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Four ways to improve your career in the New Year

With the New Year underway, many are in the process of evaluating their career trajectories for 2018. However, establishing obtainable objectives can be overwhelming if you’re unsure of your long-term goals.

Using insights from An Intelligent Career, we’ve pulled together a list of ways that you can make sense of your career and set your objectives for 2018.

Identifying your themes

A useful first step in making sense is to identify the overall themes through which your career is developing. This involves adopting a broad lens on your life and career, as advocated by MIT management scholar John Van Maanen. Your themes provide a framework for understanding your present situation and for locating that situation in a wider stream of work and life events. They cover more than your interests, or your self- described strengths, although these can contribute to a wider understanding. They also cover more than the skills or knowledge you possess, or the support or reputation you enjoy with others. In part, your themes will reflect why, how, and with whom you work. However, they will also tie why, how, and with whom you work together. They will reflect your present identity and your life and work situations. They will draw on your past experience and look ahead to future action.

Picturing your situation

A complementary approach to making sense of your career is to draw a visual timeline. Like the identification of themes, this approach is also grounded in present time, reflecting on the past and preparing for the future. It also insists on a broad view of your situation that takes both personal and environmental factors into account, as well as the relation­ships between them. Moreover, drawing a picture can provide a way for you to surface sensitive or complex issues that may be difficult to express verbally.

Time by JESHOOTS. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

The procedure goes something like this: Allow an hour of your time. Take a relatively large, clean sheet of paper and a set of colored markers. Begin on the left with when you first started thinking about your adult life and career, and conclude on the right with how you see the future. Find a way to indicate the principal life and career events that have brought you to the present and led you to see the future the way that you do. Use symbols, such as happy and sad faces, stick figures, and images to show the key people, groups, employers, and institutions with which you have interacted. Allow your picture to communicate with you as you proceed, so that one image leads to another and the picture becomes a richer source of information. If your picture becomes too messy, or you run out of space, you can redraw it later. The main purpose, for this hour, is to capture what comes to your mind.

The next step— and this is where you may most benefit from a trusted friend or advisor— is to talk about your picture and either make notes or have someone else make notes about what you have drawn. Talking about your picture can help you bring out and organize what’s most important in your life and career right now.

Unraveling life strands

A different approach to making sense can be helpful if you feel you are struggling to find a place for an intelligent career among other life and family obligations. Mary- Dean Lee of McGill University and her colleagues suggest you can picture your life history from past to present as a set of entangled strands representing personal, work, family, and com­munity strands. With this picture, you can be less concerned with any chronology of events than with how your differ­ent life strands came together, or got entangled, as your life progressed.

To try this approach, think about three things: First, what events happened at particular points in time— getting a job, being laid off, being transferred, arrival of children, family illness, losing a loved one, or what­ever? Second, what particular actions have you taken? These can reflect choices you made in responding to related events, such as accepting or de­clining a job offer or taking time off to support your family. Or, they can be actions taken on your own initiative, for example to seek out new op­portunities or make new connections. Third, what gradual developments occurred over time that influenced how your strands worked together? Gaining a deeper understanding of how your own life strands became entangled in the past can leave you better positioned to untangle them in the future.

Managing career downfalls

One instructive way to better understand sensemaking and its consequences is to notice how people respond to career downfalls. Management researcher Roxanna Barbulescu and her coauthors investigated how workers in Wall Street’s financial district dealt with career downfalls re­lated to the 2008 stock market crash. They found three kinds of response, reflecting what they called downward spirals, unfinished searches, and virtue discovery.

Downward spiral: In a downward spiral, an initially negative assessment of a situation becomes more negative. That in turn emphasizes your feelings of helplessness, failure, and despair. For example, one individual reported, “The destruction of the economy has destroyed the future of the country. The country is not interested in correcting any of the problems necessary to build a new and solid economy. Therefore, I no longer have a career.”

Unfinished search: In this, an initial negative valuation remains unresolved. However, you hope for a positive future. For example, one individual described a three- part plan to (1) investigate an alternative career in consulting, (2) determine whether consulting with “increasing sales targets and slaving to make partner” really made sense, and (3) establish “what I really want to do when I grow up.”

Virtue discovery: Here, there is a progressive sequence where an initial negative assessment becomes positive, and you achieve closure. For example, one individual had to lay off staff for the first time, and reported that the burden of doing so was hard to bear. However, an initially distressing experience was soon seen as an exercise in personal survival and an investment in the future health of the employing firm.

The underlying message is that you need to be able to see some virtue stemming from your downfall, if you are going to progress to a more positive interpretation of your experience.

Featured image credit: “thought-idea-innovation-imagination” by TeroVesalaainen. CCO via Pixabay.

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