I started planning my career in 2008. This is what I’ve learned.

I started planning my career in 2008. This took a lot of reading and a lot of reaching out to experts in their field. It took a lot of thinking and a lot of introspection. Between 2010 and 2017, I was actually dedicating several hours per week to my career planning and career research. As of 2020, I still spend a full day every 3 months to update my plan. I do that in light of what I have learned over the previous quarter, how the environment has evolved and the changes I have implemented.

I’ve found every hour I spent on career planning extremely valuable. I am currently in a career situation that fits my plan and goal the best. I know my next steps and what factors would make me decide to switch to another career situation. The recent crisis has thrown many people’s ambitions in limbo all of a sudden. I wanted to share what I have learned if this can help them land on their feet.

Career planning enables you to take back control.

8 lessons from planning my career

So here we go, a couple of lessons from these 13 years of research & reflection:

  1. Career planning is life planning

    Let’s be honest – there is no magic trick for work life balance. I have yet to meet someone who has managed to fit a perfect family life with a perfect professional situation. For human beings bound to 24 hours per day for a finite number of days, most of your decisions will be about allocating your time to sleep, health, family, career, hobbies, relaxation, and the myriad of other activities that make your life so rich. The key is to consciously make the choices needed to be satisfied in both, not to expect perfection in both.

    I found these conscious choices for life planning arise naturally if you are deliberate about career planning.

  2. Your career is uncertain…

    I doubt many career planning enthusiasts had factored the 2020 labor market (or lack thereof) in their plans. But even without a pandemic, uncertainty is everywhere. Your dorm mate might start a business next door and need your native-speaker English skills. The public sector job you eyed might be overhauled by the incoming government. Your town might seek young representatives for local politics. You might fail that entry test.

    This type of uncertainty means you must be smart and quick on your feet. Develop a skillset beyond what is taught at school and at university. Get to know people and engage in projects that collectively provide you with a diversified experience. Save money to be more flexible for next recession. Keep doors open. So don’t think that uncertainty is any excuse to abandon planning – uncertainty does not mean pure randomness. Uncertainty means that there are risks to avoid and opportunities to seize. Planning for these is crucial.

  3. …but don’t settle for the norm cage.

    There is a perception that the norm is safer. If it has been working like this for the past 2 generations, it sounds like a safe bet. Even if that was true (and there are indications it isn’t), safety is not especially what you should seek. I have explored the career paths of literally hundreds of my acquaintances (that’s for another post …). The selection is biased towards acquaintances being born between 1990 and 1995. A scary result from that informal survey is that there is a form of “destiny” at play.

    Those who went with the flow, were not concerned about their careers or did what career counselors recommended based on their grades seem to often have more common roles. Most have one or at most two past employer(s) on their LinkedIn and longer tenure. In the current environment, this is job safety! But if 5 years later they notice this is not meaningful to them anymore, safety feels like a trap. And to be sure a “normal job” can be satisfying and meaningful all life long and won’t feel like a cage – if that job is selected deliberately, after careful planning so that every morning you know why you go to work.

    On the other hand, there are a few who seem to have embraced uncertainty – they have multiple internships, side projects and short-term contracts before settling longer ones. They tend to invest time into their LinkedIn profile, not surprisingly, and they are proactive. They often have less common job titles such as “Human Rights lawyer”, “Tropical disease specialist”, “Rocket engineer”, “Non-profits growth consultant”, … This for sure is a risky career path – demand for these roles is much smaller than for, say, lawyer, doctors, engineers and consultants. If they don’t excel in their narrow niche, they are unlikely to get the gigs they need and that is quite a lot of pressure. It takes some grit, but the risk comes with greater payoffs – despite the short-term uncertainty, they master their “destiny”.

  4. The outcome of career planning is a way of thinking

    Sure, you’ll come up with a career plan too. Then another. And a couple of years later, yet another. And so on. This is due to the uncertainty mentioned above. Consider career planning as a dynamic process, where your plan is just a temporary framework for your thought process. The true benefit of career planning is to develop a way of thinking about your life as something you can influence, despite the uncertainties. Career planning enables you to take back control – over your life, over your time and over your impact on this world.

