It can often feel like time has accelerated and your career is running on autopilot. Whether you’re going back to the classroom or not, the end of summer and the start of the school year are a good time to take a step back, consider where you are, where you want to go, and how exactly you can go about getting there.
Maps are reassuring. They tell us where to go next and show us the path we can expect to take in getting there. If only career planning was so simple. But unexpected changes and opportunities are continuously popping up to throw us off course. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t work to create a different kind of career map that helps you feel like you’re heading in the right direction.
Fast Company spoke with John Addison, head of John Addison Leadership, and former co-CEO of financial services distribution company Primerica about how to build a map for the future that actually works.
It’s far too easy to become cynical on the job. When disappointments happen, as they’re bound to, we can feel discouraged or stuck. But making a plan to work on yourself and your own skills can give you the agency and energy to feel empowered, even when things in the workplace aren’t going your way. “If you ever think you know enough, you’re wrong,” says Addison. “The biggest map you’ve got to have is a map of personal improvement.”
That means finding ways to work self-improvement into your daily schedule–-reading the kinds of books that inspire you and broaden your thinking on a daily basis, making time to set goals for each day and week, and becoming more conscious of how you spend your idle time. “The most important thing is to protect what goes on between your ears. You can’t control your boss; you can’t control your coworkers. You can only control you, and how you react and think,” says Addison.
A career map doesn’t have to be a tangible object. After all, you can’t use GPS to get to the next point in your career path. But if you’re not mired in the day-to-day putting out of fires at work, then you might be feeling paralyzed by the thought of thinking far into your future. Being strategic about mapping and executing the next steps in your career is about finding a happy medium between the two. “Too many people focus too far down their career,” says Addison.
If you want to move into a managerial role, for example, that means finding small ways to take on managerial responsibilities in the short term to gradually build your experience. If you want to go in a totally different direction, that might mean taking a class outside of work to start building your skills in another area. Dedicate a set amount of time to personal projects, setting short-term goals for those projects for each day and week, rather than looking far ahead to what can seem like an unattainable end. “This is less about where you’re going to be in 10 years,” says Addison. “You’ve got to look at that next step in the path and focus on it, not focus on the next five steps down the road.”
Working on yourself doesn’t mean trying to tackle all your weaknesses in your work life. In fact, as you think about mapping your course, Addison suggests focusing instead on your strengths, and then making yourself even better at those specific skills. “I can work every day on getting better at basketball, but I will never be Michael Jordan. The best you will ever be at a weakness is mediocre,” says Addison. “If you find what you’re good at without trying and you go try your tail off, you’ll be great.”
The importance of building relationships with people who want to see you get ahead can’t be underestimated. Mapping your career is as much about identifying the people who can help you get ahead as it is about building on your strongest skills. “Nobody does it by themselves,” says Addison. “You’re not going to chart your own path by yourself. You’ve got to have help.”
Are there mentors you can turn to for advice? Who has the kind of life and career you’d want down the line? Those are the people you want to get to know and build relationships with, not because they’ll help you get ahead, but because they can help make that map of how to get to the next step become less of a mystery. “Figure out who the people are that can help you get to where you want to go,” says Addison.
If you want to build more creativity into your work life, take steps to make that happen today. Set aside a half hour to list the projects you’d most want to be working on, or the skills you most want to strengthen and develop. Most importantly, brainstorm specific, actionable things you can do to start moving forward on those goals. Is there a book you can read? A project you can take on? A potential mentor you can invite out for coffee?
Simple as these steps may seem, they’re the foundation for your career map. It’s not about creating a grand plan and executing on those steps. It’s about finding small ways each day to focus more on what matters most to you.