3 Approaches to Career Movement

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw

We all know that companies hire people based on their individual talents and how well they will fit into a company culture. Since each individual is multi-dimensional and the process of determining the right candidate to fill a role is inexact, opportunities exist for the company and candidate to optimize their approach. In order to stand out, by definition a candidate must differentiate themselves from everyone else. A candidate must also determine if the role is a good fit for themselves based on their strengths, interests, and life priorities.

Far too few job-seekers take responsibility for determining how well they will fit into a role. Too few candidates possess a strategic and thoughtful approach for a variety of reasons. Not every job is a good fit for our interests and talents. We must know our job search priorities, we must know our strengths, and we must know how to sell them to a stranger, or an acquaintance, in a professional manner.

If we put ourselves in a position where our strengths can be utilized to advance us, we stand a much higher chance of moving up the stairway of career success. Three broad approaches that people typically take to career advancement are outlined below. These approaches each differ in their frequency, level of difficulty, attainability, and relevance. People often turn to institutions of education to explore their interests and to develop hard and soft skills. Much of the exploration and skill development can also be discovered and developed outside of course curriculum. Many people gravitate toward the former and are unaware of the latter.

These three approaches are the “easy path,” “hard path,” and the “unnecessary path.”

1. The Easy Path: Conforming to the Norm

When this path is chosen, all one has to do is register for courses, follow instructions, and complete assignments. Sometimes this is done in combination with other tools of professional development such as full or part time work, but it is often done alone. A person who has chosen this path may be referred to as a “full time student.” The title “easy” refers to its passive, satisfying, and encouraging nature. Enrolling in a curriculum encourages hope with minimal effort other than the courses themselves.

The more we engage with this path, the more we are driven to conformity and into competition with others. We will feel a sense of pride which is likely reinforced by those around us since we are “doing something” as we move forward toward a goal. While this positive energy builds, the student is tested but will remain in their comfort zone. They are able to delay or escape the uncertainty associated with personalized career development.

An alluring and commonly chosen path to career advancement, this career path is sometimes the correct one and sometimes not. It is easy to choose because most people are making the same choice and we know it will to lead to progress in some capacity. But is it the best choice? Is it the best choice for you? Is it the best choice to achieve what you are seeking?

The Cost of Undermining Our Individuality

Institutions of education, especially higher education have capitalized on dreamy-eyed young peoples’ desire to grow in their career and earn more money by offering them a credible path. This path cannot be offered without a standardized curriculum.  Standardization was popularized during the Industrial Revolution and transmuted into educational institutions to help make sense of the education process. Although appropriate in some circumstances, we must acknowledge that the nature of this type of standardization is adversarial to personalized development and individuality by its very nature.

This cost of this path is both obvious and hidden. Obvious costs include the cost of tuition, room and board, textbooks, etc. Hidden costs involve opportunity costs, in other words, the alternative paths that could be pursued in place of pursuing education. By pursuing formalized education, students sacrifice a delay in starting their career path, or they often forgo making a career change. Further, the curriculum, especially for a generalized degree, is often quite disconnected from the students’ individual interests and desired career outcomes.

The fact is that students often become passive on this path and wonder what they are going to do when they graduate. This is particularly true within the more generalized degrees like Liberal Arts or for those who are unsure of their career goals. Even for those who have a specific career goal in mind, they often put most or even all of their focus on their education, developing tunnel vision for alternative paths that would help them differentiate. If you have all the same credentials as everyone else who applies to a job, what will they remember about you?

If the easy path is chosen and education becomes the primary focus of attention, passiveness can creep in and fester. Sometimes this culminates in a full panic when graduation approaches. The easy path is the path of least resistance.

For some professions, and for some students, the correct choice of a path is as simple as getting a fresh new credential to check off a box on an application for a specific job, at a specific company. Too often though the motivation to pursue this path is because it is passive, easy, and a quick win. It comes with the promise of a better future, thanks to institutional and cultural norms that education transforms lives. This is true sometimes, but not always.

After all, we are told that without a college degree, we are likely to be relegated to mediocre work, or forced to work with our hands (as if that is such a bad thing).

2. The Hard Path: If Two Roads Diverge…

This is called the “hard path,” only because it is harder to conceptualize at the outset. It is harder to see the value in blazing your own trail when the pursuit of an standardized education is thought to be what “normal” people do. Despite being the hard path, if a job-seeker chooses to buck society’s norms and become what they are uniquely equipped to become, for many people, this path winds up being far easier as they gain clarity. The clarity comes in time and in waves but with a growth mindset and an introspective focus, it becomes infinitely more rewarding in the long run.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost3

This path cannot be chosen without the courage to stand out and success cannot be achieved here without an honest take on where an individual’s skills can generate income. It takes emotional strength as well, since like a hiking path on a large mountain, the hard path involves downhill and uphill sections, and winding turns. On this path moments or periods of time when everything seems like a waste are as inevitable as periodic negative feelings of rejection, insecurity, and hopelessness. Such is life. The easy path allows artificial relief from these feelings.

