During my career in Executive Search, I noticed that many struggled with the header questions. I felt many were often too harsh and demanding on themselves, not because they wanted to, but due to pressure they felt from other people’s expectations. Also, the present-day values in our society seem to demand that everyone must be evermore successful, and I think, in this respect, things are moving for the worse.
Nowadays, it almost feels making a career is an absolute must-have for everyone. One must be ambitious, goal-oriented, continuously forward striving, a high-energy performer who demonstrates a will to pursue a career taking you to ever more challenging tasks. And, on top of that, we are told we must make a difference. Otherwise, we are no good. Constantly being exposed to these expectations and pressure can make anyone feel inferior and stressed, especially if this is not what one likes to do. In reality, a great majority of us does not. People also have other interests in life than work, like our loved ones, friends, hobbies. Due to this present-day career-focused mentality, we tend to have less and less time for them, which certainly does not make anyone’s life any better.
In my mind, we have a too narrow definition of what “having a career” and “making a difference” mean, which causes unnecessary stress and pressure. And of course, we should do whatever we do be based on our desires and expectations and not let others define what we must do.
Must I have a career?
Many define a successful career meaning ever higher manager or executive titles, more power, more challenges, bigger salaries, bigger company cars and fame. There is nothing wrong with being an ambitious, goal-oriented, top performer wanting to make a career moving you ever higher up on the organizational ladder or wanting to achieve “big things” in your life. These people are an absolute must-have for the business world (and our society). We need leaders. Without them, we would not have successful companies and jobs to go to in the first place.
But not everyone can be a CEO, an executive, or even a manager. Many do not even want to become a superior of any kind, ever. Neither does making a career mean you must continuously advance to ever higher job positions. In my mind, having a good career is not defined only by the title, the job level, or the job description. You can indeed make a career by moving upwards, but also sidewards, downwards or staying on the same job level for your entire life. Any company in any industry needs everyone from the CEO down to the entry-level jobs. All job levels are essential.
Many, I believe, only want to find a job they enjoy, which gives them fulfilment (and of course also brings food to the table). If you let “a good career mean = working in a job I enjoy”, the expression “having a good career” gets a broader and very different meaning. If someone finds a job (any job) and then stays in this very same job for the rest of their life, all the time enjoying what they do, who is anyone to say they did not have a good career. Is it not the ultimate desire for us all to find a job we enjoy doing? Defining “having a good career as = working in a job I enjoy” gives us a different and better perspective, don’t you think.
Must I make a difference?
Most people spontaneously think making a difference means doing something big, big deeds, something only few can accomplish, even making the difference between life and death. It can be like this in the most extreme meaning of the expression, but it can also mean much less dramatic things.
If you look up the expression on the Internet, you will find tens of different definitions, but they more or less come down to the same thing: making a difference = doing something important. With this approach, we are a little more down-to-earth when discussing what making a difference means.
Suppose you are a CEO of a multi-billion global company, an Olympic gold medallist, a world-famous explorer, a renowned scientist who just found the cure for a severe disease or someone who started from scratch and now is a billionaire. In that case, few can dispute you have made a difference. And indeed, you have every right to be proud of what you have done. We probably all are a little proud of you, I think.
Then, you e.g. can have a lifelong career as a teacher educating thousands of pupils or be a kindergarten teacher taking care of thousands of 3–5-year-old children during your career, a policeman, firefighter, or a nurse devoting their life to taking care of us all. No one doubts that they have made a difference either. This is so self-obvious because of their profession.
However, likewise, the cleaners who keep the hospitals, trains, ships, restaurants, shopping centres etc. clean and tidy, the lorry drivers who deliver goods, food, necessities all around, the personnel that keeps our shops and department stores in order and running, the mailmen/women who deliver our daily mail, the construction workers without whom we would not have any buildings or roads, the receptionists, the office clerks, the book-keepers – I can make this list just as long as you like – they all make a difference. In my mind, you can make a difference in any job. You do not always have to hit the headlines. You can also make a difference by doing “small things”.
One example of “small things”. I read about a grocery shop with a cashier who was very liked by all the customers, and she also liked her customers. She was professional, friendly, kind, helpful, always in a good mood, and always had the time needed for her customer. Many customers came from far away to this shop just because of her, even though they had a shop closer to where they lived. The customer experience she created was simply extraordinary and superb. When she one day quit, many of the customers came to the shop with flowers, small gifts, hugging her, very sorry for her leaving, but wishing her all the best in future. If this is not making a difference in your job, I do not know what is.
Next time be a little more merciful on yourself when evaluating your “career”. We cannot and do not all have to be top performers, but we can all make a difference in any job, on any job level. This does not happen entirely without effort, though. You must give your job your best try – no more but no less either. Anyone who can do that can, without any hesitation, say they make a difference. Also, always remember to pursue your career according to your desires and not others.