If you’ve ever stood at a professional crossroads, you know that choosing a next step can feel like one of the most stressful and uncertain decisions you’ll make in your career. You might feel overwhelmed by multiple job choices, or concerned that the option your heart wants is leading you away from a promising long-term path. Even excitement for a new opportunity can be stressful — are you excited for the right reasons, or blinded by the possibility of a status and salary bump?
When I’ve faced big decisions in my professional life, I’ve found it helpful to think about my multi-decade career arc. Your career arc is defined by more than just a start and finish line; just as important are the peaks, valleys, and circuitous turns along the way. It’s the area under the arc, rather than its apex or end point, that represents the impact you have of the course of your career.
Here are a few examples of possible career arcs, with impact on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal axis:
The arc on the left is is smooth and steady, building to a long peak and a slight taper before retirement. The middle arc might be that of someone who built a career in one field, and then jumped onto a new and different curve, perhaps to start a business or pursue a side project full-time. Finally, the arc on the right represents the career of a client of mine who’s been a serial entrepreneur for most of his career — his first and third startups were solid successes, his second failed fast, and now on the upswing of number four.
Notice that all three of these arcs have peaks and valleys. Some careers will climb continuously, while others will rise and fall many times over the years. Setbacks and changes might reduce your impact for a while, but as both the middle and right arcs demonstrate, a short descent is often the prelude to an even higher climb.
Building your career arc
Take a moment to try sketching your own career arc. Especially if you’re early in your career, it can be very powerful to develop a picture of the arc you want to have. Are there any points at which you know you’ll want to step back from higher-impact roles to travel, start a family, or continue your education? Do you expect to focus on one type of work for the duration, or will your arc skip across multiple curves? What about the height of the arc — do you want to make a big impact in a few years, and then take a break, or invest steadily over time?
As you’re creating your arc, be sure to think about the “why” behind the shape of the curve. What is it about your values, character, skills, and passions that nudged you toward this particular path? Take another look at the career arc on the right above — that’s an adrenaline junkie! He loves the rush and chaos of startups, and wants to be challenged to prove himself every day. He’s unfazed by failure; for him, failure is the mark of a good risk-taker, and a failed initiative is just a great chance to start on his next big idea.
The arc on the left, on the other hand, represents someone who values loyalty, consistency, stability, and expertise. The arc in the middle might be that of someone more passion-driven, who made a mid-career shift to follow a dream or contribute to a cause.
Seeing the big picture
I like the career arc exercise because it forces you to “zoom out” from the choices and challenges you’re facing in the moment. A decision that has a big impact on the next few years of your career might actually have very little effect on a forty-year career arc.
For example, at one point in my career, I chose to take a less travel-intensive role so that I could be available to my small children. Thinking about my career arc helped me recognize that I wasn’t derailing my long-term career; I was just choosing to flatten the slope of my curve a little, so that during those years I gained in skills and impact at a slightly slower pace.
Similarly, having a sense of your career arc can give you some positive perspective on short-term failures and roadblocks. In ten years, will you remember a project failure or missed promotion as a disaster, or as a learning experience that pushed you further up your career arc curve? If you’re able to see a setback as a learning opportunity, you’ll be more likely to succeed the next time around.
There are two kinds of career changes — those that you control, and those that are dictated by your employer, market trends, or life circumstances. Understanding your career arc can help you manage both.
For example, if your department undergoes a reorganization, or your company shifts focus because of changes in your industry, you might find yourself doing work that’s less aligned with the career arc you’d imagined. But if you’ve thought through your long-term vision, you’ll find ways to keep aiming for your arc’s defining points. For example, maybe the unexpected detour offers a chance to connect with leaders in a field you’d like to work in ten years down the road — or maybe this is actually a good moment to scale back your hours and put more energy into passion projects and volunteer work.
On the other hand — as noted at the beginning of this post — you’ll sometimes face situations in which you’re in control, but the best next step isn’t clear. What if you have a choice of directions, but you’re not sure which will lead to the most rewarding long-term career arc?
Gather all the information you can. If possible, find a way to test each path — can you find some short-term, part-time opportunities to pursue, or could you shadow someone in each of the fields or positions you’re considering? Getting some experience, even if it’s brief or peripheral, will help you figure out which opportunities really make you light up, and which fall short of your expectations.
Regardless of whether you’re able to get hands-on experience, connect with people who’ve followed the paths you’re considering, and pepper them with questions. Ask about the difficult, tedious, and risky aspects of the role in addition to the selling points. If you’re considering a more senior position, know that all promotions have costs as well as rewards, and only you can decide if the next step up is a net win for you.
Career change is hard, and in the end, seeing your career arc from a birds-eye view might not make the on-the-ground process of navigating change any easier. But a high-level frame of reference can give you some peace of mind. Considering your career arc over the decades will put small changes in perspective, and understanding the path you want to follow — with all of its peaks and valleys — can give you greater confidence when you’re faced with a real bend in the road.