You know that career development/life process concept that looks like a straight, upwardly slanted line? The one indicating that each year of your life and career is better – and better paying – than the year before? That's the one. You know how hardly anyone ever seems to achieve it but we all keep chasing it anyway?
Well, I have good news for you. Since almost no one apparently lives on straight, upwardly slanted trajectories, and this past recession has effectively bumped off the few who had been managing it, I say we can now officially drop that as our national career model. When it comes to careers, we all digress. Instead of feeling embarrassed for not sticking with the plan, I think we should recognize, celebrate, and yes, maximize the other career patterns that keep emerging.
Somewhere down the road I'll write about the Roller Coaster, the Dotted Line and the Starburst models (aren't you dying to know what those are?) but today I want to focus on the Career Loop. Of course I'm making up all these names. But they're real to me.
A Career Loop pattern, as you might guess, involves a loop back to an earlier career path. Sometimes the culmination of the loop feels like a homecoming and sometimes it feels more like a compromise, but it always involves a return to work one did years before.
Here's an example from one of my clients a few years back. “Hal” was a computer programmer in his late 50s when the dot-com bubble burst, leaving him in a bad spot. His programming languages were adequate, but not top-of-the-line. To compete effectively, he estimated he'd need at least 12 months of refresher courses and even then the outlook didn't feel certain. Worse, he wasn't lit up about programming anymore. He said the fun was gone since it had become such a commoditized work product.
As retirement was not an option, we needed to find a new career path that would carry Hal into his 60s, provide income, and be fun at least some of the time. The conversation about fun provided me the clue for the classic career counselor question: “Going all the way back to high school, describe every job and tell me which ones were fun and why.”
The funnest job? Hal loved working in a grocery store, which he did off and on throughout high school and vo-tech. He enjoyed the physical pace, the variety of tasks, the customer interaction and just about everything else about the work. After quizzing him to ensure he wasn't forgetting the bad parts of the job, or over-stating the fun, I became convinced that Hal was still perfectly suited for work in a grocery store.
It didn't hurt that Hal had three major assets in his favor: He was in good physical health, his lack of debt allowed him to live on a modest income, and his ego wasn't bruised by the idea of donning a grocer's apron. Quite the opposite in fact. As we started discussing this option, he became more and more animated. He had no trouble picturing himself as a 65- or 70-year-old grocer, whereas the thought of being a geriatric programmer bummed him out.
How about you? Would you consider a career loop? If so, you'll need to be strategic in the search for your new-old work. Fields that have changed significantly might require you to approach the transition as if you were new to the work. But if the old and current versions of the job are similar, you might be able to build on your earlier experience.
In either case, your resume and talking points will need a makeover. For Hal, sending resumes touting computer languages would have been as unproductive as networking with programmers for a grocer's job. He needed to rebuild grocer's skills (by volunteering at food shelves and free stores), meet grocers (by attending industry conferences) and present himself directly to managers to ask for work.
If this sounds like an intriguing career journey, your first step is to abandon that straight-line career mythology, once and for all. Then take a look backwards and see what lessons wait in your past. You might be surprised by what you find there.