Building a Career

Building Blocks For the purposes of this section, we're going to assume that you've found a first job, or are not worried about securing one. (If you can't find one or aren't confident that you can, this or this would make a better place to start. Now let's talk 'career planning.'

What It Means

If you've never heard of it, 'career planning' is the idea that you can map out your work future by figuring out what your strengths are and how to use those strengths to work towards your long-term goals. Of course, your goals will change over time, and your strengths can change too, so the 'planning' part of 'career planning' is kind of incorrect — this is not about laying out a set-in-stone 'plan' you can't deviate from. Rather, the point here is to be aware of your own goals and what you're good at, so that you can know whether each new career step is a good fit.

That can be a lot to chew on when you're just starting out, so let's start with a scenario. When you finally land that very exciting first job, one of four things can happen:
    1. You love your job, and you know you could stay in it forever. Good environment, it's stable, you make enough money, you like your coworkers and you like the work and opportunities available to you.
    2. You love your job, but you know that you'll have to find something else to replace or supplement it eventually. This could be because it doesn't come with enough money or benefits, because it requires you to move too often (or because you want to move away), because it's too seasonal, requires too much physical effort, or many other reasons.
    3. You don't like your job, but you know you'll eventually leave it anyway. (Refer back to #2 for sample 'have to leave' reasons).
    4. You don't like your job, but it provides a solid living. And, usually, you're afraid you couldn't find any better situation for yourself.
So here's the question: out of those four scenarios, which ones require career planning? ANSWER: #3 and #2 right out of the gate, because you already know you'll have to plan at least one more next step. #4, because career planning is all about finding the ways to opening yourself up to those better opportunities. And all may be well in the world with #1, but what if you love your job but your employer doesn't feel quite so strongly about you? Or what if your place of business starts struggling financially? What if new circumstances make the job worse, or your personal situation or goals becomes so different that you need to look for something else entirely? #1 may not require planning, but there's really no job so secure and so perfect that a little thinking ahead can't come in handy.

How It Works

Career planning works the same for everyone, with some extra steps thrown on for those actively planning to seek other employment.

STEP 1. Start with the job you have, and be awesome at it to the best of your ability. Doesn't matter how crummy the position is or how 'above' that sort of work you are. You will never harm yourself by doing a good job, and by really trying to do well you are far more likely to pull all the benefits you can out of your job. (Benefits could include learning useful skills, earning good recommendations from your current boss or coworkers, getting more money, opening up unexpected promotion or transfer opportunities, etc.) Meanwhile, the best you can hope for you if you slack off is that no one will be mad enough to complain about you to future employers. STEP 2. Be building a network. Having connections is often still an important part of getting a job, even if it's just a cousin who knows somebody in the industry or an acquaintance who can put in a good word for you. And while 'networking' to get ahead can seem like a depressing idea (or downright terrifying for the shy), it can also be as simple as trying to be kind and helpful, so that you become the sort of person other people want to help. You don't have to fake being best friends with everyone, you just have to be friendly enough that most people's memories of interacting with you will be positive. Note: there is one time when networking should always be thrown into overdrive, and that is when you are trying to get a new job. Here again, though, it's not about faking best-friendship with important people; it's much more about just letting everyone you know know you're looking, so that they can lend a hand in finding some opportunities for you and can help you get your foot in the door. You may be surprised at the number of people who not only want you to succeed but will put in a little effort on your behalf to make that happen. STEP 3. Identify what's not satisfying about your job, and come up with goals to fix that. This is an idea that can be applied at many different levels. For instance, if what you don't like is your job's basic hours or environment, that's a pretty extreme level of dissatisfaction, and your goal will either be to get a different position at your company/organization or to find a different job entirely. OR, you might really like your job but just wish you had more say in how the business was run, or a reasonable raise; those are things that you can perhaps discuss with your boss or work to earn. In the end, it will almost always come down to three alternatives: 1) the dissatisfying part of your job can't be helped but is not a big deal, 2) there are things you could try to make yourself happier with your current employer, or 3) it's time to find a new place to work. Just make sure you don't go straight to (3) if you could work through (2) or (1) first — and on the flipside, don't let yourself be miserable at a job when what you need is to be searching for a new one. STEP 4. Push yourself to do more, and attack your weaknesses. This step can tie into Step 3, and really ties into Step 1, but 'pushing yourself' has a lot more to do with creating whole new opportunities by making yourself more knowledge, more adaptable, more valuable. 'Push yourself' means: Always be learning. Learn from other people, learn on your own. Be curious about all aspects of the business you work for if you want a long-term future there. If opportunities for further education or certification come up, try to take advantage of them. Make yourself more awesome at your current job, or work on skills that could be applied to a new one. Try to pick up different kinds of skills, so you become well-rounded and more useful in lots of different types of situations. 'Attack your weaknesses' means: Figure out which skill sets you're least confident about, and work at them until they don't feel like such sore points. For instance, feel like an idiot when you have to make a presentation in front of a group of people? You can work on your public speaking by reading up on tips, taking a class, or practicing on your own. Still not sure how to run a certain piece of equipment? Bite the bullet and ask for someone to go over it with you again (take notes!). People are fairly tolerant of someone who is clearly trying to improve, but much less tolerant of someone who wrecks something they should have known better about. STEP 5. Keep an updated resume/CV at all times. The idea here is to keep a running list of all your jobs, education, accomplishments and recognition. It's very easy to remember to remember them as they happen, much more difficult to remember months or years after the fact. The point: If you ever need to start up a job search, you have an easy record of all your best points to pull from as you create a tailored resume for each job opening. And if you're already at a job you like, this is both material you can use to back up any requests for promotion/raises, as well as a safety net should you ever lose your job unexpectedly. If you're not actively job searching, your list of qualifications/accomplishments can be pretty informal. If you'd like to create a more structured, professional resume, a full section on making one can be found here.

Finding Fulfillment

The above steps are meant to help you have concrete things you can do at any time to improve your career prospects. But, as we said at the beginning at this page, most of 'career planning' is about having goals and then finding jobs that bring you closer to them. So, to really get the most out of your work, start with finding your goals. Once you have a better idea of what they are, you can work on finding jobs that both line up with those goals and play to your own strengths. (For instance, you might want a job that helps the environment, but a job as a fundraiser might make you miserable while working directly with animals as a conservationist might be a great match.) If, at the end of your day, you just want to make a good living and be comfortable, you can try looking at our tips for finding jobs that fit your personality. It is 100% okay if you get more satisfaction out of your family, home or hobbies than you do out of your work — but that doesn't mean your job has to feel like a punishment! If you want a career to be passionate about, keep in mind that job satisfaction comes down to three things: legacy, mastery, and freedom, in that order. In other words, the people who are most happy with their work first find work that gives them a sense of purpose (legacy), then they develop the skills they need to support that purpose (mastery), and finally they rise to a level where they can choose what projects they work on and who they work with, where they are compensated enough to live as they want. So keep in mind that if you just find a place to work that motivates you, rather than exhausts, you're already off to a great start — keeping in mind, of course, that what motivates you doesn't have to be something as big as 'end war' or 'save the planet'. You can simply want to feel like you're helping people, creating something worthwhile, or making the world a slightly brighter place to be. The jobs that can make you feel that way are out there, so just keep reaching until you find one.
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