A Case Against Strategic Career Development

the-strategy-1080533_960_720 Back when I first moved to Portland, I met with someone for an informational interview to try and learn more about the possibility of transitioning from Human Resources to Organizational Development (OD). It was truly an informational interview - I was gathering insights and trying to determine what I wanted to aim for next in my career. I simply wanted to learn more about the field of OD and meet folks who were doing the work everyday to see how they liked it.

The woman I met with had very little tolerance for my "indecision" after I told her that I wasn't really sure what I was looking for yet. She told me that I needed to be more "strategic" in my search - that I needed to develop a plan, a networking strategy, and focus in on how I could muscle my way into an organization that was positioned for growth.

I left our time together in a panic - "I'm not thinking strategically enough about this!," "I'm so juvenile - how could I have asked her to meet with me without having a five-year plan?!"

Strategy. I won't argue that strategy has no value - strategy can be very helpful sometimes, especially in the areas of our work that require rational, linear thinking.

That said, sometimes strategy needs to be put in its place.

I've met with a handful of people over the past couple of weeks who are all saying the same thing: they're going around and around in their heads with career options and can't land on a direction because they're spending their energy worrying about a) whether they're thinking strategically enough about their careers, and b) how they'll justify their strategy to others.


They feel like they have to choose a direction rationally, immediately, and efficiently. They're trying to apply the rules of production to the matters of their soul, and it doesn't work. Trust me - I tried that for years.

If you're spinning your wheels and feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of taking a new step in your career, try to remember that this is a sacred process that moves in its own way and on its own timeline. 

Career development, at its core, is about finding ways to share the gifts of our souls with the world. Sure, everyone has - and can develop - skills and knowledge, but what is it within you that wants to be shared? What do you want to create? We can't answer those questions using the same methods we use to forecast turnover or annual revenue.

I love this quote from John O'Donohue: "You cannot dredge the depths of the soul with the meagre light of self-analysis. The inner world never reveals itself cheaply."

Give yourself permission to not know what's next for you. Simply by intending to create a worklife that allows you to share your gifts, you have already set the wheels into motion.

You have already planted a seed, and seeds need time in the darkness to take root. You don't have to know what will grow from that seed, and in fact, you cannot know.

If you're on the path of creating a career that resonates with the depths of your soul, then I'd like to offer a few suggestions:

First, don't try to analyze every decision you make on this journey. If you feel interested in being a mechanic, great - let yourself simply be interested before you start thinking about how you'd have to take a pay cut, or wouldn't have that cushy office anymore. If you feel interested in being a ballerina, let yourself dream about starring in the Nutcracker. As Mary Oliver reminds us, "You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves."

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Second, stop sharing your ideas with people who don't understand why you haven't written a five-year strategic plan. You do not have to justify your ideas or decisions to people whose lives are unaffected by them. If it's important to you to keep setting up informational interviews, remember that you can simply be interested. You don't have to give a Powerpoint presentation detailing how you came to this career idea, your current qualifications, aptitudes, etc. Let your ideas be secret as long as they need to be in order to take root inside of you.

Third, don't rush it. O'Donohue writes, "Where things are moving too quickly, nothing can stabilize, gather, or grow."If you're feeling the pinch of being in a job you hate but aren't quite sure what to do next, maybe it's time to find a stepping stone job to take some of the pressure off. You could do a short-term stint at a job outdoors or abroad, or you could sign on with a temp agency and just bop around for a while until you know what fits for you. What can you do today to take some of the pressure off?

I invite you to leave strategy out of your journey for now. Try to ease up on all the planning and the pressure that it brings. Simply let yourself love what you love, keep it a secret as long as it feels right, and give your soul the time it needs to reveal itself to you.

The clarity will come, I promise.

You will begin to know exactly which steps to take and when, the right opportunities will cross your path, and the teachers you need will appear when you're ready.

Know someone who's feeling burnt out on strategic career development? Consider passing this along!