If there’s one truth in life, it’s that you can’t map out everything. No matter how carefully you plan, you’ll find yourself on some detours. This is especially true when it comes to your professional journey. With so much unexpected—and, many times, unwanted—change, it can be tempting to toss out the road map and simply go wherever the wind blows you.
I’d like to encourage you to fight that urge. There’s still something to be said for strategic career mapping. As an entrepreneur with more than 20 years under my belt, I believe thoughtful planning is fundamental in creating a fulfilling and successful career. And as it turns out, the 2017 “MRINetwork Millennial Hiring Trends Study” found that 53 percent of millennials want to map out their careers, too.
There’s no denying that traditional employment has morphed into something short-term, part-time, gig-specific—in other words, dynamic. Yet this economic evolution can exist alongside an “old school” method of forging career path decisions. It simply requires a different, more adaptable mindset.
21st-Century Career Mapping
The notion of creating a career map originally meant determining how to artfully navigate the corporate ladder. In other words, it was a straight shot with very few deviations: work in X department long enough, become X department’s supervisor, advance to Y department—and so it goes until you retire.
Today’s map is less linear. It’s full of twists and turns as people navigate opportunities and develop capabilities that lead to their next roles—even if they’re not within the same company. About 35 percent of workers freelance, according to a report from Freelancers Union and Upwork, and even more dabble in gig work as needed. This means they bear the primary responsibility for having the necessary skill sets to advance.
Essentially, we’ve become a nation (and perhaps a world) of individualists. We’re dreamers but with the understanding that those dreams will never come to fruition if we aren’t flexible and journey-minded.
Nevertheless, unpredictability can be a hard pill to swallow—at least, it was for me.
Avoiding Career Mapping Roadblocks
“Focus on what only you can do. Give the rest of it away.”
I made this my mantra during a crucial time of growth at my company—when I needed to give more authority to our senior leaders. But I had no idea how difficult it would be. Accepting and acknowledging that you hold tightly to responsibilities you enjoy is one thing; doing something about it is quite another. For me, giving away the final say for clients, programs and initiatives I’d built and loved was almost gut-wrenching. But I knew growth would be stymied if I didn’t share all the best stuff with my most trusted leaders.
Once I did this, I realized how they were able to improve upon what I’d started through their fresh perspectives and focus. Plus, there were other things I needed to focus on in order to move us forward. Not surprisingly, I saw my own professional growth take off when I took on new challenges. Had I not released myself from those ties, I would be stuck, the human equivalent of landing in a ditch with a flat tire and no spare in sight.
Of course, not all career mapping is challenging, which is why more than half of millennials are interested in it. If you’re one of them, try a few strategies to get yourself moving along your preferred route.
1. Focus on making your “good” great.
Each of us has areas where we excel without trying too hard. Maybe you’re a pro networker or a ninja closer. Identify your “good” skills and turn them into great ones by working your tail off. Don’t waste time trying to become awesome at what you don’t do well or—even worse—hate to do. Instead, passionately and enthusiastically become the best you can be where you’re naturally gifted.
2. Take one step forward every day.
A half hour is all it takes per day to keep moving ahead on your professional journey. Spend your 30 minutes brainstorming things you can do to develop your abilities and recharge your optimism. Could you read a specific book? Have coffee with a mentor or industry influencer? Rather than thinking too much about the big picture, focus on taking yourself down the road one step at a time.
3. Figure out what success looks like.
Every person has a different measure of “success.” What is yours? Do you want to start a business? Have an impact on people in need? Write a book and go on the public speaking circuit? Spend a few moments reflecting on what success means to you; then determine how you might reach that destination from where you are today.
While the distance could be great, you shouldn’t quit your current job immediately—or even at all. You might be able to reach your destination through other avenues (such as volunteering or a side hustle) that allow you to still have a dependable income. At the same time, if you do eventually have to say goodbye to your workplace, you’ll feel better about doing so, thanks to your purpose.
4. Build a robust, genuine support system.
Focus on your relationships both in your work and personal life. Humans rely on connections; the more trustworthy, honest cheerleaders you have, the richer your career journey will be. Plus, when you hit a rough spot in the road or have to backtrack, they’ll be beside you. Who knows? They might even willingly take the wheel for a few miles until you get your second wind.
If there’s one thing you shouldn’t be, it’s a passive participant in your career journey. You have a destination in mind, and even if it seems very far away, it’s reachable as long as you chart a course and stubbornly—and gleefully—forge ahead.
Elise Mitchell is the CEO of Mitchell, an award-winning strategic communications firm. She helped build Mitchell into one of the top 10 fastest-growing firms globally and a two-time Agency of the Year winner, honored by PRWeek and The Holmes Report. She has received numerous awards, including being named PRWeek Agency Public Relations Professional of the Year and a Top 50 Power Player in PR. Elise's book, Leading Through the Turn, is now available for purchase. Find out more about the book here.