For my parents, a career meant one thing: progressing through the ranks at a single company, climbing a corporate ladder where growth could be measured through regular raises and promotions.
But today, progress in a career is rarely linear. The average millennial changes jobs four times in the first decade out of college, more than double the previous generation. And nearly one-third of employers expect their employees to stay for less than two years. In this environment of constant change, it’s not surprising that the meaning behind a career has started to shift—and not just in one direction. These changes have introduced a multiplicity. There’s now an unprecedented variety in the shapes a career can take.
My own career has evolved across industries. I started out as a diabetes chemist and data scientist at Pfizer. After earning my MBA, I shifted into finance, joining a rotational leadership program and becoming the vice president of digital product and strategy at JPMorgan Chase. Then, I started my own company, Squad by Envested. Determined to change how people connect at work, I was able to create connections across my diverse skill set and broad network to build innovative solutions. My path hasn’t been linear, but I’ve been able to chart a course from science to finance to tech, each step increasing my capacity to learn.
This shift in the idea of what a career is has also impacted our definition of success. If you can’t track progress in the same way, it only makes sense that there would be uncertainty surrounding whether you have “made it.” Need proof? Just look at the lists of podcasts trying to unravel what success and fulfillment mean today. And it makes sense. If you aren’t moving up a ladder or following an established path, how do you know how much progress you’ve made?
That’s not to say that the typical symbols of success, like wealth and titles, don’t matter—they still do—but people now think about the idea in broader, more encompassing terms. Today, success can mean getting to do the thing you’re most passionate about or creating a positive change in the world. It can mean pushing your talents to their limits or being able to adapt to whatever is thrown your way. Success can also mean building the talents of those around you, and it can mean being able to look back without any regrets.
Of course, when success can mean so many things, it’s up to you as an individual to choose which aspects matter most. But even having set a vision, it can be hard to see which path represents the best way to achieve it. Our parents might have managed their careers in reaction to company shifts or personal changes, but today, it’s necessary to be proactive in setting a direction, especially when less than half of employees believe their employers provide useful career-planning tools or opportunities to advance their careers.
So how do you keep yourself on the path to continual growth, no matter the direction? You don’t need to wait for a big opportunity or life-changing moment. To be proactive in your career, focus on these three things every week:
People talk about a lot about the importance of having a strong network when looking to change roles, but the benefits of professional connections go far beyond job-switching: Your growth is limited if it’s happening in a silo. Instead, meeting new people—whether they’re peers, potential mentors or experts in areas you want to learn more about—will increase your exposure to new perspectives and provide insight into your own development. You don’t need to have coffee dates lined up every day of the week, but reaching out to just one or two new contacts a week is a great way to manageably meet new people and get practice with soft skills. Even better, it’s also an opportunity to meet a potential new friend.
All accomplishments are built on a foundation of what you’ve learned. So, no matter how you envision your success, you should be keeping track of how you’ve grown on a weekly and monthly basis, including both formal and informal learning opportunities. Knowing exactly what skills you’ve added to your wheelhouse or how your perspective has expanded will also put you in a stronger position when raising your hand to take on expanded responsibilities or putting your hat in the ring for a promotion or leadership role. Reflecting on what you’ve learned is also a great opportunity to celebrate any wins. While it’s often easy to focus on what’s still left to be done, being your own cheerleader is crucial to maintaining motivation.
After you look back to see what you’ve learned, it’s equally important to set your sights on future progress by specifying one thing you want to accomplish in the coming week. This can be something you want to learn or one task to cross off your list. Whatever it is, it should be something that stretches you but is also manageable and realistic. For example, if you want to learn a new skill, set a goal one week to research online tutorials; the next week, vow to spend 30 minutes per day on your selected course. If you want to start volunteering to use your skills in a new environment, you can set a goal of researching nonprofits one week and then reaching out to a certain number each day thereafter. Like any good goal, your weekly career goal should be clear and measurable and, to build momentum, should naturally lead into the next.
While career development today is very different from what our parents experienced, owning your career and finding opportunities for continued growth will set the stage for continued success—no matter what path your career takes.