Stop Obsessing About Having the Perfect Career Plan The paths we thought we knew are crumbling fast. Maybe it’s time to think differently about getting ahead.

The traditional career paths that once guided many professionals through obtaining a degree, getting a job offer, and securing promotions are no longer as reliable. Companies like Meta Platforms are eliminating layers of middle management, while law firms are exploring alternative partnership models. This uncertainty extends across various professions, with individuals feeling trapped in narrowing career paths and struggling to advance or receive expected raises.

In this rapidly changing landscape, it's clear that the promise of a linear and upward trajectory in one's career is often illusory. Companies frequently alter their strategies, rapidly hiring or shedding jobs, while technology, such as artificial intelligence, reshapes the value of white-collar work.

Helen Tupper, CEO of a global career development and training firm, suggests a different approach. Instead of solely focusing on climbing the career ladder, she advises individuals to consider what they want to be known for, whether it's being a brilliant presenter or a decisive leader. The specific position matters less than seeking out projects that introduce them to new people and experiences, such as participating in committees or assisting international offices. Preserving earning power can involve negotiating a raise through a lateral move or securing funding for educational pursuits. Ultimately, individuals should embrace the opportunity to have more autonomy in their work and avoid rigidly following a predefined path carved out by others.

Tupper emphasizes the need to be realistic and let go of the fantasy of creating a perfect LinkedIn profile with a linear progression of titles. Instead, individuals should be adaptable to change, as hitching oneself to a single path can leave them vulnerable when circumstances shift. It's important to remember that not every move needs to be flawless in order to succeed.

The story of Alex Robb, who meticulously followed the steps to become a veterinarian, illustrates the contrast between expectations and reality. Despite ticking all the boxes from attending a prestigious college to conducting surgical research during veterinary school and securing postgraduate training, Robb experienced the grueling nature of his work but found comfort and certainty in the process.

In summary, traditional career paths are fading, and individuals need to adapt to a new reality. By focusing on personal strengths, seeking diverse experiences, and embracing change, professionals can navigate their careers in this ever-evolving landscape.  

Alex Robb, shown here with a patient, climbed a steady path in his veterinary career before hitting a roadblock. PHOTO: MARINA VALDES

He landed at an animal hospital in Denver and settled in. Dreaming of running the whole organization one day, he got his M.B.A. on the side. Then an acquisition and restructuring hit the hospital, eliminating the department head position he’d been interviewing for. 

“What am I going to do now?” he says he thought. 

He left and spent a year testing out different work settings as a contract veterinarian. The exploration led him to a job he loves: co-founding a group of animal hospitals and running his own location, which he opened in 2021. 

Looking back, he wonders if there were some downsides to hewing so closely to a set path. Could he have been more well-rounded or creative if he hadn’t been so laser-focused?

The new tech era

Many people in Western societies mistakenly believe we have more control over the world than we actually do, says Adam Alter, a professor of marketing at New York University who’s studied how blindsided we are by chance. Fueled by our belief in science and medicine, we subscribe to the idea that “things just get better if you are virtuous and do the right thing and follow the right path and listen to your parents.”

The problem is that technology has turbocharged the pace of everything, he says. The rules of success—study this, pitch the boss that—used to last generations. Now they might last five minutes.

He recommends taking an audit of your work and life every couple of months. Ask yourself how much things have shifted since you last checked in. Are there changes afoot? How can you prepare? 

“You’re not more powerful than the world around you,” Jarrod Farmer says he learned after being laid off from Meta last November.

He’d spent more than seven years in big tech and planned to never leave. The experience prompted him to transition to a public-sector job, which he hopes is more stable.

As firms invest in AI, their hierarchies flatten, according to a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. They bring on young, educated folks with fresh tech skills, increasing junior roles by 10%. 

Meanwhile, the technology helps workers at all levels make decisions and seamlessly gather data, leaving less of a need for middle managers, says Tania Babina, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School and one of the authors of the paper.

The questions we all ask

Riley Sheehey, an education major with an artistic bent, remembers being terribly jealous of her girlfriends the summer after college graduation. They’d parlayed internships into jobs in big cities or were gearing up for grad school. Meanwhile, she was working at her same old summer camp and trying to figure out what to do with her life. 

Twelve years later, Sheehey is a successful watercolor artist with her own line of fabric and wallpaper and has watched those same friends question their paths. She’s glad she faced the reckoning early. 

At some point, she says, you’re going to ask yourself: “Even though this is laid out for me, is this what I want to be?”

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