How tightly should you hold the reins of your professional destiny? It’s a complex question but one that confronts everyone on the cusp of adulthood in some form or another. The spirit of freedom implores you to see strict plans as limitations holding you back from your potential, while the contrasting spirit of practicality reminds you that freewheeling isn’t typically profitable.
Consider that it’s generally the ruthless pragmatists among us who make their goals realities. They set out sensible plans and follow them to the letter, deviating only when strictly necessary. Of course, achieving your goals isn’t always the path to success—goals, along with many other things, tend to change over time. So what path should you take?
The answer lies somewhere between these two extremes. And to give you something more actionable, below is an unlikely point of comparison: plot structuring. Drawing from the approach of seasoned authors, you can generate a balanced and effective career plan.
Build everything around your motivations
Great authors know to start with character motivations. This is partially because understanding what drives protagonists to continue is key to identifying with them. Are protagonists seeking fame, fortune, glory? Perhaps it’s love they crave? Or maybe theirs is a tale of vengeance and catharsis? In the end, motivation provides the thread running through the narrative.
Motivation is also extremely potent for guiding a story because believable characters don’t get exactly what they want. The best laid plans fall to ruin, driving adaptation shaped by context. Similarly, your career won’t go exactly according to plan. Maybe that job you want will no longer exist by the time you reach that state of your career. Maybe your first steps on the ladder will crumble beneath you and you’ll need to contrive an ad-hoc method to get ahead.
That’s why you should loosely build your career path around what motivates you—your passions, your interests, your commitment to self-improvement—instead of setting out rigid goals. This will allow you to identify viable alternatives to your main path: aim for this job, but try that job if it doesn’t work, or take a certain course if neither pans out. “Pursue work involving musical performance” is a much more flexible step than “Become a professional bass player.”
Set out challenges of increasing difficulty
Let’s say that you’re workshopping a story about a character attempting to achieve a goal that seems incredibly far away. How do you get them from “here” to “there” in a plausible way? You can’t just have them reach “there” right away. You need to break their journey into modest steps, allowing them to make incremental progress—and since the character will get wiser and stronger along the way, those steps will need to escalate in difficulty. (If you like breaking down fiction, read up on the sorting algorithm of evil.)
If you keep all the steps on the same level, then the challenge will go away soon enough, and the character will stop improving. And if you don’t grade the difficulty curve correctly, the character will have no realistic way of overcoming their early challenges. Think about this when you plan your career. Your ambition should be to attempt something new, learn about it, become highly proficient at it, and then repeat the process (whether moving to something unrelated for variety, or simply advancing to the next tier of your main career focus).
Suppose that you wanted to become a graphic designer; you could start with “Become proficient at using a digital design tool,” leaving enough room to pivot depending on your preferences. The next step could be “Build a graphic design portfolio,” using those developed skills to proceed. In the end, you should be able to look back and see that you kept striving to reach new heights.
Throw in some twists for flavor
A skilled author can follow all the rules, ensure internal consistency, and still end up with an unworkable framework—not because it’s bad but because it’s too pedestrian. It’s an inevitable consequence of cultural memory: so many structures that we’ve seen so many times before, all leading us to turn up our noses at played-out premises. That’s the thing about creating an effective plot structure: sometimes you need to spice it up by throwing in something to make the old feel new again.
As for your career path, think about this: how many times during your career will you need to sit (or stand) before an interviewer, ready to argue your case during the tricky first phase? On any given occasion, you could be one of many candidates, each with a solid claim to viability—and you’re unlikely to win points for having the most predictable career plan. That’s why you should throw in some twists—some elements that will spark curiosity in those who hear about them.
Here’s an example.: You’re going in for a legal position, and you start to discuss your career thus far. Good early schooling, excellent grades, club membership, great success at law school, an internship at a prestigious law firm … then a six-month break to study the art of miming? How exactly did that come about? It instantly gets attention, defying the established impression of a staid and dull careerist. If you loosely plan some twists that don’t fit in with the rest of your plan, they’ll give you a break from the routine, set your career apart, and probably be a lot of fun.
Leave the connective tissue untouched
Lastly, your planning and pathing should only go so far. I’ve already noted the importance of leaving room to change your approach, but most of your journey simply doesn’t need to be set out at all—all the quotidian mundanity, for instance. Authors typically start out with frameworks before fleshing them out, but they only flesh them out to a limited extent before they actually start writing. They need room to figure out the details as they go.
So, you don’t need to painstakingly set out weekly targets to pursue several years from now, especially since you’ll change over time and might not have different preferences by then. Cover the big-picture parts of your path. That should be more than enough to help you chart your next steps without saddling you with unnecessary and restrictive expectations.
A final note
Ideally, your career path should escalate in difficulty and complexity to match your growth, include motivation-satisfying alternatives at every turn, float some potential twists to add texture, and—vitally—not get lost in needless detail. That’s how you write a great story. It’s also how you plant seeds for a great career.
Laura Slingo is a writer and editor that regularly pens career, marketing, and lifestyle advice for leading publications across the globe.
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