When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up? While many of us had fantastical answers to this question (i.e. Astronaut, third baseman for the Yankees), some individuals were fortunate to have career clarity at a very young age. Perhaps you or someone you know always wanted to be a teacher, or a doctor, or a social worker and that is what they're doing today. These individuals often have a sense of comfort in their career path, but they are by far the exception instead of the rule. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 80 percent of college students change their major at least once prior to graduation. The career clarity doesn’t much improve once out of school either. According to recent research conducted by The Harris Poll and University of Phoenix School of Business, roughly 19 percent of working adults and job seekers when it comes to their career path, “have no idea where they are heading.” While 28 percent say that even if they have a general idea, it’s not well-thought out. That works out to nearly half of the entire workforce.
Still, this is not necessarily cause for major concern. On the surface, we would expect the people who know what they want immediately in life to have a substantial advantage over those who “flip-flop” as they try to figure it out. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt to have a clear direction, but in my interviews with hundreds of “successful” people over the past few years, I’ve found that a vast majority of them started down one path only to be forced to shift gears toward another ultimate goal. The key, it turns out, to a successful career has less to do with planning a direction and much more to do with taking constant micro-action to keep pressing forward at all times.
You're never too old to change your career path.
A perfect example of the concept of thriving despite changes of direction is Dr. Susan O’Malley. She is a cosmetic doctor and personal development expert who specializes in helping people transform their own obstacles into victory. I met Dr. O’Malley recently to learn more about her path and the lessons she has learned from overcoming enormous obstacles on her way to success. She was a college-dropout working as a secretary until the age of 39 when she became a doctor. She went on to become an entrepreneur at age 50 and a first-time author at 63 when she wrote her book, Tough Cookies Don’t Crumble: Turn Set-Backs into Success. Her story is even more compelling because the day she started medical school she was six months pregnant and single.
After realizing she needed to do more with her life, Dr. O’Malley was forced into a change in middle age. Instead of wavering and complaining about it, she dove head first into her new path, realizing that “now” was far better than “never.” She shared with me one of the lessons she hopes will help others in similar positions. “Start with small risks. Everybody is afraid at one time or another. Fear can prevent us from taking risks and stepping outside of our comfort zone," she explains. "All the stars will never be aligned perfectly and sometimes you have to make a decision with what you have. Start small and work your way up.”
Be honest about your career prospects.
Dr. O'Malley's attitude is especially motivating given the state of today’s workforce. The Harris Poll cited earlier found that just ten percent of working adults and job seekers say not taking more ownership of their careers has resulted in job loss. Additionally, fewer than 60 percent of working professionals surveyed believe they are living up to their career potential. Yet just five percent have met with their HR teams to discuss their career trajectory. Taking accountability for one’s own career, and in turn, taking action to improve it, is a lesson many of us can learn from someone like Dr. O’Malley. I spoke with Ruth Veloria, executive dean for the School of Business at University of Phoenix, to dig deeper into the issue of accountability and taking action to build a stronger career.
"Living up to your potential is about having a game plan and knowing what the end state you desire is in your mind, then doing the gap analysis and taking steps to fill the gaps one by one. You have to think like a chess player and always be looking toward the next move that will take you to your goal," she says. "If you need to gain skills to make it to the next step, consider volunteering for projects that can help fill the gaps, taking bite-sized professional development courses or working with a mentor.”
In other words, taking action. More specifically, taking the next action and constantly pushing forward are the keys to achieving career success. Those who stagnate, and float through their career will be more likely to feel the sensation of being "stuck" and unfulfilled.
What are you doing to take the next step in your career? Planning can be helpful, but ultimately, actions speak louder than goals.