One of the key elements in your career is always working toward the next step. That doesn’t mean always be looking for the next opportunity; if you’ve got one eye on the door, you’re not completely focused on the role you’ve been hired for. I’m going to give this next point a bit of stress, because it’s an important one:
If you don’t succeed at your current position, you won’t succeed at your next.
That doesn’t mean that you have to enjoy or even like your current job. If you do, it’s a blessing. Regardless of how you feel about it, you must apply yourself completely to it with a smile. That’s a skill, not a talent- once you’ve figured it out, your boss and coworkers will notice and your effort will pay off.
Every one of us has taken jobs we don’t like, whether it’s flipping burgers, mucking out stables, or writing Go. These roles are necessary evils, choices made to help you prepare professionally for a role you that matters to you, whether it’s the next step or the one after that. Recognize it for what it is and master the skills required- smiling at customers, repetitive coding, or unpleasant hours. Keep your eye on the ball, your reason for taking the opportunity (even if not by choice) and build your arsenal for the next.
There are three risks when you’re in this situation and each of them are easy to spot when you’re not the person involved. They’re much harder when you’re actually in the trenches. In chronological order:
Not all “necessary evil” roles are day-to-day toil and suffering. Some of them simply aren’t sufficiently challenging. I’ve seen this most often when career seekers are more focused on cash flow than skill development- compromising their career goals a bit in order to build up a cash reserve or a lifestyle change. What was originally a temporary role- “I’ll stay a year until XXX happens”- becomes longer-term. We become acclimated to our environment, it’s human nature. Short-term gratification requires little effort, but will never produce long term gain. In the software development field, there’s a very real risk of becoming stale. Not just in terms of skills, but in terms of interest and initiative, which are far more important. Complacent developers are doing the same work the same way that they have been for years, in the same chair at the same desk. They may roust themselves and seek another position, but these are most often lateral moves within the same company or the same sector. A slight raise, a different title, but the same person doing the same work.
A career without intention is nothing more than a job.
This is a tough one. Even the most prepared, motivated, and focused workers are prey to the whims of opportunity. If he position you’re looking for- your ideal next step- isn’t hiring, it’s easy for your faith in your dream to waver. Over time, this doubt accumulates, which can lead to a drop in performance, a change in attitude, or a deferment of goals. Each of these can and will hurt you in your current role, weakening the resolve required to make that next step. It can be a slippery slope from lack of opening (or a poor match) down to feelings of inadequacy or a belief that your goals and aspirations are unachievable and unrealistic. A loss of hope is nothing less than a loss of belief in yourself. Don’t make this mistake! Your certainty was founded in planning, self-assessment, and confidence.
From the Frying Pan into the Fire
You’ve recognized that you became complacent. You’ve pushed yourself out of the rut, polished your resume, wrote and visualized the job description for your next step, searched all the aggregator sites, reached out to your network, but the role isn’t there when you want it to be. You’re stuck on the current rung of your career ladder- a job that you’ve realized no longer works for you- without the next rung being within reach. This leads to frustration and feeling trapped. For some, this results in the need to make a change- any change- rather than remain in place. “Any place but here” is negative motivation, not a positive step. A careerist in this situation is prone to making a misstep- changing employer or role simply to change the environment. This isn’t forward progress- it is, at best, lateral. Do this a few times and your resume may still raise eyebrows, but not in the right way. You don’t want to spend an interview rationalizing or defending the career decisions that brought you to that room.
Distilled down to single terms, these scenarios are sloth, doubt, and frustration. These are feelings, not actions- they can cause you to make mistakes, but they are themselves natural. They’re most often harder to spot than correct.
Be Proactively Mindful of Yourself
Don’t wait- don’t assume that you’ll spot these motivators before they’ve caused harm. Regularly set aside time to examine your career:
- Your goals. Why did you set out on this journey? Put another way, what do you want to be when you grow up? I’ve been in the workplace for twenty years, I have an amazing job, and I still ask myself this question every few weeks.
- Your methods. What skills are you assembling, and why? How do they build your path to that job? Are you learning skills you don’t need? Have you mastered those that you’re currently using?
- Your plan of action. Not just the next step, but the one after that. Recognize that if you don’t make the correct next step, you’ll be handicapped for the subsequent move. Lateral moves by definition don’t advance you. Patience is key- bend but don’t break.
If you find yourself becoming complacent, look for ways to challenge yourself in your current position while building toward the next step. Seek new responsibilities or do things in a different way. I found myself in a complacent lull early in my career months after I’d fallen into it. I wasn’t yet ready to make the leap forward, so I challenged myself where I was by learning new development styles, optimizing my code well past the point of diminishing returns, and learning more about the larger business. The enemy of complacency is curiosity.
Loss of hope can be a tough one to beat. The trick is to go on offense rather than a passive defense. Being proactively mindful is a great tool for keeping your mental head high and your perspective on target.
If you find yourself itching to make a move, grinding your teeth every day when you realize you’re going back to the same office- make sure you’re making that move in the right direction. Step ahead, not to the side. I’ve made this mistake and it’s hard to admit and easy to repeat. Running from Job A to Job B, then trying to correct that by switching to Job C…you’re running in a spiral, not climbing a ladder. Ask yourself why you want to change and where you want to go, not just where you don’t want to be.
Remember that you’re not climbing your ladder in a vacuum- if you were, you wouldn’t be breathing. Roles will come and go and things will happen that are beyond your ability to predict or control. Remember why you’re there and- most importantly- where you want to be. As we’re told, don’t sweat the small stuff…and understand that it’s all small stuff.