“How responsible are you for your current career situation?”
One of my best friends got married several years ago, and I still remember the wedding toast made by her father, a man of very few words but a fellow who was nonetheless highly respected by everybody who knew him. Following the ceremony, he took the microphone and simply said: “Life is all about choices — may the two of you make some great ones together!”
What wise words. And along these lines, I’d urge all professionals today to check in with themselves every now and then to ponder how much they might be responsible, personally, for their current employment status and level of career satisfaction/dissatisfaction. Is your current situation completely due to circumstances outside your control? Are you a hapless pawn in a crappy economy? Or were there choices you could have made in years past that might have gone a long way toward diminishing some of the challenges you’re currently facing, if you’re not where you want to be at present, career-wise?
I certainly don’t pretend to know the answer to this question for each of you, individually. Some of you might be extremely happy campers with your current situation. Others might be quite frustrated, angry, or exasperated with your state of affairs. And given human nature in general, I’d suspect there’s a pretty even split of folks who take near-total responsibility for their current fortunes and those who instead feel that external forces are by and large to blame for their current career status. My own belief? While both internal and external elements definitely play a role in each person’s overall employment viability, I think most of us (myself included) chronically underestimate the amount of control we have over our own destiny.
I throw this idea out there based on the experience I’ve had working with thousands of professionals in transition, over the years, and some of the patterns I’ve observed among these individuals. When discussing their unemployment status, for example, many people (not all, of course) express a sense of “injustice” or “unfairness” about their current state of affairs. They seem bound by the notion that they “deserve” a great job based on the fact that they either obtained a college degree and/or that they’ve been good, loyal employees over the years. I’d steer these folks to the very first “burning question” I wrote about, a year or two ago, which can be found here. In this article, I postulate that one’s ability to make a living has nothing to do with fairness, justice, or equality, at least in our current economic system. It’s based utterly on whether one has managed to acquire a set of specialized skills and qualifications that are in demand by employers in the present marketplace — and that the individual knows how to promote these problem-solving talents effectively to employers.
What are some other choices people make that affect their employment viability? Many people have let numerous personal relationships erode over the years to the point they no longer have a strong contact network willing to help them out in tough times. Or they’ve “coasted” in their profession in recent years and haven’t taken the steps necessary to keep their skills up to date with modern standards. Or they lived paycheck to paycheck. Or they jumped into a “gold rush” industry (mortgage lending, real estate, etc.) and raked in the easy money for a few years, without acknowledging that this income level would inevitably take a sharp downturn at some point, due to the cyclical nature of these particular markets. There’s no question about it; many of us have followed the path of least resistance in terms of our career evolution, over the years, and it can be hard to acknowledge that we had an almost infinite number of different choices we could have made along the way, even if it didn’t seem like it at the time. Whenever I find myself tempted to believe this convenient notion, however, I can’t help but think of all of the single moms I’ve met who have fought the odds to obtain highly marketable advanced degrees — despite their challenging life circumstances — or the many immigrants I meet who have spent countless hours studying, and making sacrifices, in order to come to our country and earn a low-to-middle-wage income.
It’s a tough issue to ponder, I realize, but that’s why I’ve added it to my “burning question” series. Are you being courageously honest with yourself about your own culpability for your current current success or setbacks? Could you have done things differently? Should you change your habits in the future to avoid being caught in this situation again, if you’ve been facing some recent career challenges? Only you can answer these questions for yourself, just as I can only answer them for myself. Nobody else gets a vote. But on the whole, my belief is that we usually have many more options and choices than we might admit to ourselves. If our income takes a hit, we can learn to get by with less or move to a less-expensive part of the country to live. If we’re sick of dealing with corporate politics or living in fear of layoffs, we can pursue some sort of entrepreneurial venture. If we haven’t done a good job of maintaining our network, we can start building up a new web of trusted friends and acquaintances. And if our current skills have atrophied, or seem to have lost value to employers, we can always take the plunge and start acquiring some new ones.
At the end of the day, while individual career success may not ALL boil down to the choices we make and factors under our direct control, an awful lot of it does, in my experience. The good news? It’s never too late to acknowledge your options and empower yourself!