On career path: twists, turns and blind spots

long road

I start every Monday morning at a cafe in Chelsea, where I have breakfast with a few other solo entrepreneurs. We update each other about our weeks, what our focus will be, where our travels are taking us. We teach each other how to use IFTTT; we recommend accounting software; we high-five about clients won and pump each other up after clients are lost.

It’s as close to colleagues as I have at this point.

I usually stay for a few hours after breakfast ends to get some work done. At some point I wander back to the bathroom and pass a rowdy French-speaking meetup. I stand in line for the bathroom and listen in; their accents are wide and some of their vocabularies are limited, but they chatter on, oblivious to the fact that I can understand everything they say. In another version of my life, I might have been drinking my coffee at this large table in the back instead of the small, sunlight one up front.

Why do people start agencies? Nearly every CEO I know stumbled into it, compelled by something that smelled a lot like opportunity, driven to prove themselves despite an utter lack of a background in business. I don’t feel like I’m barking up the wrong tree.

I studied French; despite how my career path looks, it has served me well. I’m not afraid to swim in a conversation. I lived in France several times, years full of embarrassing vocabulary mishaps and the least efficient days you can imagine. When I started in the tech industry six years ago, I understood 30% of the words people said to me. You know what’s more anxiety-inducing than not understanding “API” and “REST” and “front-end” and “pixels”? Try going on a first date in a foreign language.

The rest is cake.

I’ve been thinking a lot about career path lately. I’m speaking at an agency in Philadelphia later this week about it, about the ways we find our ways to new and challenging projects. The world of small agencies is different than that of corporate ladders; there are no stepping stones laid out ahead of us. Titles and their regulated momentum ring false and too corporate for many small orgs, a fact that often results in an utter lack of path. Whose fault is this? And who can help fix it?

I believe it’s a shared responsibility. Agencies and organizations need to be listening to their employees, observing and responding as-needed. But individuals have to represent their own desires as well if they want the opportunity to do work that authentically challenges them.

The hardest part is knowing what you want. If your days are less than energizing lately, ask yourself what the last work was that bounced you out of bed on a Monday. Are you craving the beginning of a new project or the triumphant end to a messy one? Are you aching to teach and mentor? Or are you floating and flailing without a mentor of your own? These are the kinds of helpful insights your HR person should know. Don’t solve the problem for her; just bring her your instincts and let her find you a new challenge.

You can’t see what the road looks like up ahead. I thought I’d be at the French table in the back, and here I am up in front, writing to all of you. But you can do the work of figuring out what you want and then turn it over to whoever’s job it is to have a view of the horizon.

Because whatever they come up with for you, the next twist or turn on the path, is probably so much better than you could have conceived of yourself. As an employee, it’s not your job to see everything that could exist, so represent yourself, then sit back and relax.

What if you’re the HR person and it is your job to see everything that could exist? Well, I get that. I really do.

Come back to this blog on Wednesday and we’ll talk.