Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy. —The Odyessy, by Homer
Your career is an epic journey! Or, at least, it should be—something that Homer or Isaacson would muse about over pages of poetry and prose. Unfortunately, too many careers seem to be cut adrift, floating across an open sea without direction or purpose. Too many are a flat line rather than a brilliant arc that follows the blueprint of classic heroes leaving the comforts of home and launching into an adventure of challenge and triumph, where they discover their true identity and leave an indelible legacy for future generations to glean from.
How do we get to a point of letting go of the helm and allowing time and tide of circumstance roll across the bows of our careers, pushing us into the inglorious unknown? We don’t graduate from high school or college and expect to drift aimlessly through the next 40 to 60 years of our work life. We push off the shores of our young adulthood, eager to make an impact on the world and sufficiently pay our bills in the process.
But very few decide how they are going to effectively manage that journey through the various phases and chapters of their career. Very few have a plan—a GPS- activated map on how they will navigate their glorious journey.
In the early stages of our career, we are largely in exploration mode. We ask, “Who am I?” (A question you should never stop asking throughout your career.) We explore who we might want to be and begin to discover how our passions can align with the work we do. At this early stage of a career, individuals need fundamental coping skills gained through learning tools, techniques, and experiences—skills that cannot be taught in the halls of academe, but only in the process of executing our day-to-day tasks.
Then, as we reach our late twenties and early thirties, what becomes really important is practice management—management of self and others. Leadership! This is the stage where we should begin to make those early dreams come to life. It also becomes the time where we begin to face the conflict and challenges of a dangerous and exciting workplace.
However, just like practical basic skill sets can’t be taught in a classroom, the skill set of practice management can’t be learned at the University, only taught in theory. The skills need to be applied to our day-to-day experiences at work to be truly learned. In fact, how we become better contributors to our work is not often even taught within the organizations we work for. We are typically left on our own to figure out how to navigate through the stormy waters that threaten to make our careers irrelevant. We are vulnerable to the prevailing winds of the economy, internal power struggles, politics, and even worse—we are vulnerable to becoming so disillusioned that we slip into a state of indifference. Instead of thriving, as we once dreamed we could, we become content with just surviving on the open sea.
Why do we stop learning during the most critical stages of our career? I don’t mean simply going back to school (a noble endeavor), but rather the practical application of new skills to the work we are doing today? So often we give up on learning the critical skills that can help us master the work we are currently engaged in—skills and tools that could help us navigate the perils and storms of our career—moving us from simply surviving into Herculean thriving.
The journey is taking place now! What are you doing to help write your epic masterpiece?
Jason Diamond Arnold
Co-Author of Situational Self Leadership in Action