Friday, November 18, 2011

Connecting the Dots - My Most Recent Career Conversation

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards" - Steve Jobs

These last couple of months I have had numerous discussions about my career goal with my manager and the head of my department. As in many other career discussions I had in the past, they ask that big question: "where do you see yourself 10 years from now ?". To be perfectly honest, I don't know what exactly I want to do 10 years from now, so I threw out a 'generic' answer like "I want to be in general management". I figured "general management" sounds cool enough, lofty enough, aspirational enough to keep my name on the list of future leaders but also vague enough to give me enough room to explore many different career options.

At my most recent career discussions, this "general management" answer causes me more problems than I ever thought possible. Apparently, I was recently identified as a "high potential" employee and my management think that I can definitely achieve my aspirational career goal that I threw at them somewhat haphazardly a few months back. Now, out of a sudden, this goal is no longer just an aspiration (at least, in my management's mind) and I was being "extremely encouraged" (read: "pushed") to strongly pursue it. They gave me a 'formula' consisting of a mixture of jobs that I should do and when to do each of them. They also told me that this is the best and fastest way to become that cool general manager that I wanted (although honestly, I was not 100% sure that I really wanted that job and for those of you who wonder why, see my earlier post). Furthermore, they condemned that any other career pathway I chose won't lead me there and that I would be making a mistake if I choose that route. The only drawback is that this 'formula' does not come with a money-back guarantee if things don't work out the way they were supposed to :)

It just happened that the job that I want to do (let's call this job A) is not on their list of jobs that can take me to my career goal and the job that they recommended (job B) as my next step is something that I do not want to do. So there I was, perplexed and torn between doing what I am passionate about today and achieving my long-term goal (which I'm still not sure what it is) and pleasing my management at the same time. I know in my heart of heart that I will be really happy if I can do job A since I have been doing similar thing in the past year or so and I truly enjoy it. I have done job B in my pre-B-school time and I didn't enjoy it as much as I did job A.

I'm a firm believer that the future is not ours to see, but being an analytical person, I looked at my own career path to date and talked to many different people to figure out if anyone has proven my management's "planning your future formula". When I looked at different jobs I did in the past, I could not find any single one where I really planned way ahead of time. I took my first job without knowing what my second job will be, same thing with my third and fourth jobs. Ten years ago I would not even dream that I will be sitting here in my own place in Pennsylvania, working at the headquarter of one of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies in the world. If you asked me that "where do you see yourself in 10 years" question, my answer will not even be close to where I am today.

I asked people around me, including my co-worker, what approach they used in their career and how they planned their career moves. Everyone has different career approach, but they all have one thing in common: most of their career moves have been 'opportunistic' than 'planned'. Together these make me further question the validity and effectiveness of my management's formula.

Armed with this data, I tried to make the case of pursuing near-term passion over long-term aspiration to my management. This did not sit too well with them and resulting in them questioning if I really want to achieve my career aspiration and thinking that I don't know what I want to do, which is obviously not a very good thing in the corporate world. I was surprised by their reaction (which I probably should have known it coming), but I feel really passionate about what I currently do so I decided to stay true to myself and to what I belief in and keep 'fighting'.

The battle is still ongoing as I write this blog, but Steve Jobs' words above ring very true to me: "you can't connect the dots looking forward".

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