The seven [career] stages of man

I’ve been employing young people for well over a decade now, and have started noticing some patterns. In fact, I think I’ve spotted something of a career – or at least a job – lifecycle. It’s a path most (though not all) seem to take, although rarely consciously. And it seems to breed discontentment. So in the interests of worker enlightenment, here they are: the seven [career] stages of man/woman.


1) Enthusiasm. Wide-eyed but essentially useless, we’re overly eager to establish our credentials: staying late, undertaking grunt work with gusto, absorbing all the information we can from whomever. At this point we’re at our keenest and least cynical. Yet we’re also at our most vulnerable – making us potential recruits for what I call the “moaning canteen gang”. Yet we can usually navigate these ne’r do wells: not least because, with one foot on the ladder, we’re bursting with pride and energy,
2) Competence. Get enthusiasm right and, soon enough, we’re on top of the job. We’ve gained competence, yet remain hungry – perhaps for more interesting work. We’re useful but still impressionable: making those above us in the hierarchy at their most appreciative (partly because we’re not yet rivals), although colleagues that never managed the first base (enthusiasm) may already be regarding us disdainfully. It’s here where we also offer our strongest value for employers, because we can do the work while remaining inexpensive – though not for long….
3) Excellence. In terms of productivity, we’re now at our peak. We’ve mastered the work and can take complex demands in our stride. We’ve found what Daniel Goleman calls “flow”: a sweet-spot task efficiency that generates almost unthinking brilliance in execution. Knowing we’re worth it, we can also command high wages, as well become picky about the work we undertake. Indeed, if only we could stop here (and be properly rewarded for it), we’d probably stay happy. But, too quickly, we’re moved on – towards….
4) Authority. Our skills are recognized and valued. But there are youngsters to train and empires to build. So we become a manager: an entirely new skill in which we have zero experience and for which we (usually) have no training. Nonetheless, we have the satisfaction of commanding others, which is – perhaps perversely – also better paid. That said, already gaining traction is the nagging thought we were happier – and more valued – when executing at the Excellence stage,
5) Frustration. Sure as eggs is eggs, the joys of authority wanes. Office politics creeps in, which is time-consuming and mentally draining. Ideas are blocked for the wrong reasons (we think) and people promoted we dislike/disrespect/fear. We’re also constantly running around after our charges (who are too often ill or on holiday or in the throes of a crisis). Indeed, they seem to care less for their work than we did at their stage: either that, or they run us ragged with their demands. Whatever, we start thinking authority’s not what it’s cracked up to be – though we certainly like the company credit card and the (enforced) deference of the young (whatever refutations we employ). Yet disillusion is not a static state, meaning we’re heading for…
6) Contempt. Of course, the CEO’s going nowhere – despite being an idle idiot. So we’re up against a glass ceiling: stuck in “middle” management though convinced the upper echelons are (potentially corrupt) numpties. Also, we keep losing our best employees to bigger rivals, resulting in periodic panics and intolerable stress. Horror, we may even have to undertake some of the work ourselves, although we’re rusty and now inwardly doubt our execution skills. Soon, we’re sneaking off early rather than staying late, although fear (of rejection, of failure, of the mortgage – even of success) prevents us actively sourcing new employment. Whatever – we’re looking in the mirror and silently confessing admitting it: we hate our boss, our colleagues, the office, the commute, and – especially – the work. It’s just a matter of time before….
7) The Exit. The New Year, a big birthday, someone else leaving or promoted (or even fired): something shakes us from our stupor. It’s over. To hell with this crappy company. We’ve moved from passive aggressive to just aggressive – sometimes openly advertising the company’s faults to whomever will listen (which becomes fewer people as the months go by). If we’re sensible we’ll wait for the right opportunity, although – just as often – any opportunity will do, and sometimes we’ll jump just to get the hell out. Of course, this is usually an “out of the frying pan…” moment that puts us straight onto the next cycle (one rotating in ever decreasing circles).

Is there a way off this damaging carousel? Most certainly there is: proactivity. Despite appearances, each of the above stages is reactive. Our career is happening to us – almost as if it’s something beyond our control and even without our positive acquiescence. Let go of the handrail, and this is where we end up: somewhere we didn’t want to be in the first place. Worse, we’re now seduction fodder for the charms of the headhunters (keen as they are to keep those career cycles turning over).

So what does proactivity mean?
1. Decide where you want to be in 10 years,
2. Think deeply about the detail of this destination,
3. Work backwards towards your current spot,
4. Calculate achievable milestones (perhaps for year five, year two, year one etc.) that link then to now,
5. Generate some steps that take you to the next milestone (perhaps the one in six months),
6. Execute the steps: treating setbacks as lessons and accepting that some milestones may take longer to achieve than others (while some can be accelerated, though rarely jumped),
7. Realize that everything else is just noise.

That’s it! And, yes, it is that obvious: making it all the more astonishing there are so few proactive people when it comes to pursuing their own careers.

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