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We speak and think of our professional lives in terms of “careers.” The word career comes from roots that mean a street, or path for traveling, and hence we are on a journey.

How do we progress on our journey? How do we deal with the challenges along the way? Early in our careers most of us want to advance, make more money, and perhaps have more influence. As professionals, managers, executives, and leaders in organizations, we are often on a path of working and hoping for a promotion, preparing for the next level, or facing new challenges after a promotion. As an entrepreneur, innovator, professional, or leader in many fields we also look to make things happen and expand our positive impact on markets, communities, and organizations.

How do we move forward when we feel stuck? And how do we make a success out of the new challenges at the next level? I once heard W. L. Gore, the founder of the company that makes Gortex, speak about the leadership path in his company. They selected well. They groomed their up and coming leaders. And at the executive level, half eventually failed. How do we make career advancement a success?

How do we make career advancement a success?

We can enter avalanches of discussions about career and miss the mark if we don’t start with the question, “What is career?” (a “generative” question). In our culture, we leap to answering the question “how” before we are even clear about the “what” we are talking about. This leads to a lot of misdirection. And what interpretation of career will produce the most value for us, as well as the greatest capacity to produce that value? We’ll call this kind of interpretation a “generative” one, one we can take action with. I’ll share with you what we have learned about a generative path to a meaningful and successful career.

Career is not just work.

First, we need to distinguish “career” from “work.”  A sequence of jobs does not make a career.  It’s where “career” goes to “careen,” just bouncing around out of control without a direction. However, the word “careen” has another suggestive meaning: to turn a boat on its side to clean or repair the hull, to enable the boat to sail better.

If we are going to make our boat sail better, it implies new questions that often appear later in our lives.

  • Where are you going on this journey?
  • Why are you going there?
  • How will you know when you get there?
  • And where is it worth going to?

All of these questions take us to a more fundamental question:

What do you care about? A crucial question.

Discovering and refining our care is a key life and leadership task, and is crucial for answering these other questions. Too often we have a career path defined by sacrifice rather than care.

How do we make the boat of our careers sail better, anyway? Why do people get promoted, why are they are paid more, how do they get investors to invest in them, or how do they grow their impact? One default answer of our culture is “because we work hard and produce.” Yet this answer often leads to exhaustion and the barrier of our limits.

A more generative answer is that we are valued and paid for the promises we make and fulfill. If you want to make more money, then make bigger promises. If you want to have more authority, then show you can enhance the promises of your organization. If you want to have more influence, then make and show you can fulfill promises of value to others.  And in order to make promises bigger than you can fulfill alone, you must learn to lead teams and networks of collaboration.

Making bigger, new, or valuable promises is what career is about.  This is true for a manager, executive, leader, entrepreneur, innovator, technical expert, or professional.  This can be a journey of sacrifice or a journey of fulfillment.  Either way, it’s a journey of life — towards more life, or towards more death.

If we are to grow our ability to make and fulfill bigger promises to make a meaningful career, then several elements are required.

First is a commitment to learning –

First is a commitment to learning — usually lifetime learning. Learning is not done when we complete a training or get a certification.  Rather, it is a permanent path to personal growth. When you stop learning you stop growing and your career journey stalls. We must learn the joy of learning, not just the grind to get it over with. We must learn to learn.

Second we must make and fulfill bigger promises with others.

A second requirement is that we need to coordinate action with others to make and fulfill promises bigger than we can make alone. We must learn to deal with other people with all their strengths, weaknesses, and foibles. Being an expert and super performer is not enough. Our cultural mainstream still finds the interactions of human beings to be unclear, but coordination of action has become a mature field of generative practice. We must learn the skills of coordination of action, not just the theory.

You must learn to create value.

We must also learn to listen for and to create value. The value of our promises is not in what we produce, but rather it is in the assessment of others as to what it enables for them in their lives. It addresses what they care about.

You must create value for yourself as well.

And finally, our promises must create meaning and value for ourselves. High accomplishment and mastery arise only when our promises reflect our own care, our own passion, and what makes us alive in fulfilling them.

A meaningful career is a lifetime commitment to taking care of something that provokes value for others as well as meaning and value for ourselves. This care and its evolution is the thread that links the steps of different jobs to a sense of meaning and provides direction to our journey. Taking care is not a destination defined by a title or salary.  Rather, it is the meaning and aliveness of the path that we walk in our continuing work and our ongoing contribution to others.

Cliffs: We can climb the mountains of our career and encounter cliffs. Sometimes we see them, sometimes we just fall off of them. Every new level of promise requires a new level of skills, conversations, and actions. Many are promoted to lead teams because they are the experts at what the team does – but being a team leader is a totally different set of skills from being the expert. Other challenging transitions are from the skills and conversations of the manager to those of the executive, and from executive to leader.

Barriers: When we try to just work harder with our old habits, or fit our new promises into our old skills, we can find that we’ve fallen over a cliff. We can find that our old common sense and harder efforts become the very barriers that we are trying to overcome. This is why so many struggle after promotion to bigger promises.

Dragons: In this journey, we will also face our dragons. Some of these dragons live inside of us, such as the dragon of fear. Sometimes we face the external dragons of power and politics, the dragons of the changing world that make your old frameworks, promises, and skills invalid. We sometimes need to enter the fire of chaos, complexity, and challenges that no one has ready answers for and lead from there. Leading first ourselves, then leading others.  We must learn to overcome the barrier of not-knowing, the dragon of our own anxiety, and the cliffs of our own blindnesses. These are part of the journey.

It isn’t just about More. 

Yet is a successful career always a journey to where we are not? Is it always about more? It can be the cultivation of where we already are, going beyond sacrifice toward more life. It can be about taking care where we find value and meaning for ourselves as well as others, our own place of contribution, our own place of developing mastery. It can be our place of dwelling, a journey of a good life, aliveness, and meaning rather than always going to a life we don’t yet have. It is where we can align our internal meaning with our external contribution. We can dwell not by remaining stationary, but by always living into the heart of our journey.

It’s about creating a Good Life in which to Dwell.

In our generative interpretation of career, we must first lead ourselves to find and build our path, not just wait for its revelation. We lead ourselves beyond our fear to learn, invent, explore, and create. Since the role of a leader is one of creating the future we must learn the conversations of the leader at many levels, from declaring the game and its strategy to experimenting with what is new, getting adoption in our communities, and coordinating actions to create value that is meaningful to us and others.

With learning and healthy design, we can create a meaningful journey of our career, a journey of our life.

To listen to the audio recording of this conference call about The Career Journey, CLICK HERE.