My Career Has Been Anything But Linear


I’ve been doing a lot of work in the field of complexity recently. I wrote about it in this blog. The deeper I get into the topic, the more I see it popping up around me. In fact, it came up in a conversation with a client on Friday. This time the context was very different.

Before I talk about that conversation, here’s a quick recap about complexity and why it is important. Complex environments and situations are very unpredictable. This is a factor of the large number of diverse variables and their interdependence. Put simply, there are a lot of moving parts that are linked together. This makes the outcomes hard to predict. Human nature orients us towards linear thinking. This led to that, and so on. If something happened once, we tend to believe it will happen again.

Complex systems are unpredictable

In complex systems this doesn’t hold true. If something happened in the past, it is unlikely it will happen in the same way going forward. As mentioned above, complex systems are hard to predict. In my earlier blog, I talked about the need for a specific style of management and leadership, called Adaptive Leadership. I won’t go over that again here, instead let’s get back to the conversation with my client.

We were talking about career planning. And then it hit me. We were thinking linearly. If I do X, Y and Z, they will lead me to my goal. As if there is a nice neat plan for the road ahead. I reflected on my own journey in the past two years. It has been anything but linear. Conversations have led to very unpredictable outcomes. Several have been very valuable, even game changing. Others that I was very excited about came to nothing. I am happy with my progress, but the path to get here has been very different to what I expected.

Career planning is complex

So what has this got to do with complexity? Our career path is complex. It is highly variable and unpredictable. One reason for this is it involves human beings, and each of us is complex. My own path bears this out. There is no way I could have accurately predicted my past two years. Given this, I have changed my view on career planning. We need to take account of best practices when dealing with complexity:

1. Set directional goals. Getting too prescriptive is pointless because you can’t predict the future accurately. A directional goal is important, without it you will drift.
2. Set some boundaries about what you will and will not do. This narrows down the scope and simplifies the situation.
3. Experiment. Try things out and be willing to fail fast. Failing equals learning, and your goal is to learn as quickly as possible. An experiment might be offering to help in a new area of your company. It could be a part-time or volunteer job.
4. Reflect on your experience and what you are learning. What is the next experiment?
5. Be curious, increase your breadth of learning. Engage learning buddies as I discussed in my last post.

Treating your career as a complex system or situation will also help you change your mindset. Linear thinking leads to disappointment when things don’t turn out as planned. When you realize you are dealing with complexity, it becomes part of the territory.

How are you treating your career?

Have you been treating your career as a linear progression? Are you worried about taking the next step because of how it might turn out? Reflect back on how you got here, could you have predicted that? The same is true of our future, it is time to think and act differently.