On Labor Day, Americans celebrate the value of work, community, and the activists who earned the rights and protections that U.S. employees enjoy today. But as Americans — and people everywhere — look ahead to a world of constant disruption, they will undoubtedly see both opportunity and uncertainty. All of us need a new way of thinking about work and taking personal responsibility for our careers, which last 45 years and beyond.
Over the past three decades, I have been counseling and mentoring people and conducting research on the topic of career strategy. I have been struck by how many people at all stages of life are extremely anxious about their careers but have invested little time in creating a strategy for it. If you are one of those people, take the time to change that: Set aside your own personal career day to create a plan for pursuing the most purposeful and rewarding work possible. Whether you are a Millennial, a Gen Xer, or a Baby Boomer, here are five actions you can take to get your career strategy rolling.
Calculate how many more years, days, and hours you expect to be working, even part-time. Most people vastly underestimate how long a career lasts, so do some simple math. Hint: The current average retirement age in the United States is 65, but it’s going up. Many are choosing — or needing — to work well into their seventies. A career is not a sprint; it is a marathon.
Figure out what career stage you are at. There are three major stages, each lasting about 15 years, and you will need to adjust as you pass through them.
If you are Stage One (from starting out through your late thirties), make this your time to discover, learn, and try different things. You’re sure to make a few wrong turns, but even mistakes and learning what you don’t like are valuable.
If you are Stage Two (late thirties to early fifties), you’ll want to find your sweet spot, which is the intersection of what you love, what you are good at, and what the world values. This is your time to reach high by building on strengths and differentiating yourself from others.
Stage Three is about going far. At age 50, you could easily have 20-plus years of work life left. You need to find a new sustainable type of work and a pace that could last for decades. One of your main jobs in Stage Three is to stay fresh. Nobody wants to hire someone who is only concerned with the past. Stay relevant and well connected so that you can become a practitioner of “active wisdom” for years to come.
Take inventory of how much “career fuel” you have. The people who are most successful in the long term are those who have abundant supplies of what I call career fuel: transportable skills, meaningful experiences, and enduring relationships.
Transportable skills include problem solving, being adept at persuading others, getting things done, and knowing how to take smart risks. These are skills you can carry with you from job to job, company to company, and industry to industry.
Meaningful experiences take us out of our comfort zones and make us more adaptable to changes in our job environment. Think travel, intense community service, launching products, or starting your own business.
Enduring relationships are perhaps the most powerful form of career fuel: those connections, experts, critical colleagues, and mentors who make a huge difference in your career progression.
Assess whether your fuel levels are growing, stagnating, or perhaps even declining. Ask yourself what you can do in the next year to replenish them. You don’t always need to change jobs or industries to add fuel. Look for new pathways within your own organization through a special assignment, job rotation, expanded responsibilities, or structured training.
Grade your current work situation. Don’t depend on your gut or how you feel on a late Friday evening to evaluate your job satisfaction. Get objective by asking these four questions: Are you learning? Are you having impact? Are you having fun? And, finally, are you being fairly rewarded?
Regarding the last one: Look at the full package of rewards, including salary, benefits, vacation, and workplace flexibility. Is it fair for what you are contributing to the organization? How does it compare to the going rate in the marketplace?
What do the answers to these questions show you? Could you boost some of the low ratings? Can they be fixed in your current situation or should you look elsewhere?
Invest your time wisely. Time is the currency of our lives, and how we spend it speaks volumes about what we think is important. Do a simple pie chart of how you have spent your time over the past couple of months, using categories such as work, family, community, health, or just chilling.
What does your pie chart say about how you are investing in you? All work and no play is unsustainable for the journey ahead. Are you devoting enough time to the things that really make you happy, even in small doses? Should you adjust your time as you transition from one stage to another? Are you using your precious time to build fuel? How does your time portfolio relate to your answers to the job satisfaction questions above?
A career is a long ride, and it’s more than just work: It’s a huge part of life. Take time to think strategically about your career journey. Only one person will be with you for the whole ride, and that’s you. Don’t just worry about it — take some action.
Brian Fetherstonhaugh is CEO and chairman of OgilvyOne Worldwide and author of The Long View: Career Strategies to Start Strong, Reach High, and Go Far.
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