The Linear Career Path No Longer Exists


"I'm afraid of making a mistake. I'm afraid of making the wrong choice."

One of my clients is wrestling with the next step of her career. She feels as though the path she chooses at this point will determine the course of her career—like one choice is a mountain where she'll start at the bottom and determinedly, over time work her way up to the top.

But what if she makes the wrong choice? Does it mean that if she changes her mind, she'll need to go all the way to the bottom of another mountain and start all over again?

This may have been how things worked in the past, but it's not how they work today. 

Many of us still operate under the expectation that our career path will be linear. As someone who grew up in a lower-middle class family, my life has always been pointed in this direction—work hard in high school, go to a great college, stand out, get a job, work my way up. That's the American Dream, right?

At the last organization I worked in, I started as the Administrative Coordinator and seven years and five job titles later had risen to the role of Associate Director. And then I knew it was time for the next step for me. I always expected to step up and out of the organization, into a bigger title, at a bigger company, with more responsibilities and a higher salary.  As I left, everyone would applaud me and the bigger and better future I was headed toward.

But what actually happened looked very different. When I searched for my next position, I didn't want that bigger job and more important-sounding title. I wanted to live in alignment with who I am, and follow my curiosity by answering the call of the work that is in my heart. I wanted to spend more time with my daughter and my mother who was sick with cancer. I wanted to do something really different, shake things up. 

Because of my mother's condition, I ended up missing my final week of work and the goodbye party they had planned; it was just as well, because I was struggling to find the right story to tell about my departure. Anything other than that "up and out" narrative felt like a failure that I needed to spin. I wanted to make it sound neat and linear. But it wasn't. 

After working with career coaching clients for the past seven years, this is what I now know:

There is no linear path. It's funkier than that out there now. We move up down, over, and create our own paths. There is more freedom; we are all independent agents. This means more uncertainty, but less of a risk of making the "wrong choice"—because every step is a step forward. 

Our identities no longer wrap around a job title—they travel with us through the different positions, companies, and industries in which we'll work throughout the span of our careers.

Our identities come down to our sense of purpose, the values that drive us, what meaningful successful is to us, and the skills and approaches that we uniquely bring to the table. These are the components of your Strategic Career Compass.

If we uncover these points on our personal compass and become skilled at talking about them with others, we can bring that full package with us to any new position, and even justify a pivot into a new field without needing to start from the beginning. We can tell a connected story about our non-linear path. 


Learn more about a personal strategic plan and why it's key to navigating today's job market.
Learn about Strategic Career Coaching.