Career truths. Does anyone really talk about the truth in their career? Too many of us like to make out we’re gliding along, when the reality is that we’re paddling furiously just to keep up. And are we even paddling in the right direction?
As a youngster, my view of a “career” was very black and white. It conjured up visions of suits, high heels, boardroom meetings and charts.
A “career” involved a continuous upwards trajectory of success and made no room for anything else. Phrases such as “she’s a career woman”, “you can have a career or a family, not both” and “don’t do that, you’ll wreck your chances of a career” ran around like wildfire in my teens and early twenties. You either had a career. Or you didn’t. Truth.
But is that really the truth? Twenty-odd years on from the quarter hour I had in the “career room” at my secondary school, I recognise a career as something with infinite shades of grey – not the black & white cookie-cutter Thing we were led to believe it was.
In researching this article, I heard from many people with honest take-outs I wish I’d heard earlier. No matter what you may see, no-one’s career is a seamless journey on the route to success. Here’s what others have to say:
Brutal Career Truth 1
It’s fine (and normal) to have a dud role…
Some lucky folk have it all worked out. They know their life’s passion from an early age and go on to do that for a living. My sister is one such person. She loved drawing and dressing-up from the moment she could hold a crayon. She studied art and fashion and now works as a stylist and designer. The rest of us aren’t always as blessed with such clear sight and direction.
It’s absolutely fine to change your job. We don’t have in-built career satnavs and need to course-correct from time-to-time. Matthias Lissner, an entrepreneur and advisor agrees; “life is complex” he says, “and trying to control this complexity only sets ourselves up for disappointment”. So, you thought teaching was all you ever wanted to do, but realise you hate it?
That’s fine! Use your skills to do something you love. You’ve moved to a new company who seemed perfect and now dread your Mondays [learn how to love your Mondays from Erica]? Then change to something that will make you happy. Erica told me about her school chum who only ever wanted to be a vet. That was all she ever dreamt of doing, and she went onto study Veterinary Sciences at Cambridge. Is she a vet now? No. She’s an accountant at PWC. And very happy with it too.
Brutal Career Truth 2
We are ALL commodities!
“Everyone in the workplace – *everyone* – is dispensable, and sometimes decisions are made that you just can’t change. You just have to deal with the fallout, regardless.” So says customer care consultant, Charlotte Ward. Entire organisations have been rocked by the shock departure of someone who seemed fundamental to the running of the organisation. And if you’re the one that’s leaving, it’s even more of a kick in the teeth – another contact stated; “when your name is called, your closest colleagues and friends will be powerless to stop your exit and this experience can feel extremely lonely”.
Working freelance might arm you against organisational reshuffles but in fact makes you even more replaceable.
A contact who works as a cameraman on big budget movies told me about a saying they have in the industry; “the job’s not confirmed till you’re in the breakfast queue”. With 9-month jobs cancelled the week before they start (that’s him, not me) or clients who slash their budgets at the last moment (that is me) – the self-employed recognise their commodity status with sharp focus.
So what? Don’t let it get you down – we’re all in the same boat. Put your heart and soul into your job, enjoy it fully – but recognise that organisational change and budget cuts won’t discriminate on the basis of how much you love your job or even how good you are.
Change is inevitable, so take the time to learn how to deal with it.
Brutal Career Truth 3
People will walk all over you – unless you do something to stop them.
You don’t need to be prickly or uber-assertive – just be visible. If you’re junior or more introverted it’s all too easy to blend into the background and think that doing a great job is enough. It isn’t. Others will take the credit or just take advantage.
Jennifer Corcoran knows this all too well. As an executive assistant, she chose to fight against the EA stereotype of tea & typing by networking and entering (and winning) industry awards. She’s a champion of everyone doing more to increasing their visibility; “in this day and age you need to be fully visible as either a business owner or employee to be fully respected and get what is owing to you.”
None of us have workplace fairy godmothers waiting in the wings to give you a boost when you need it, and you can’t (and shouldn’t) rely on your manager to give you a leg up. So get presenting, share useful information on the department Slack channel, set up an office vlog. Make yourself useful, give yourself a visible niche. And if you’re freelance or self-employed get going on social media and networking events. It feels odd at first, but you’ll find your feet soon enough and will reap the benefits.
Brutal Career Truth 4
You’ve got to put in the hours to do something decent.
This one hits hard, but you’ll never make it if you don’t work at it. Chatting with two friends, one a teacher-turned-coach-turned-business owner, the other in the corporate world, about this article, and we all agreed that success doesn’t come for free. So that might mean pulling an all-nighter once in a while or doing unpaid client work. Don’t overdo it but consider Thomas Jefferson’s famous comment that “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have”.
