It’s graduation season, and many people are thinking extra hard (perhaps feeling extra uncertain) about their careers. I’ve been thinking about career paths a lot lately, especially for scientists and Ph.D.s, and I’d like to share some recent thoughts. (The original thread of tweets that inspired this post starts here.)
There is a myth that we tell ourselves about careers—the idea that a career should follow a linear trajectory from start to finish. It’s easy to see how the myth is propagated. We start in grade school and work our way up one year at a time, with a clear outline of how to get from kindergarten to high school. Those who go to college and graduate school might appear to be on this linear path for more than 20 years.
The idea of a linear path is reinforced when people give us career advice by describing the steps that they took (education, first job, promotion, and so on) to reach their current position. These stories imply that if we want to attain their status, we should follow their path. I have a vivid mental image of this myth we’ve created, in which each career endpoint (doctor, lawyer, professor, etc.) sits at the top of a shining tower. Each person must start at the bottom and choose a particular tower, and then we all set off trying to climb as high as we can.
In the tower myth, if I begin training for a particular career and later change my goal, I am essentially jumping off the tower I’ve been climbing and choosing another one. I consider my earlier training period to be time wasted, since I am starting over at the bottom of the new tower. I might hope to move more quickly up this tower, since I am an experienced climber, but I am also competing with a younger and more energetic crowd of newcomers. I begin to doubt myself and my abilities, and I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better off continuing to struggle up that same old tower.
It’s a simple and seductive way to see the world. It’s also completely wrong.
A better myth
In reality, there are no towers with obvious steps leading to predictable goals. Each person has a unique set of skills, interests and life experiences that determine what goals they set for themselves and what path they choose to take. I propose a different career metaphor: the rock climbing wall.
In case you’ve never done rock climbing, here’s how it works. You start at the bottom and choose a set of handholds that are accessible to you, and you start climbing. The route that you take on the wall depends on your size, strength, flexibility and many other factors. There is no right or wrong way of going up the wall.
Better yet, you don’t even have to go up the wall. The best paths often require going sideways. At some point, you will probably need to rest in place for a while and reassess your plan. You take one step at a time, and you can easily end up at a completely different place than your original target. And if you discover that the only holds within reach are below you, then you go back down for a bit. Going down the wall does not mean you have failed—it is in fact the only way to succeed.
A person reflecting on their climb might only mention a few key steps that they took on their way to the top. They don’t usually talk about the long detours, or the times they almost fell. Maybe those people are afraid they will appear weaker and less heroic by talking about their missteps. Personally, I would much rather hear about a person’s tortuous path. When I see the twists and turns that others have taken, I am inspired to think creatively about my own career and where it might go.
But is it fair?
There is one aspect to the rock climbing metaphor that bothers me, so I present it with this caveat. In rock climbing, a person on the ground can easily look at the wall and select a good starting point. This implies that another person might choose to start in the same place, in which case their relative success will be determined by their relative skill or how hard they tried.
Unfortunately, the real world does not work that way. Some groups of people benefit from social privilege, and they are able to travel through life with the advantages that come from being white, or male, or able-bodied, for example. Two people of identical talent may put in identical effort toward a goal and get very different outcomes, if one of them must struggle for resources that are given freely to the other.
So I’ll make an additional rule for our metaphorical rock climbing wall: you don’t get to decide where you start. Some people have access to an easier path than others; the system is inherently unfair. Because of this inequality, we should at least put a soft mat on the floor to protect anyone who falls off the wall (hint: social welfare).
I’ll stop there to avoid stretching the metaphor too far. If the rock climbing analogy is helpful to you, I hope you’ll share it with your friends and colleagues. And next time you feel anxiety over your career path, just imagine that you are on a rock wall (or maybe take up actual rock climbing!) and try to see the beauty of a world where everyone takes their own individual path.