When I mentor people, they often ask me for my thoughts about specific career choices they are considering.
Invariably, the questions fall into two categories.
1) How do I succeed in a pre-structured career path (e.g., making partner in a consulting firm)?
2) How do I succeed in forging my own path that isn’t pre-structured (e.g., changing industries, starting a company, switching functional areas)?
Members of my mentorship program ask questions in the second category far more often.
The aspect of forging their own path that bothers them the most is that while the first few steps of the path are well defined, what happens in the end is unclear.
In contrast, if you work in a structured career (medical school -> doctor, law school -> law firm partner, MBA -> McKinsey -> McKinsey partner), you have the next 5 to 15 years of your career defined in advance.
You know what you will be doing, when you will be doing it, and what will be expected of you at each step.
You know all of this before you even take the first step.
When you forge your own path, you run into something I call:
The Horizon Problem
If you’re standing at sea level, assuming you are 5 feet 7 inches (170 cm) tall, you can see a flat object at sea level up to 2.9 miles (4.7 km) away.
This occurs due to the curvature of the earth.
If you’re standing on a hill, your perceived horizon is further away as your angle of view compensates for the curvature of the earth.
This 2.9 mile (4.7 km) limit is known as the horizon.
If you’re traveling to an object that is 5.0 miles (8 km) away, you can’t see it when you start your journey.
It doesn’t mean the object isn’t there. It simply means that you can’t see your destination... yet.
And herein lies my point.
You only see a destination that lies beyond your horizon after you begin your journey.
This is the crux of most people’s discomfort with forging their own career paths in life.
The key to pursuing a career path that isn’t pre-structured is to tolerate the discomfort of not being able to see beyond the horizon.
You can’t see all the steps to your destination... yet.
You can’t see all the obstacles between you and your goal... yet.
You can’t accurately forecast when you’ll complete your journey... yet.
All of the unknowns will reveal themselves over time... AFTER you start your journey.
This is the principle (often unspoken) tradeoff that underlies the struggle to follow a career path forged by someone else versus forging one of your own.
These are the kinds of things I prompt the people I mentor to think about and consider as they plan their careers.
If you’re contemplating making a career move that’s a little different than what’s standard for your profession or peer group, I would encourage you to broaden your base of knowledge and skills.
One way to do that is by joining my Inner Circle mentorship program. My Inner Circle is open for enrollment just twice per year, for a few days. The only remaining opportunity to join in 2018 will be next month. To be notified when Inner Circle enrollment is open, just submit the form below.