Chances are, you’re seated here at your computer now, looking at the four walls around you, in your little cubby hole at work, and you’re thinking,
I’m stuck. I don’t think I can grow here.
Or you’ve sat in yet another meeting, listening to boring old men talk through their horrid presentations with the terrible fonts, and thinking,
I could definitely do better than that.
Or you’re sat in yet another lunch with your colleagues, looking around you at the older people around you, people who’ve been in the same company for the past 9 years, and they’re griping about the latest injustice from the boss.
And you’re stuck.
You want to grow.
But you have no idea how.
Welcome to the club.
The first 5 years of your career are probably the hardest
If you think back to the time when you started school, you probably struggled. Exams, essays, assignments. It took time to learn. But slowly you got the hang of it.
But now in your career, there seems to be no clear playbook about how exactly to grow in it. You’ve probably read books about how best to grow your careers, but you’re bored by the boring tripes that tell you,
- Learn to work well in teams!
- Be valuable!
Deep down, you know there must be more than that.
I’m going to start here with the myths, before going onto what you can do.
I’m no career veteran with twenty years of experience. I’ve only had 2 years of full-time work experience in a charity, before moving on to start my own company.
But during my first year of work, I faced painful things like a Performance Improvement Plan (a get better or get sacked plan), and realised that I wanted to learn from the best.
I took the next 6 months conducting 21 interviews with 21 different career luminaries for a book on adulting.
Myth 1: There’s a formula to career success
As much as we want tidy formulas, I’m afraid there’s none. It’s not for want of trying. Speaking to these 21 different people, there was no one Principle that stood out above all else.
Sure, there were tips, but there was no one consistent theme that stood out above all.
What I do want to say is this though.
Whilst it can help to do research like this, to read more, to attend more courses, what seems to have come through for many of those who did succeed in their careers, was this point on intentionality.
They were intentional on their careers.
Take for example, yours truly.
If you had heard my story in March 2021, when I had just been issued with the PIP, and then told you about how bad a time I was having performing at my job, you would have written me off.
But that hasn’t been the case to date.
Instead, I held deeply to the desire to create something of my own. A business, whatever. I saw that it was difficult for me to fit into the conventional career life, and to expect myself to do well.
Each weekend, I would take time to sit and watch videos about entrepreneurship. For 30 straight days, I published one video a day, to improve my skills at teaching.
Whilst I didn’t make a million dollars at the end of that period, it brought me much closer.
Myth 2: Going for more courses will help
Of course, we’ve heard the Singaporean government constantly harp on skills upgrading as the way to make yourself increase in value.
Well, I didn’t.
I spent $1890 on the Advanced Certificate in Learning and Performance, a prerequisite to being a trainer in Singapore, and didn’t see any consequent improvement in my ability to land a job.
In fact, I went for 106 interviews, constantly reminded interviewers of my ACLP qualification, but didn’t hear them ask about it.
Despite qualifying in ACLP, my previous job’s supervisors barely raised an eyebrow. They were barely interested.
It goes to show that it’s not just going for more courses that will help, but courses that will improve your skills for the next level you’re gunning for.
Say you’re an executive, and looking to move into a managerial role.
Having skills such as:
- Project management
- Public speaking
Would probably be a great step forward.
Myth 3: Improving your weaknesses will help
Sometimes, it seems like the traditional adage ‘improve your weaknesses’ will help.
As Peter Drucker shared in his famous Harvard Business Review article on “Managing Oneself”
One should spend as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.
Yet most people… concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones.
Improving your strengths does seem to be easier, and more effective, in the longer run.
For years, I spent time trying to do things that I was not natural at, just because my parents told me to do so. I would study the sciences, because that’s what my parents told me would work in the longer term.
But I failed horridly.
And later in my career, I tried doing social work, even though it had shown through my placements that I wasn’t necessarily the most conventional social worker.
It was only when I embraced my skills as a writer and speaker that I started to see great improvements in my work.
What Drucker suggests in terms of analysing your past decisions, and how they have worked out can be helpful for you too.
This method, called feedback analysis, involves you writing down
- decisions you have made in the past 6 months,
- writing down why you think it will work out for good
- What happens in 6 to 12 months
This can give you an idea of where your strengths lie.
Focus on these, and you will find the point of leverage where you can change the world.
Growing your career is ultimately about reflecting and adjusting forward
There’s a particularly poignant scene I remember from 2 months ago.
I was rushing to an interview for a position.
When I sat there, I gave straightforward answers to their questions. I shared openly about what I had done in the past, and how I had used data to drive my marketing efforts.
I barely smiled.
I knew what would happen. That they would reject me, because I didn’t seem approachable enough.
As I walked out, there was a deep resolve within me not to ever put myself in such a situation again.
Where the interviewers interviewed me out of sympathy, and because their boss had told them to do so, rather than because they really wanted to see what I had to offer.
It taught me that to truly grow one’s career, is not about seeing it as a career, but rather, about seeing it as life.
That you take responsibility for your own life, rather than expecting someone else to help you through it.
I know I’m happier today, with the time, location, and financial flexibility to do the work and life I love, rather than being stuck in the cubby hole, looking at the clock, wondering when I will ever get to go home.
Nothing against people who are employed. The point is,
Whatever your decision is for growth,
you make it happen.