Want to Create the Perfect Career? First, Build a Castle

castle 3d illustration-ERIKA ANDERSENRecently two of my colleagues and I conducted a five-day a leadership and management bootcamp for high-potential mid-level women. We have the chance to do this program a few times a year, and we love working with these women, who are smart, curious, open funny and ambitious. They are, for the most part, right in the midst of their work lives – and so, of course, many of the conversations we have with them focus on where to go in their career: how to find what they’re most passionate about, how to balance career and family life, whether or not to take jobs they’re being offered… in short, what kind of a future they want to create for themselves.

In talking one-on-one with many of them, I noticed that they often were a little stuck in their thinking  because they were focusing only on the “job” level — as in “what job should I do?” or “should I take this job I’m being offered?” As we conversed, I tried to help them “pull back the camera” – instead of looking at the details of this or that job, and deciding what to do based on that, to first step back and figure out the key things they want overall in their career and life, and then look for a job that will provide them with those things.

It reminds me of an old story about the power of having a clear vision. As the story goes, there were three stone masons on a medieval building site, all chipping away at blocks of granite. A traveler stops and asks the first one, “What are you doing?” He says, “I’m trying to make this stone into the shape I’ve been told to make it.”

Then the traveler goes to the next mason and asks, “What are you doing?” And he says, “I’m putting up this wall — making sure every stone fits into it well.”

Finally, he goes to the last mason and asks, “What are you doing?” And that mason stops, looks up, and says, “I’m building a castle, so every stone has to go toward making it strong and secure.”

I suspect the mason who understood that he was building a castle was able to make much better decisions about how to shape and place each stone — and derived a lot more satisfaction from the process. For example, one of the women I spoke to last week wanted to figure out the ideal career for herself — but she was focused almost completely on her current job, and the ways in which her boss and the work she was doing weren’t great. She was trying to figure out how to improve her boss, and see if she could get assigned more interesting work. She was definitely operating on the “cutting a stone” level.

When I encouraged her to “pull back the camera,” she moved back to the what-job-do-I-want level. But, in my experience, that’s like the mason who knows he’s building a wall — it’s better than looking stone by stone, but it still won’t tell you what you need to know.

So I encouraged her to step back further and envision the whole castle: what would it look, sound and feel like if she had the career she really wanted? She realized that her personal “castle” would have four key elements: to be a part of a highly collaborative, mutually respectful team; to be providing a service or product that improved people’ lives; to have challenging work that required her to think and learn; and to have the opportunity to travel. As soon as she got clear about those four things — the blueprint for her “career castle” — she realized that she could use them as a filter for any job she was considering. And she also realized that her current job is only providing one of the four (opportunity to travel)… and is unlikely to provide the other three.

I checked in with her the next day, after she had a chance to further clarify her vision and start to make a plan to look for jobs she could pursue that would offer those four key elements. She was even creating interview questions she can ask to check for those aspects of a job. I could tell she had moved from mostly frustrated and confused to mostly hopeful and enthusiastic. Discovering the handful of things that you most want in your career — and would want in any job you have — can be liberating. It allows you to raise your eyes up from the day-to-day and focus your efforts on taking those steps that will most support you to create the life you want. It allows you to see and build your ideal career.

If you’re interested in building your own castle, here’s a more in-depth explanation of the process I’m describing, and there are lots more resources here. And if you’ve already envisioned and built your own career castle — I’d love to hear about it…

Originally published at Forbes.

If your ideal career is going to require new skills, check out Erika’s new book: Be Bad First – Get Good at Things FAST to Stay Ready for the Future



Erika Andersen

Erika Andersen

Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a coaching, consulting and training firm that focuses on leader readiness. Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients' challenges, goals, and culture. She and her colleagues at Proteus focus uniquely on supporting leaders at all levels to get ready and stay ready to meet whatever the future might bring. Much of her recent work has focused on organizational visioning and strategy, executive coaching, and management and leadership development.

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