Entry-level employees these days seem to think their career paths should be laid out like a blueprint. Earn the right college degrees, get the right jobs, and one thing will follow another until they reach their goal.
But I believe there is no such thing as an ideal path. The blueprint for success is personal and unique to each person. You’re the only one who can discover your passions and talents by using your intuition and by being curious and reflective. And when you add a few key role models to inspire your blueprint, your path will lead not only to a good career but a good life.
It’s easy to focus on significant milestones like salaries and promotions as benchmarks for career success and progress, but there are other ways to mark the richness and prosperity of a career. Here are some ideas on how:
Find your mentors
One of the best ways to keep things in perspective is to have a number of people who inspire or mentor you. Not only can they impart wisdom, but they can also illuminate how many different paths there are. I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors who inspired me, but two, in particular, have impacted my blueprint.
Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught, USAFR (Ret.) was an officer I met early in my career, and the first woman to deploy with an Air Force bomber unit, and the first woman to reach the rank of brigadier general from the comptroller (finance). At the time, it felt like 98% of the Air Force generals were ex-pilots and men. But she was a one-star general and, like me, had made a career in finance.
When I was not in uniform, everyone assumed I was either a nurse or someone’s wife. Women were not allowed to perform roles classified as combatant, including most pilot roles. When there were so few women officers, I was astounded to see her in the top ranks, and she inspired me to reach beyond the limitations we saw.
Kathy Delaney-Smith, my basketball coach at Harvard, also left a huge imprint on my leadership style. She took a losing program, and within my four years, she turned us into a championship team. She is still there, and has led the team to more wins than any coach in Ivy League basketball, of men or women. One of the beliefs she instilled in me was based a piece of famous advice by John Wooden–the prominent UCLA basketball coach. He famously insisted that players start their careers with him by learning to tie their shoelaces properly. If you want to insist on high standards, you need to begin with the basics.
Kathy also taught us not to use “weasel words.” With her, you could never say “can’t,” and you couldn’t say “try.” If you said any of those weasel words, you had to run sprints. That’s the attitude I approach at Bulletproof today. We focus on using phrases like “I want,” “I will,” and “We’re doing it.”
The thing is, weasel words can create mental permission to concede, give in, rather than to find the personal resolve to solve the problem at hand. Those who are starting out in their career might find that the comfort of using these weasel words can creep into their professional outlook and work product.
Quit comparing yourself to your peers
A career is not a competition–it’s your life. You don’t win or beat anyone else, and the only competition you need to have is with yourself. You need to ask what you want to do with your life. What are the key elements that matter in your next role? Five years out? What’s motivating and satisfying for you? What does your head say? Your heart? Are you thriving or surviving? What does success look like to you?
When you are honest with yourself about what you want in the long term, you’ll find it easier to stop what I call pacing. It’s tempting to look at somebody who got a promotion when you didn’t and think you are falling behind, but reminding yourself that they’re on a completely different journey to you can help put things in perspective.
I remember a while back, a mid-level manager on my team asked me why her peer was being promoted to the Director level, while she remained a manager. Today, she is a senior executive who, over time, rose far above her then peers. Too often people aspire to is to succeed in badge value, because they think it reflects success in life. This cycle will leave you unsatisfied, because once you’ve ticked off one box, you’ll want to tick another. If you want to be fulfilled in life, you need to measure your success by how much you’re contributing and learning.
In today’s day and age, it’s far too easy judge your success based on what your peers are doing. But don’t fall into that trap, because that’s not a great way to succeed in the long term. The best blueprint of all is one that is as unique as you are, fuels your passions, and fits your whole life, (personal and professional). While it’s human to look left and right, keep your eyes on your own path.
Anna Collins, President & COO of Bulletproof 360, Inc., is responsible for the strategy, operations and omni-channel growth of the company.