One cannot move forward on this path without possessing a growth mindset and an open mind. The reward of choosing such a path is infinitely more rewarding, and much easier to differentiate in the job search marketplace. Many who choose this path decide to start their own companies. They are active, not passive. They are unafraid to face ambiguity, and possess the confidence to learn-as-they-go. Fulfillment is their goal. Frankly, these are the people who get the “cool jobs.”

Let ‘Hard Work’ Build the Future

Some influential voices have have taught us that hard work transforms our lives into a new and better future. We are also told that it leads to wealth and that it is a key driver for income mobility. Anyone who has worked hard as a food service worker, cleaner, or construction worker knows how utterly false this statement is on its face. In fact, in this context, it is an outright lie.

Despite this, there is truth to the notion that hard work does in fact pay off. The distinction is that the type of work we choose to prioritize matters. Hard work must be undertaken by design and with a vision for our future. In Todd Rose’s book, Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment, the exploration of individuality is essential to career growth.

Individuality helps differentiate job applicants in a competitive market. The concept of a dark horse is of course, an unexpected winner who few observers, if anyone saw coming. In order to grow and get noticed, a dark horse must buck the system to some degree and that takes courage, confidence, and commitment.

That confidence can only come from knowing yourself, your tendencies, your strengths, and preferences. If we do not put ourselves in an environment where we can leverage our strengths, we are unlikely to succeed. Even if we do, the success will not be fulfilling. If our environment is out of touch with who we are and want to become, we often find ourselves craving something else, something new. Left unchecked, this process can repeat itself for our entire lives.

The environment we choose to spend our careers working in matters, and if it is not aligned with our strengths and values, success and fulfillment both become more elusive. Why leave important things like our future to chance? Our future is the only one we got.

If we take the concept of hard work and apply it to designing a life and career that puts us in a position to constantly grow, we will succeed if our definition of success is fulfillment.

3. The Unnecessary Path: “Minimum Viable Effort”

“Yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.” Led Zeppelin, “Stairway to Heaven”

People say that time is money. When time is lost, it is gone forever. In technology sectors, companies recognize that speed to market is of utmost importance. This is true of our lives and our careers as well. A company will prioritize what is profitable and essential. They often release the new feature as soon as possible because of this reality. This is widely referred to as the ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP). 

Extending this logic to our lives and our careers is useful. Companies cannot allow important innovation and growth like a potential product or update to fester in the background. Sadly, the passive attitude toward career growth that most people possess leads to this type of stagnation. If companies had this attitude, no product would ever get released.

The easy path is tempting because it satisfies our desire for a quick fix and an escape from the natural challenges of life4. It builds positive vibes, and some positive momentum. It makes us feel like we are making progress, but is it enough? As more people complete formal education, the real-world experience that employers would much prefer becomes more scarce.

We must remain focused on ‘minimum viable effort’ (MVE). This concept could also be referred to as ‘minimum viable education’ (also MVE). What is the MVE needed to reach the next step on your stairway of career movement?

Personalized Success

There are occasions when formal training through education is the missing link to positive movement in our careers. It is clear however, that there are circumstances in which the allure of the easy path to career success shines brighter than it should. In a society full of quick fixes, it is tempting to seek a quick fix to something like deciding what to do with one’s life. As time goes on, we learn that life cannot be standardized in the same way that a factory can.

Luckily, getting bogged down into the intricate details is not necessary. The only thing that is necessary is one word, “action.” As you “do,” you learn. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest. The hard path is only hard because most people fail to take the first step. Once the mindset shifts and focuses on the desired outcome, growth is inevitable, as long as we have the courage to face our fears of rejection and failure.

“If you’re not progressing, you’re regressing; so, keep moving forward.” Elon Musk

We must decide what is important to us on our own terms. Allowing an institution like education, or our well-intentioned, but often wrong friends to convince us that the only thing that is missing from our career development is a degree or credential is a failure of our own personal prioritization. When we dive in, explore, learn, and discover what matters most to us, we can achieve success as we define it, on our own terms.

The cost of not personalizing our success could be a lifetime of confusion, mediocrity, and ironically – failure. If our fear of failure prevents us from taking the first step, we will always fail on the second. Therefore, inaction guarantees failure. If we are stagnant, failure is constant. If we are growing, failure is temporary.

Reference and Further Exploration:

1For a broad overview of ‘soft skills’ that employers’ value, see:

2 Estimates vary on the most accurate number but typically, experts say that about 4 out of 5 of those hired by a company did so with the help of a personal or professional connection at the company.

3The often cited Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” has application to the modern world of career development. In a world dominated by standardized credentials, individuality makes you stand out.

4For clarification, the “hard path” can and should include education of all types in the right circumstances.

*Todd Rose’s book Dark Horse provides much more context and insight on how to align our unique personality traits, strengths, and interests with a fulfilling career.

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