I recently met with Abby, a former employee who has worked hard to rise through the ranks. She had just successfully navigated a major systems implementation, bringing the project in on time and under budget. Abby’s manager was thrilled with the results and praised her extensively. Then he asked the killer question “What do you want to do next?”
Abby is a go-getter, so she had her response ready: she wanted to manage the next big systems project. Her logic was iron-clad. It was what people in her role did to get ahead. She had some serious doubts about the project, but she put those aside to ensure she would hit the next point on the way to her career summit.
Unfortunately, Abby’s next project was canceled and her climb was put on hold. All her careful planning and preparation went to waste because she was so focused on the next step that she didn’t realize that she wasn’t climbing a career mountain. Abby, like many of us, was surfing a career wave.
What’s the difference between a career mountain climber and a career surfer?
The Career Mountain Climber: Mountain climbers examine the terrain, pick the right path, stock up with supplies and start working their way up. The bigger the mountain the harder the climb, the more planning and preparation is required. The summit is the goal, and it never moves. This stability and predictability means it is worthwhile to do a lot of planning and preparation and view the climb as an attack: the climber against the mountain.
The Career Surfer: In contrast, every good surfer knows you can’t predict the perfect wave. You need to be able to scan the horizon, look at the conditions and pick the right moment. Doing a lot of planning and preparation isn’t as important as being ready when the wave shows up, and nothing matters as much as being able to pick the right wave and ride it to the shore.
What’s better surfing or climbing?
We have all been told for years that people climb the career ladder, attack the summit and plan their approach. We have been told careers are about climbing. But with all the changes that are going on today it seems as if career management and job seeking is more like surfing: you have to be in the water when the waves show up and be willing to take the risk of grabbing the one that feels right. Or perhaps do you wait for the the next wave which could be even better? But if you spend all your time thinking the next wave will be better, you will never catch any wave.
The changing economy and world of work means that the mountain metaphor is starting to cloud over. The summit is hard to see, and stocking up for a sustained attack feels like a waste of time. Picking the wave, paddling hard and riding it as long as it is fun seem like a better way to approach a career (and a life).
Yesterday Abby understood her career and her path. But today that summit is being moved offshore and the path to the top has changed. Abby thought she was doing the right thing preparing herself for her climb, but when the conditions changed and the summit moved she wasn’t well prepared and she got stuck on the side of the mountain.
Surfing, not climbing. Next week we’ll talk about how to pick a wave.