Of course, the trick is to work smart, not hard. It’s said you can achieve as much in a 55-hour week as you can in a 70-hour week, but this needs solid focus and a strategy for productivity otherwise you’ll burn out (see brutal truth 7). Want inspiration? This piece gives you some practical pointers for getting more out of your day.
Brutal Career Truth 5
Company culture is about more than pizza & ping pong.
“Too many companies don’t understand what work culture is” says Matthias Lissner, “they believe that Friday pizza and the presence of a football table makes them fun to work for”. But the reality is that hardly any organisations understand the meaning of work culture which is why so many cultivate it poorly. So be careful when changing jobs.
And don’t fall into the trap of believing that a move to a start-up equates to a nicer, more human workplace. Many start-ups are founded by, and hire people from hierarchical, corporate backgrounds. It’s not a problem as such, but as Matthias says, “they find it hard to shed the old culture they had experienced for years”. That beer fridge and artistic graffiti feature aren’t workplace culture – they’re just things.
Brutal Career Truth 6
It really is all about who you know, not just WHAT you know.
The well-connected thrive. True enough, you can bumble along with your group of contemporaries, but when things change – and they will – you’ll be left isolated. Networking, whether formally or informally, is the secret to a long and successful career. Need someone to help you with something you’ve never worked on before? Reach out to your network. Looking for a specialist in an area you’re unfamiliar with? Reach out to your network.
But your network will only support you if you put in the effort. My camera-man contact wryly told me “there’s huge pressure to keep those relationships – you’re either employed by someone you’ve worked with before or by referral.” You need to nurture those contacts – stay in touch and pay it forward with good deeds and thoughtful actions. There are times when this may feel like a job in itself, but it’s crucial to your long term success.
Brutal Career Truth 7
Your health is your responsibility.
Ooh yes. Isn’t it just? How easy it is to work every day, every night and even on your holidays. It’s too easy to skip your lunch or celebrate too hard. But the evidence is clear. Overwork and too much stress is bad for your health.
Don’t wait for your manager to tell you to stop working so hard (they might not), and definitely don’t wait for your GP to sign you off with stress. Take the initiative. Go for a lunchtime walk, cut down on caffeine, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. And if the job or environment itself is causing you stress, look elsewhere. There’s a job out there you’ll love – you shouldn’t put up with being unhappy.
Brutal Career Truth 8
Being good to work with is sometimes more important than being good at your work.
It’s a good one this. We hear a lot about emotional intelligence and the value of teamwork, but breaking all that business-speak into reality, it all comes down to the way you get on with others.
Cultural fit has a lot to do with it – social codes vary enormously between organisations and the way you behave in one business just wouldn’t cut the mustard in another.
But it’s more than environmental fit; the way you get on with others matters enormously. Being good to work with is as much about the “good mornings!” and the way you sign off on your emails as it is about meeting etiquette. Don’t disregard it – social codes are the oil that help us function as a team and as an organisation. Interested in learning how to strengthen emotional intelligence in the workplace? This is a great read.
Brutal Career Truth 9
Act out of frustration and suffer the consequences.
There are times in your career when you’re going to come up against a brick wall of sorts or really feel like you are going to lose your rag. Pause before the angry email. Resist the hissy fit. It’s nearly always best to take a step back and review things objectively before acting. Write down the pros & cons. Talk to a trusted adviser or mentor. Find a measured response and then act accordingly. This may mean doing nothing – the frustration might well pass, no more than a blip on an otherwise excellent journey.
Building a clear career plan and having regular career conversations is a simple way to avoid this “shoot from the hip” mentality. Knowing what you’re aiming for will help you review frustrations more objectively and deal with them appropriately.
Brutal Career Truth 10
True success involves compromise.
If you’ve watched the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, you’ll probably remember the part where Freddie Mercury returns to his band after having tried (and failed) to go solo. The band give him a hard time, questioning why they should take him back and Freddie replies with this beauty; “I hired a bunch of guys, I told them exactly what I wanted them to do. And the problem was… they did it”. [Watch the scene here]. I’m sure there’s some creative licence in that scene and it is a dramatic example but it’s also true to the core. True success doesn’t come from getting exactly what you want; it comes from artful compromise.
Your relationships with your family are the most prime of examples – your career will thrive with the love and support of your partner, but you need to give as much as you get. Oana, our digital marketer, feels strongly about this point; “careers go in pairs,” she says, “you need to think about your partner and what they want to do and achieve. You need to plan together and have compromises on both sides”.
What do you think? Can you relate to these career truths, or do you have others? So much for a smooth and straight path – more like a vibrant patchwork of situations – good, bad and perhaps a bit scrappy in places. But that’s what makes you and what you have to offer unique.
In our view, much of your career success comes down to environmental fit and finding the right match for your skills, passions and impact – which is what The Career Equation® and Your Career Plan can help you with.
With warm thanks to our contributors: