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Non-linear Career Paths are the New Norm

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

This post was written by Amanda Nagy, People & Culture Specialist at Thinkific, and was originally published by Talent Collective.

You’ve likely heard your parents say it 1000 times. “Go to school, get a good job, work hard and if you’re ‘living the dream’, retire when you’re 65.” Years ago, it was easy to predict what your career could look like, as stability and tenure were eagerly sought after. Here’s what it might have looked like:

A linear career path: college, first job, promotion, approaching dream job, getting dream job, retirement
Source: Talent Collective

But with an ever-changing job market, technologies and opportunities emerging daily, many of us today are following what has been described as non-linear career paths. What does it mean?

A non-linear career path does not follow the traditional model of career advancement. Gone are the days where career paths are etched in stone. Nowadays, they look a little something like this:

A drawing of a non-linear career path: Finishing school, choosing a secondary program, changing programs, taking a year off, finishing programs, working part time, changing jobs, changing occupations, full-time work, retiring, going back to work part time, the cycle continues.

Career paths aren’t ladders, they’re more like jungle gyms.

So what could all of this look like in practice? Take myself as an example, I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed high school grad with no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. I tried my hand working fraud investigation for a national bank, quickly realizing I was not meant for what I had defined as a ‘boring desk job’. Cubicles, white walls and scheduled breaks weren’t my jam. I jumped between making handcrafted beverages at Starbucks, to overseeing operations at a yoga studio before landing my first ‘real’ job — a job I got through networking with a regular customer.

I began in office administration at 21, quickly transitioning to become a client care specialist, and eventually office manager over the course of a year. As social media took off, I supported the business by managing our social media accounts and providing customer support via online channels like Facebook and Twitter. A few years of hard work, innovation and opportunity landed me the role of General Manager for a cleaning company at 23. Over the next 4 years, I developed an on-site training program for our staff, developed and executed a number of promotional campaigns for our cleaning services and products, hired and managed a team of 2 office employees and over 30 cleaning staff, automated and created efficiencies in all our processes (from filing to scheduling), and established performance-based rewards and recognition initiatives. Eventually my growth felt like it had plateaued, and I no longer felt challenged or engaged.

It’s a common misconception (and a very dated idea) that career paths need to constantly be moving us forward and upwards. There’s traditionally been a fear that lateral movements or taking a step back will have a negative impact on how potential employers might see us.

After hitting a wall in my career, I began working on a new business venture — managing social media and ghostwriting for a digital production company. Thinking I would love marketing, I went back to school to complete my Social Media Marketing certificate. After moving across the country and sitting in one too many marketing interviews, I quickly realized it wasn’t what I truly enjoyed doing. I was creative, but less so in creating compelling copy and more so in developing training programs or writing operational policies. I realized I was a people person through and through, which eventually led me to my amazing job (read: my dream job) at Thinkific in People and Culture.

For me, a dream job is one that builds on your strengths, but also aligns with areas you want to learn and grow. It is somewhere you are excited to go to work everyday, even knowing there will be challenges some days more than others.

I ditched the fancy manager title, learned something new by returning to school, tried my hand getting a job in marketing (and realized it wasn’t for me), and did a ton of introspection to see where I felt happiest at work. It took a year or two all-in to figure it out and make the transition, but was worth every minute.

Looking at my skill set, the common thread in each role I had previously involved working directly with people, being involved in hiring, training and recruiting, and finding opportunities to innovate and improve the employee experience, from employee recognition to process automation.

As a People and Culture Specialist at Thinkific, I’m able to apply my existing skills, while building new ones. In the past year, I’ve overcome my fear of public speaking to speak at local HR events, and have developed relationships with local companies that opened opportunities for me to write on various topics I’m passionate about, just to name a few. My manager supports and encourages my decision to return to school to complete my CPHR designation, which makes me feel valued and important. I never wake up thinking ‘UGH, I have to go to work today’.

While our parents may have feared failure, we fear mediocrity.

If you’re looking to forge your own path in this new world of non-linear careers, here are 7 things to consider:

1. No two paths will be the same. We all have different experiences and opportunities that will take us on different journeys but can ultimately lead to the same place. Take our support team at Thinkific, for example. Ratha, a Customer Champion, had been an office manager and executive assistant for many years. In her own words: “I was good at it and I was paid VERY well. But I was not happy, super stressed and always yearning for more. From the outside I had it made. A great job, great relationships with the people I supported, and I made decent money. But I was deeply unhappy.”

