Keeping your career alive

Jun 10 2008 by Myra White Print This Article

Building a successful career requires continuous forward movement. One of the key factors that distinguish people who become superstars is that they are always on the move.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, could easily sit back and live off the profits from his various enterprises. Instead he is still constantly on the lookout for new ventures to start.

Movement is essential to all life. This fact was first brought home to me in my biology class in secondary school. One of our assignments was to observe amoebae under a microscope. Some were a frenzy of activity sending out pseudopods in all directions. Others were inert blobs. When I asked the instructor why these amoebae weren't moving, he explained that they were dying.

Just as with amoeba, your career can begin dying if you stop moving forward. This doesn't mean that you have to have a well-defined career goal. All you need is a general direction.

People who build great careers rarely know exactly where they are going when they first start. Margaret Thatcher knew she wanted to be a Member of Parliament by the time she left Oxford University, but she never envisioned that she would become Prime Minister. In fact, she didn't believe that a woman could ever achieve that position in her lifetime.

Margaret Thatcher succeeded far beyond her initial modest expectations because she always kept moving forward. When early in her career as an MP she was offered a position in the government, she didn't hesitate to accept it. She never broke this pattern of continuous career movement. By the time she became Prime Minister, she had held nine different ministerial positions.

In order to ensure that you keep your career alive, you need to constantly monitor your progress and look at each job you have as simply a stepping stone to the next level of your career development. When considering whether to accept a job, you should always ask yourself: Where will this job take me? Will it lead to a better job in a few years or is it a dead-end job?

Once you are in a job you need to do periodic career check-ups to make sure that you are still moving forward. It is all too easy to stop moving and become stuck in a job that delivers a regular pay check even if you don't particularly like it. Similarly, if you recently started a job, the last thing you want to think about is the painful process of changing jobs.

Getting stuck in a job, however, can be deadly to your career in the current economy. There is no longer such a thing as a secure job that goes on forever. As we have learned in recent years, even established companies that formerly seemed immune to the vagaries of the marketplace can quickly find themselves in financial trouble and forced to shed long-term employees.

Internal reorganizations and company reinventions can also threaten your job. A new CEO may want to make major changes with the result that your job is suddenly reorganized out of existence. Alternatively, your old manager may be replaced by a new one who decides that your working style doesn't fit with the type of workplace team he wants to build.

The other problem is that even if you are doing a great job, staying in a job too long can be seen as a sign that you aren't promotable or lack energy and motivation. People also begin to take you for granted. You may have been a star when you arrived and masterfully took command of the job, but people quickly forget. If you are a mid-career person or an older worker, regular career check-ups are even more important. You need to make sure that your forward progress hasn't ground to a halt or that you've drifted off course and are no longer using your talents.

Even if you have been repeatedly promoted, you may find that you have ended up in a job that isn't taking you anywhere or one that you don't particularly like.

It is also important to remember that while you may feel that your movement is limited by your age and circumstances, most such limits are self-imposed. Colonel Sanders started Kentucky Fried Chicken while he was in his sixties. Many people today start successful businesses after they retire.

Movement can enliven your career and work. Don't become part of the working dead. Whatever your job is now, it is never too late to take command and start searching for opportunities that will revitalize both you and your career.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.