  5. A career is not a series of job titles

    Even if you average a solid 50 hours per week on your job, you still have an additional 118 hours per week to dedicate to something else than your shiny job title. Think of all the things you can do with that time. All the side-projects, the things you can learn, the time you can spend with loved ones, … which all shape your life. Your career is an accumulated skillset, a great group of current and former colleagues, personal and professional achievements, an impact on the world, a series of objectives or a context.

    It is a tool to help you get closer to the life you wish to have. Don’t express your goal as “Being Manager at X”, because “Manager at X” can mean anything from “reliable family-oriented colleague with 3 lovely children” to “workaholic ‘intrapreneur’ sitting on 2 non-profit boards”. So, do dedicate some time to finding a job that serves your greater purpose, but don’t exclude all the other factors from your planning.

  6. Set up multiple pathways

    Prior to my first exposure to the job market, I always thought of career planning as finding the series of jobs that’d most likely lead me to my dream end-of-life situation. When I started receiving so many slaps in the face in the form of so many rejected applications, I woke up to the reality of job market uncertainty. You not only need a plan B, but a whole new alphabet of plans. You never know that a tréma in the name of your resume file lead to automatic rejection by your target company’s ATS, or that you actually are terrible at what you initially intended to do.

    It’s therefore good to have a map more than a single path. Career planning should be about understanding the alternative options, how these options relate to each other, how you can position yourself to be able to remain competitive for multiple pathways, etc. This takes time. Even though I have worked on my own career plan more hours than anyone I know, I still have blind spots about career environments I have not explored.

    But at least I have a good idea of my immediate career environment, a decent idea of the career situation I’d like to end up in, and a decent idea of many pathways to connect both. This has been useful after Brexit, after the organization where I had a full-time offer closed shop, and of course when a pandemic put my business on its knees. So do your homework, generate at least 3 pathways for your goal, and then research them thoroughly.

  7. Update the plan regularly

    The world changes. The daily news don’t capture the bigger swings that well. Take the time to learn about your career environment, how it evolves and how that affects your life & career goals. For several years, one of my pathways for impact was to join a UN agency. I had totally ignored trends towards desuetude of global-scale multilateralism. It took me being told by the news that multilateralism will suffer from Trump’s policies for me to start digging deeper and updating that pathway’s relevance. I wasted valuable time positioning myself for a pathway I could have crossed out early on.

    You can avoid wasting time by identifying what assumptions you are making in your career plan and what are the main factors that would affect whatever your define as “success”. Then, regularly question these assumptions and check these factors. For example, if you want to save enough for your kid to go to college without borrowing money, should you just believe your employer saying they provide the best compensation packages in the industry or should you dedicate some time figuring it out for yourself? Updating sometimes feels useless because nothing changes. But for that one time where an update will lead you to a radically different career decision, all the “stay-on-course” updates are very well worth it.

  8. Talk with insiders

    Contrary to common wisdom, not everything is written down. In particular, some companies or industries’ dirty little secrets can only be revealed verbally by insiders over a friendly chat, from the sadly common sexual harassment culture to the non-diversified client portfolio with the more worrisome business models based on conflict of interests. These bits of knowledge are particularly valuable as a) they might significantly affect the value of a job offer to you and b) you would otherwise not know about it until way after you sign the contract.

    Whenever you are considering some pathways seriously, make sure to seize every opportunity to talk with people in the roles you seek. They are a good proxy of how you will be after engaging yourself in that path. One of the most valuable lessons for me was a brief chat with a former UN special representative to a specific conflict zone. His surprising answer to “What’s the best career path to help build peace?” helped me significantly revise my plan.

career planning is a road to the top
Picture by Jean-Pierre Brungs.

Passing them on

By the time I finished high school, several classmates had already asked me for advice. What higher education trajectories is the best? What to do of my sabbatical year (quite common in my native Belgium)? During my undergrad, I was increasingly perceived as the guy with a plan. I often helped others with their courses back then. But these sessions often turned into me providing career counseling services.

This has only intensified in grad school and during my professional life. Several acquaintances and even strangers reach out every month with their questions on career planning. Life planning, where to apply in priority, cover letter writing, productivity tips, tactics… I have cherished all these conversations. 18 year-old, mid-career professionals, and even a retiree, … They exposed me to a broad diversity of life objectives, pathways, and skillsets. They sometimes enabled me to form new friendships.

Time is scarce for everyone though and more and more reach out. I hope I can better help by publishing these 8 lessons – so that we can focus on the specifics of your situation when we next talk √