one can come into a role with incredible energy, enthusiasm, vigor and commitment — and over time this can erode due to product/company factors, market/momentum factors or other projects & interests
  • People move on: changing companies and teams is common — and can be healthy or unhealthy depending on the circumstances

The problem with the current corporate employment paradigm in the US is that there is a burden placed on business professionals to sweep their career challenges under the rug and present their body of work and careers as a high-momentum, increasingly successful, error-free parade of huge wins — that will continue in their next opportunity. Folks are encouraged to seek out the best brands, check the most prestigious boxes, suffer to prove they can take one for the team and “win.” Unfortunately, that’s not how the most successful careers work, that’s not how business works best, and that’s not how we should be advising and evaluating potential colleagues and partners.

It is time to openly discuss that business careers, just like athletic careers, are a mixture of the good, the bad, the great, the ugly — and that any of us can be any of those things given the right or wrong situation. I have personally had unsuccessful job tenures during my career. I learned from them greatly, and they helped push me to be a better teammate, to focus on the right functional roles and to deeply study a market and follow my passions. Even though I incorporated this into my own process, however, I didn’t feel comfortable highlighting my true “failures” or misfit roles when asked the classic “tell me about a time you failed” question in a job interview.

Moving forward, our collective Job #1 is to be open and honest about how and what we do best — and in what environment — so that we can work in a market with a team that will enhance our best traits and increase the odds of professional success. And those who are evaluating us must be open-minded and reward the business professionals with the courage to be open, candid and willing to share their non-linear career growth trajectories. For those are typically the signs of the greatest emerging careers!

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