Most professionals are familiar with the concept of a career map. But between the ups and downs of the economy and the twists and turns of a decades-long career, a conventional map can sometimes serve as little more than wishful thinking. It can also prevent you from recognizing — and seizing — unexpected opportunities along the way.
That’s why you might want to consider a career compass instead.
What’s the difference? A traditional career map serves as an outline of what you hope your professional life to be months, years or even decades down the road. It guides you from point A to points B, C, D and so on.
But a career map can be rigid. There’s no accounting for the unexpected. What happens if you want to re-evaluate your career at point C, for example? Or you’re poised at point F, only to realize it’s no longer a feasible option? Your map suddenly becomes useless.
In contrast, a career compass orients you so that no matter where circumstances take you, you can point yourself in a rewarding direction. A career compass is a more flexible way of approaching your career. It gives you a better chance of arriving at a fulfilling point X, even if you currently have no idea what point X actually is. A strong compass can also help you enjoy your journey, even when it takes you through scary or unfamiliar territory.
May the forks be with you
Some career decisions are straightforward, and for those, you hardly even need a map. But for tougher decisions — such as whether to stay with your current employer or join a hot new startup or to accept a dream job with a daunting commute — you’ll need a rock-solid sense of your professional priorities. That’s where a compass comes in.
To create a compass you can consult when you reach a crossroads, you’ll need to develop a clear sense of what you do and don’t want out of work. Start by considering how you’d respond (or have already responded) to questions such as the following:
Independence vs. teamwork — Are you happiest when you’re left alone to identify and execute your own initiatives, or when working closely with colleagues toward a common goal?
Action vs. serenity — Do you thrive in demanding, fast-paced, unpredictable environments or prefer a calmer workplace? After a day’s work, would you rather arrive home feeling exhausted but satisfied, or relaxed and ready to enjoy the evening?
Big company vs. small company — Do you prefer the excitement and intimacy of a startup or the stability and security that larger companies tend to offer?
Also consider dilemmas that might force you to choose between two equally attractive options. These can help you identify priorities and tendencies you may not be fully conscious of. For example:
Opportunity vs. security — Would you rather hold a position that offers little security but vast possibilities for development and advancement, or a steadier job with narrower prospects?
Career vs. personal life — Which sounds more frustrating: shortening a vacation to rescue a work project or missing a deadline in order to fulfill a personal obligation?
Money vs. passion — Which would you choose: a less-than-thrilling job with a generous and steadily rising compensation package, or work that gives you a strong sense of purpose but doesn’t pay as well as you’d like?
Don’t limit yourself to the examples here. Other useful questions might cover topics such as managing others, benefits, relationships with colleagues, the type of boss you work best under and more. If you have trouble creating relevant questions for yourself, ask a friend or mentor for assistance.
Forcing yourself to make these choices might feel harsh or arbitrary, but it can help you triangulate your true intentions. By contrast, a career plan based on an idealized dream job isn’t likely to help you navigate the tradeoffs and compromises real careers entail.
Recalibrating your true north
The most important part of setting your career compass is to examine your priorities regularly and revise them as necessary. The more outdated they become, the more likely you’ll be to keep marching in a direction that no longer serves you or to miss a turn that might have led you down an unanticipated and richly rewarding path.
Robert Half International is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 400 staffing and consulting locations worldwide. For more information about our professional services, visit www.roberthalf.com. For additional career advice, view our career bloopers video series at www.roberthalf.com/bloopers or follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/roberthalf.