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The Misperception of a Straight-Line Career

How to Deal With What Used to be Called Failure
By Peter Weddle
Courtesy Weddle’s Newsletter

Most of us go into a job search thinking we may be a little rusty, but confident that, basically, we know what to do. Then you do it, and the galling indifference and humiliating rejection begin. Employers don’t acknowledge your resume submissions, executive search and staffing firms don’t return your calls, and recruiters act as if you are damaged goods. It’s hard not to feel as if you’re a failure.

And yet, you’re not. Let me say that again: You are not a failure. You are not a loser or a deadbeat or a flop. Your belief that you are (or your concern that may be) is based on two misconceptions. You think your career should unfold in a straight line. And, you believe that today’s job market is just like those of the past, only tougher.

Those views are widely held, and they are completely wrong. They may have been correct in the 20th Century, but today, they’re as accurate as a stock broker’s predictions. So when you buy into them, you throw yourself into a well of defeat that leaves you believing that you’ve done something wrong. Or, that you haven’t done something right. Whichever it is, the conclusion you draw is the same: you’ve let yourself and your family down.

It’s a terrible self-indictment, and you don’t deserve it. Let me say that again: You are not a failure. Only you can get rid of that feeling, however, and there’s only one way to do it. You have to clear up those misperceptions. You have to view the job market and the workplace as they actually are. Not as they used to be or you wished they were. Do that, see today’s world of work for what it really is, and you will turn what used to be called failure into what is now genuine success.

Correcting the Misperception of a Straight-Line Career

You have probably never thought about it much, but if you’re like most of us in the workforce, you assume that a career will unfold today just as it did in the last century. Your progress in the workplace will trace a straight line. You’ll begin at point A and if you do well, you will move up to point B and from there, you will advance to point C and so on. Ever onward and ever upward.

The image of this traditional kind of movement, of course, was the career ladder. It prescribed one way up and you either kept moving along the rungs or you fell off, got pushed off or retired. The dynamic was Darwinian, but at least you always knew where you stood.

Well, that career ladder is now gone. It has been tossed out by employers that can no longer support the human resource management infrastructure to manage your career for you (and everyone else). The straight line approach has, as a result, been replaced by the zigzag career. Ever forward, but not necessarily always up.

The image of this new kind of movement is the career jungle gym. As you may recall from your schoolyard days, the jungle gym had two alluring qualities. First, you got to pick your own way forward — there was no teacher, and today, there is no employer telling you where to go. And second, sometimes you might move straight up, but occasionally you would move from side to side and even down and around to get where you were going. There was no discredit, disgrace or dishonor in the path you picked, because (a) everyone got to pick their own way and (b) if you kept your eye on your goal, you would eventually get there. The same is true with your career.

Correcting the Misperception of a Normal Job Market

It would be reassuring, I guess, to believe that today’s job market is just like the ones of yore, only tougher. If that were true, we would at least know the rules of the game. Unfortunately, however, it’s not. The rules have changed, and we must adapt if we want to succeed.

Historically, we had a “come as you are” job market. In other words, the skill set you had in your last job was sufficient to find a new job. All you had to do, therefore, was update your resume, send it out to a bunch of employers, do a little networking around the edges and bitta-bang, bitta-boom, you would land a job that was as good as or better than the one you had before.

Today, the opposite is true. If you are in transition, the skills you had to be effective in your last job are not sufficient to find a new one. If you have any doubt about that, consider this: given a choice between two equally qualified candidates, one who is employed and the other who is in transition, recruiters will select the employed candidate 99.9 percent of the time. Why? Because, whether it’s true or not, they believe the employed person is more capable and therefore more likely to make a valuable contribution to their organization.

How can you overcome such a disadvantage? You have to reinvent yourself even as you are looking for a job. Update your skill set or add a new skill that will enable you to apply what you can already do in a broader set of circumstances. Enroll in an academic or training program or take a course from your professional association, and then, add that fact to your resume. Such a notation demonstrates that (a) you understand the importance of always getting better in today’s workplace and (b) you take personal responsibility for doing so. Those two attributes will help to set you apart in the job market and restart your career.

Looking for a job in the current environment is definitely frustrating and often discouraging. It does not, however, make you a failure. Let me say that again: You are not a failure. What’s happening today is simply proof positive that the rules of the game have changed. If you change with them — if you correct the way you look at the job market — you’ll have what it takes to turn what used to be called failure into the modern definition of success.