In a number of industries, aspiring to ‘climb the career ladder’ is generally accepted as the appropriate aim for any ‘career-minded’ person. In order to climb the ladder, one must focus on learning the skills required to perform that role successfully and then look for a promotion to a role on the next ‘rung’ of the ladder.
For some people, this ladder metaphor perfectly describes their successful and fulfilling career, or career aspirations. And that’s fabulous! But do careers NEED to follow this linear path to be successful and fulfilling?
Enter the concept of “Squiggly Careers”, introduced to us by Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper in their Ted Talk “The best career path isn’t always a straight line”. Pitched as the alternative to the traditional career trajectory, often represented with a ladder or stairs, the Squiggly Career is represented with a squiggly line. This shows growth and movement in all directions as people take the opportunities that make sense for them throughout their careers. As stated by Sarah and Helen, “Success isn’t one size fits all – our squiggles are as individual as we are”.
At Trak Search, we have the privilege of meeting so many talented individuals through both the organisations we work with and the candidates who reach out to us. It has certainly been our experience that there is not one right career path to follow. We agree that success is not guaranteed by following what SHOULD be done. People who contemplate a ‘career pivot’ or a deviation from what is seen as the obvious next step in their career, can experience a lot of fear and anxiety around whether they are making the right decision. It is often seen as risky to step away from the ladder and chart a new course. However, the reason this Ted Talk resonated strongly with us is because we believe the people who experience the most successful and fulfilling careers are those who follow their interests , remain curious and open to learning, and take control of their career and development, whatever shape that makes their career.
Straight vs Squiggly Career paths
Your experience with the ‘ladder’ will be significantly impacted by the industries and organisations you’ve worked in. As we have said, for some people this ladder is a perfect representation of their perfect career path, where that obvious next step is a role they would enjoy and thrive in.
However this is not everyone’s experience. Sarah and Helen formulated this concept of Squiggly Careers when, after years of working hard to achieve promotions and pay rises and climb the aspirational ladder, they “…started to get this sense that the ladder might actually be holding us back.” They found that the obvious next step wasn’t always the most appealing. They were both interested in exploring opportunities that weren’t necessarily just based on what they had done previously.
They make the point that the career ladder is limiting, in that it only goes in one direction, and you can only take one step at a time, limiting both learning and opportunity. On the other hand, “a squiggly career is both full of uncertainty and full of possibility”.
For some, this concept will give a name to the aspirations they have for future career growth. Or itit could give validation to the path they have already charted for themselves. For others, particularly people now in the early stages of their career, it will represent the path they will very likely take out of necessity in an increasingly uncertain and evolving environment.
The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) “The Future of Jobs Report 2020” predicts the significant disruption to roles due to digitization and robotics by 2025. It also estimates that by that time 50% of all employees will need reskilling.
This means that the ladder concept is one that many could not aspire to mirror in modern times, even if they wished to. The needs of both organisations and of employees are changing so constantly that it can be hard to be clear on exactly what that role on the next rung will look like, and if it will even still exist once you’re ready for it.
The role of continuous learning
At Trak Search we have seen the candidates most prepared for a new opportunity are those who are focused on continual growth and learning in all directions. This mindset not only provides a breadth of experience and perspective. It also usually provides candidates with a greater opportunity to step outside a traditional career trajectory.
And as the world of work changes, the need to focus more on skills experience than task experience becomes even more critical. According to the WEF, “The top skills and skill groups which employers see as rising in prominence in the lead up to 2025 include groups such as critical thinking and analysis as well as problem-solving, and skills in self-management such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility.”
In their presentation, Sarah and Helen make the case that in the traditional career ladder, learning is often dictated primarily by the organisation, and is based on what is needed for the current role and career trajectory. This leads to unfairness as our learning is unlocked by the level that we reach in an organisation, rather than by our potential and our aspirations.
Learning is what builds resilience, enables growth and opportunity, and it is what will help to future-proof careers through the workplace changes predicted to come.
Sarah and Helen promote the role of learning in Squiggly Careers, and a shift in organisational thinking around learning. All individuals have talent; it’s how we support those talents that matters. They encourage a model focused on learning from each other and with each other, where people can take responsibility for learning the things that will support their career interests and aspirations, regardless of the direction that will take them.
They state that “Losing the ladder starts with redefining our relationship with learning at work. We all now have the chance to curate our own curriculums.” Through the books and articles we read, the podcasts we listen to, the talks and presentations we watch and the thought leaders we choose to follow, we can take control of our own learning to ensure that our development is no longer dependent on others.
Taking control of your own career and development
In order to accept the merits of a Squiggly Career, one may also need to change their perspective on career progression and development. Often people associate progression with promotion; and development with training courses. This thinking is very aligned to the traditional career ladder.
But as Sarah and Helen state, “If progression purely means promotion, we miss out on so many of the opportunities that are all around us. We need to stop asking only ‘what job comes next?’ and start asking ‘what career possibilities am I curious about?”
For people who are on the ladder, it can be easy to feel comfortable and safe about your future prospects when there is a future path mapped out for you. It can also be easy to leave your development in the hands of the organisations you work for. They typically focus on giving you the development you need to remain on the ladder.
But what we’re seeing is that the future of work is not certain. The occasional formal training course people are sent on is unlikely to build the kind of resilience, flexibility and curiosity required to support people who need to adapt their skills and experience and use their talents in new ways.
We need to shift our thinking to see both progression and development as learning and growth in all its forms. It then makes sense that the most effective way to guarantee progression and development is to take matters into your own hands. Don’t wait for learning and experience to come to you. Be curious and seek what you need to prepare you for your next right step, whichever direction that takes you.
If can let go of the idea that the best careers NEED to be linear and give yourself permission to explore opportunities that interest you, you will be far more likely to end up with a line that is right for you.
At Trak Search we love to learn about people and their ‘Squiggles’. If you see an opportunity on our site that interests you, we are always happy to hear from you, regardless of how that will shape your career path.
If you’re at a point in your career where you’re trying to determine your best next step, or you’re an advocate of constant learning and growth, the full Ted Talk can be found here:
Want to watch more educational content that we believe is worth checking out. Find them all here.