Take These 3 Steps to Grow Your Career (Even When You Don't Have a Career Path)

Most of my students today have jobs that didn't exist 10 years ago. Most of their parents still can't grasp what it is their kids do for a living ("You make an app? ... Someone pays you for that?"). This is the reality more and more of us inhabit, especially in the world of tech. If our parents, our friends, and even our managers aren't quite sure what to make of our careers, how can we do much better ourselves?

At my company, LifeLabs Learning, we train managers and individual contributors at fast-growing, innovative companies (like Etsy, Squarespace, Warby Parker, Oscar, Reddit, and ZocDoc). Without fail, at every company, I hear the same question: "How does career growth work here?" Without fail, no one is quite sure how to answer. And that's not weird. How can you answer a question about the future if the future is unpredictable?

But here's the interesting thing: in these ever-changing, ambiguous, uncertain environments, some people feel lost, while others use that same ambiguity to propel their careers much farther than they could have at a company with a mystery-free career ladder.

So what is it that the most successful career growers do in organizations that don't have clear career paths? Research shows they do 3 things differently:

1. Know Your Why: One of the best predictors of career success is knowing why you get out of bed every morning. What drives you? What makes you say: "I care about that, damn it!"?

It takes time to discover your why, but a quick Peaks and Values Assessment can speed up the process. Draw a timeline representing your life.

Make a valley for the worst events in your life and a peak for the best events. Now step back, and spot the patterns. What do your best and worst life experiences reveal about what matters most to you? The clearer your answers get, the easier it gets to make career decisions with your "why" as your compass.

2. Know Your Who: Most of us assume that a large social network boosts our chances of career success. Wrong. As with many things in life, size isn't what matters most. It turns out that how many people you know is less important than how many different kinds of people you know. The more open and diverse your network, the more access you have to new perspectives and opportunities.

To assess your own network, play the Match Game. Scroll through your contact list and take note of what your connections have in common. Do most of them have the same profession, age, ethnicity, political orientation? Notice what matches, and spot opportunities to branch out of your network comfort zone.

3. Know Your How: Most of us go through life waiting for learning and growth to happen to us. But without deliberate focus on collecting new skills and knowledge, our development tends to slow to a trickle. By contrast, the most successful individuals make a habit of skilling up.

To turbo charge your growth, use the 3Es Model. The 3Es are: Education (reading a book, taking a class), Experience (taking on a project, volunteering), and Exposure (shadowing a coworker, interviewing an expert). Every month pick a new E as your focus. Keep track of how you want to grow and how far you've already come. Keep asking yourself: What am I skilled in now that I wasn't skilled in last year?

A final insight from the research and my own observations is this: growing your career means getting comfortable with discomfort. Opportunities to learn, explore, change, and advance are everywhere. We just have to be willing to reach past our comfort zone to grab them.

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Written by Tania Luna from LifeLabs Learning. Tania specializes in organizational psychology, emotion regulation, and surprise psychology. She is a leadership trainer, researcher, TED speaker, and co-author of the book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable & Engineer the Unexpected.

LifeLabs Learning is the go-to training resource for innovative, fast-growing companies (like Etsy, Squarespace, Zendesk, Reddit, and Warby Parker). They specialize in science and practice-based skill building for managers and individual contributors. LifeLabs has offices in New York City and San Francisco, and provides in-person and virtual training anywhere in the world.

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