Your Career Isn't A Straight Line

We live in a culture that views careers as a straight line in forward motion. There is even a phrase for what you are “supposed” to do throughout your career: climb the corporate ladder.

Ah yes, the corporate ladder.

We are all so familiar with this phrase that we don’t give much thought to it. We just absorb it into our vocabulary and assume we’ll do what it describes: Start at the bottom. Look up. And keep climbing through positions until we get to the most senior level possible.

The problem with looking at careers as straight lines is that it leaves us very little room for other types of movement. As a result, many of us go into professions where there are clear, straight lines for upward movement - where we can stand at the bottom of the ladder, see what’s at the top and start climbing straight up.

But what happens if partway up that ladder we realize that we don’t like that particular ladder? What if we see another ladder that seems more appealing? Or what if our company goes through massive layoffs and we have to take a new job a couple of rungs down?

What happens next?

We start to freak out. We freeze because the only direction we’ve ever been told exists is straight up. It’s anxiety inducing and leads to many of us playing small. The result? A lot of people slogging away in careers that aren’t fulfilling them because they don’t see what other directions they can move.

But the truth is, there are lots of other directions in which to move. Sometimes that direction is forward, but it can also be backwards or sideways.

Life and our careers aren't actually linear. Most of the time the clear direction isn’t so obvious. There often isn’t a clear cut ladder in front of us. And even the paths of people whose careers may look from the outside to be a straight line, usually aren’t.

Because your career isn’t in fact a straight line. It’s much more like a winding road.

Sometimes there are shortcuts, while other times you have to take the long way around. Sometimes you’re cruising along and other times traffic stops you dead in your tracks. Sometimes you have to make a U turn or take a hard left or right.

Hopefully this description of your career path doesn’t give you heart palpitations, but instead helps you feel a bit more free.

Getting rid of that rigid corporate ladder mentality means that you have options. It means that you can make a change whenever you want to. Gone are the days of your grandparents staying with the same company for 40+ years. You have options, many directions to turn - you can change roles or companies, or you can change your profession entirely.

In the end, it’s the experiences along the way that shape you and your career.

Everything - the jobs you hated, and those you loved, the boss you fled and the one who saw your potential and promoted you 6 months early - everything is part of your path.

Yet we often assign judgements to those experiences. We see the negative experiences of our career paths as setbacks, while looking at the positive ones as momentum forward - all because we’re stuck in this linear mindset.

However, when we start to shift the way we look at our careers and embrace the curves along the way, that’s when we are able to see a better picture - and tell a better story - of where we have been and where we want to go.

Where We Have Been + Where We Want to go

Often we look at previous jobs as just that - previous jobs, something from our past. We see them as lower rungs of the ladder that don’t need revisiting.

We're so focused on the future and getting somewhere that we fail to take inventory of the experiences we’ve had. While yes, it's definitely important to focus on the future, when we don't look to our past, we often miss out on a treasure trove of information that is affecting where we are now, who we are, and where we are going.

You can’t get where you're going without having started somewhere.

The more we examine where we have been in our careers, the more we can understand how those experiences are forming our future.

We need to start thinking of our career paths as something to create and experience along the way, rather than something to be found.

For example, I often say that I found my calling in coaching. But all of my experiences along the way have been part of my path. The degree is psychology, my psychology internships, my roles on sales teams - those all have been part of my winding path. I needed those experiences to help me understand what made me happy, what I didn’t like about a work environment or a job, and what made my eyes light up. All of this information over the years led me to my “ah ha moment” of what I wanted to do professionally moving forward.

And the great thing about having a winding career path mentality is that it removes the pressure of any one job from being the end all be all. There isn’t an end to the ladder. My winding country road can turn and loop and meander - my career reinventing itself as I go along.

When we agree that there is no ladder - and therefore no end of a ladder - but instead a winding road of opportunities, it takes the pressure off.

I don’t say this to suggest that we all become lazy and no longer do our jobs. That's not it at all. What I mean is that it removes the pressure that we put on ourselves to make our perceived ladder fit. And in turn, it opens us up to possibilities.

If we’re unhappy in our current line of work, we no longer have the fixed mindset of forcing it to work because we have to climb this damn ladder. We can instead take a turn and find something more fulfilling - a new curve in the road.

When we follow this new curve, we can revisit the road we’ve already covered and use it to help inform our decision of what to do next.


Keeping all of this in mind, I invite you to take inventory of the experiences that led you to this point.

What motivated you?

What depleted you?

What left you feeling fulfilled?

What made you excited to go to work?

What made you want to bolt out the office door and never look back?

And how are the answers to these questions pointing you to where you want to go next?


You don’t necessarily have to look up to find what's next for your career. You can look around you in all sorts of directions. You just have to open your mind up to the fact that there are multiple directions. 

And then it's up to you to decide which way you'd like to go next.


Feeling like you could use some help working through these questions and figuring out what comes next? Let's chat!

Be well,