non-linear career

Does a successful career have to be linear?

Many people begin their career with a clear vision and pursue a logical and predictable trajectory to ensure career success – in other words, a linear career. A linear career is a more traditionally recognised success; working in the same profession, moving up to more senior roles within an organisation (usually a prestigious brand) slowly and steadily.

And for some people, it all works out that fairytale way; they like their jobs, the stability, the predictability and they have the next opportunities clearly in front of them. For others, it’s much more of a zig-zag operation. Sometimes, it’s a case of our chosen route not bringing us the happiness we thought it would, or the opportunities we thought, or perhaps the industry doesn’t align with our values or the lifestyle simply doesn’t suit us. 

Society conditions us to believe that linear career paths are best; mostly we are fearful of how our work experience will present to recruiters. We’re told (and arguably this is true) that we need to always be able to produce two employer references and ensure there are no ‘gaps’ or question marks on our CV.

However, we are now living in an ever-changing world that provides room for flexibility and exploration. There are more possibilities than ever to have a non-linear career path and there are many benefits to it (that employers should be noticing too!) From side hustles, to two part-time-jobs, to career changes, to side-steps, to secondments… there are lots of paths to follow.

We reached out to women at different stages of their careers and asked them to share their opinions on why a successful career does not have to be linear. Here is what they had to say:

Ellen Cheshire, Voluntary and Community Sector Support Lead at Inclusion Barnet, and a Film Lecturer at Brighton Screen Film School

Ellen Cheshire

To make a decision on what job or career you may want aged 16 or 18 when you are choosing your further or higher education paths, just seems like madness. What careers have you been exposed to by that age? Much of your exposure comes from relatives or friend’s parents and from what you have seen on TV.

I appreciate that things have changed since I left school aged 16 back in the 1980s and went straight into work – before returning later to part-time further and higher education, whilst working full-time. But, I long for the days when young people aren’t fed automatically into higher education, and that employers don’t insist on increasingly higher qualifications. Over the past 35 years, I have managed to carve dual career paths in film writing and lecturing and Arts/Charity Marketing, Fundraising, and Project Management, which has certainly allowed for an eclectic CV and a certain degree of flexibility in these precarious times.

Lucy Arnold, Director of Lucy Locket Loves

Lucy Arnold

For some, having a job where you can work your way up is ideal and helps to create a sense of achievement in reaching a new goal; but some people see this as the only way to have success. I know from my experience, careers do not have to be linear to be successful. I’ve worked in a call centre, I’ve owned 2 businesses, I’ve been a PT, and been successful in these lines of work. 

Something I have taken away from my non-traditional career is the way I have transferred my skills and used them in different contexts. It has made me realise that the non-linearity of my career has helped keep things exciting. Don’t just stick with something, hoping that one day it will get better – it is okay to not enjoy something. Success, for me, is not defined by longevity; but how you can use experiences to further yourself.

Sandra Stachowicz, Book Strategist, Five Times Bestselling Author, TED-Ed Speaker, Publisher

Sandra Stachowicz

Being a multi-passionate, multi-talented and multi-dimensional being often means that your career doesn’t follow a linear fashion. You may come across as flaky, indecisive, and easily swayed. That’s just because others are jealous and don’t understand your butterfly nature. It’s not your skills but rather the combination of them that makes you unique and in demand. Long gone are the days when you could stay in your first job until retirement. Not following a linear career means you’re a risk-taker, a go-getter, a make-it-happener who is not afraid of re-inventing and completely disrupting the industry. You learn fast too. You’re a visionary and take bold steps.

Unlike someone who has a “steady”, yet boring job and followed a rather uneventful and predictable career path and only fantasises about their next BIG promotion on their lunch break. Being a multi-tasker means you’re like a chameleon and can easily adapt to ever-changing roles or market trends. This sets you apart from your competitors who may be highly specialised in one area, yet seriously lack in another. This also means that you don’t settle for anything less than the life of dreams. What’s not to like about having a successful career that isn’t linear?

Sarae Pratt, Women’s Career & Leadership Coach

Sarae Pratt

Success comes in many shapes – not just straight lines. Actually, I’d say rarely in straight lines in today’s fast-moving, complex world. We need to zig. We need to zag. Sometimes, follow our own direction away from the prescribed path.

Three things that increase our future success and joy in our non-linear careers and lives:

  • Drop the guilt about changing tack; your education, your experience, and your knowledge aren’t being wasted, rather you’re leveraging it in a new way.
  • Embrace the common thread, you’ve woven between all the paths you’ve trod to get here. Use it to navigate and guide you.
  • Don’t travel this road alone. Connection is key; collaborate and work with others, who lift you up, inspire you and create new opportunities for you.
Rachel Sim, Founder of Spruce Homeware

Rachel Sim

Regardless of your current job or role, you can still learn things that will give value to future positions, even if they don’t appear relevant at first. Whether you are employed, self-employed, a student, an at-home parent, or anything in between, you can continually develop a great range of transferable skills and experiences, which can be applied to any future career path. Learning is lifelong! You are never too old to go in a new direction. Focus on creating value from every situation, developing skills such as communication, teamwork, and organisational skills, which will stand you in good stead whatever your role. By continuing to proactively seek personal development opportunities, you will be fit to tackle your dream role or opportunity when it presents itself. Opportunities often arise from unexpected places. Don’t let the fear of failure prevent you from taking a risk and trying something new. Never let someone’s perception of you prevent you from striving for the success you desire!

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