Her teammate, Sarah, had a much different path. After completing her Teacher Education (PDP) program and becoming certified to teach, she realized it wasn’t for her and pursued a career as a travel agent based on her love of travelling. After a bit of time, she decided to return to school to pursue her passion for coding, and is now using her knowledge as a Technical Customer Champion at Thinkific, and working towards becoming a full-fledged developer.

Although their paths were very different, ultimately they listened to their gut, realized they weren’t happy, and made steps to change their career path that landed them in the same role at Thinkific.

2. Don’t get hung up on job titles. If you’re set on a specific job title or position, you may be overlooking major opportunities that can help propel your career forward. Be open to new opportunities and step outside of your comfort zone, even if it means moving from a manager to a specialist position. If you perceive your career or job as unrestricted and flexible, you can objectively assess your strengths and weaknesses to find the ideal role for you. Often those in senior positions work cross-functionally with other teams, so if that’s an aspiration, take an interest in the work and roles of your peers in other departments. Doing so can help you develop a better perspective on how a business operates, and let you visualize where your expertise can be useful.

3. Be introspective. Always be checking in with yourself to identify if you’re happy with what you’re doing. Figure out what gets you excited and what makes you want to wake up every morning. Set career goals for yourself and identify SMART steps to get there, knowing that they may change or evolve over time. Remember, it’s okay to change your mind!

SMART goals: Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely
Source: Talent Collective

It’s important to ask yourself questions like:

What do I want to keep doing? What would I do differently? What can I learn from this? What industries or jobs excite me? What makes me happy?

More and more companies are implementing one-on-one meetings to do regular check-ins with employees. Use these meetings to share your insights with your manager and work with them to identify how you can best use your strengths in your role, while seeking to improve skills and habits that have been identified as opportunities for further development.

4. Develop your transferable skills. Transferable skills are often what provides new opportunities to switch roles within a company, as internal mobility is a great way to seek new challenges while sticking with a company or product you believe in. I’ve seen many candidates remove job experiences from their resume that they don’t necessarily think are relevant for the role. But what often gets removed are indicators of transferable and well-developed skills. The coffee shop you worked at 10 years ago, although seemingly a retail role, can indicate skills like your ability to work on a team, customer service skills or your ability to delegate. These skills can be grown and developed in each successive role, which to an employer, appears as skills you have mastered.

5. Focus on self development. Whatever you do, do it well. Employers are looking for experts — not people who do ‘good enough’ work. In any venture you pursue, work to become an authority figure by aiming to be in the top 5% of your field. As the 10,000 hours rule has proven, deliberate and focused practice is needed to become world-class in any field. Take courses online, read blogs, or attend conferences to stay ahead of the pack. Never stop investing in yourself. Use time away from work to focus on self-development and stay curious. For some, business or career coaches can be an asset to strategically plan your next steps and create action items to get you there. Others prefer to network and surround themselves with other like-minded folk that can share different experiences and perspectives.

6. Trust the process. As you build your career, you need to have the confidence and trust that it’ll all work out. Success won’t happen overnight and sometimes, it won’t work out. Be willing to do mental check-ins with yourself to see whether you are on the path you want to be. Success will mean different things to different people, but the one thing to remember is that success and failure aren’t at opposite ends of the spectrum. Failure should not be looked at negatively, as it leads to some of the greatest learning opportunities. Ask any CEO what success looks like, and they’ll likely mention sacrifices, failures and ‘aha’ moments that got them to where they are.

7. Build a strong support network. It’s helpful to build a support system that challenges you and can offer help or advice along the way. Seek out mentors or leaders that you aspire to be, who have experience and can help you become what you want to be. Networking events or online communities are a great way to connect with mentors, like-minded folks and industry experts. The last thing you want is to be surrounded by friends, colleagues or managers that drain your energy or limit you from working to your full potential. As you progress in your career, it’s important to maintain professional relationships. Everyone you meet should be considered a valuable asset to your career. You never know who might play an integral role in connecting you to your dream job.

The days of joining a company and staying there, climbing the same career ladder are long gone. Find what you are passionate about, or are interested in, and let those learnings influence your career direction. Experiment, try, fail and grow.

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