By Angela Lane
I'm asked for career advice often. It comes with the territory.
The most challenging cases don't involve the micromanaging boss, the dead-end job or the employee passed over for promotion. The most complex and saddening involves employees when they feel they have to choose between their career and other important, personal considerations.
"How many times is it ok to say no to being relocated?"
"Will I be passed over for promotion if I ask to work four days a week?"
"I love my job. Why is it so bad to want to stay in this role for now?"
If only I had a dollar for each of these.
The dilemma usually stems from commitment: personal commitment, something I owe to myself, or a commitment to others. Both bring obligations that we consider placing ahead of our career. For many of us, our responsibilities can happily coexist with our career goals. For others, these commitments create potential limitations to the pursuit of our dreams. Here are three real-life examples, which may resonate with you as you reflect on your own career choices (all names changed):
Carl is divorced. His wife has custody of their children (8 and 11 years old). He is allowed to have them over for the weekends but cannot travel with them internationally. He is offered a promotion requiring relocation to a country on a different continent.
Olga is a successful executive in a plum corporate job. She supports her brother and his family, who are in financial trouble and cannot provide for themselves. A friend invites her to launch a promising start-up, but it means leaving her current role and, for the foreseeable future, there is no guaranteed income.
Mark's partner is offered a significant promotion in a different city. Commuting is an option, but it will put a strain on their relationship, and just as they'd decided to adopt a baby.
Myra's health is poor. She is frequently in pain. She hasn't told her colleagues and never takes time off. She doesn't think it is good for her career, which has accelerated rapidly in the last few years. She considered "VP material". A new surgical procedure can make all the difference to her health. But she'd have a six-month recovery, during which she couldn't work from the office.
Trade-offs are always challenging, and further complicated by the emotions which surround our decision. The fear of missing out on opportunities, especially while peers accelerate, is disheartening to the ambitious. While the fear of letting others down also feels unacceptable. We panic in response to the lack of agency we feel when our commitments restrict our choices. To some, the tension between competing priorities becomes overwhelming.
Our anxiety is compounded by self-imposed "now or never" thinking, and often my role is to coach others through these emotions. Because there is a time when the right thing to do is slow down. And there are times when, despite other challenges, you should push on.
For more than a decade, I have used a technique to help coachees think about their career as "the long game", using a simple tool that helps base career decisions on strategy rather than fear.
It's Rarely "Now or Never". It's Now or Later
With pre-school children, aging parents and a spouse pursuing a start-up, it isn't a lack of drive or commitment that might see me dedicate my energy to simply developing in today's role. Instead, it is an intelligent strategy when comparing it to my likely circumstances in two to three years, when the children are at school, the business stabilized, and my partner better able to support my career. Knowing that I can breathe easier, focus on doing what I do today and (this is key) without the sense of regret at having let an opportunity go. I wasn't compromising. I am playing the long game.
Some conditions don't change, at least not for the foreseeable future. That's ok. Identifying that helps us focus on managing the timing of those things we control.
So, shall we do this exercise together?
For each statement in the table, respond "yes" or "no" as it relates to now when compared to, for example, five years from now or more. The goal is to (literally) layout the commitments that seem so overwhelming and view them through the perspective of "time".
Simply adding up the number of yes's in each column helps us see how our future might be more, or less, conducive to accelerating my efforts to build my career. I have given the exercise to colleagues who have realized there isn't a more favourable time to expedite their efforts than now. For them, to delay and defer will only make decisions harder in the future. I commonly see those, earlier in their career, feeling immense pressure to progress and learning that they can temper their ambition now, in favor of waiting until their life circumstances provide less of a headwind. I've seen coachees that ultimately ignore the analysis and go with their gut. That's ok. By thinking it through, they have quietened the noise. They created space to think about all the things that matter.
I give this to coachees as a private exercise, not necessarily one to share with me. Many do. Sometimes we add topics to the table. Some issues aren't relevant. Sometimes we give issues a weighting or even rank them. The tool is a long way from being precise or scientific. It is, however, entirely practical. Driven individuals don't need it, but it can offer a path forward for those conflicted by competing commitments.
Why It Works
Using this tool, I have seen moments of deep insight or discovery. The act of engaging our analytic selves in processing each scenario and assessing our circumstances over time means we are now problem-solving. In doing so, we pause two key emotional processes: social comparison and loss aversion. Instead of comparing ourselves with others or what we think we should achieve, we compare ourselves with ourselves over time and put our career, including lost opportunities, into perspective.
I believe that each of us can define our own "career success". Based on my situation, values, and motivations, I can consciously decide to speed up or slow down. And remembering that I have time empowers me to let the reality of my circumstances dictate the pace. After all, It is my career. My life. Play the long game.
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed here are the authors' and don't represent the opinions of any other organization or institution.