We often treat our careers like it’s a race. With only a winner. We setup goals where we want to get a degree by a certain age. Get that certification at another age. Get that job at a certain age and we judge our success by if we make more than say 100k per year. Because that’s what we’ve been told.
However, building a successful career in IT is nothing like that.
I’ve been there myself and felt the stress. I started my university studies when I was 22. I felt old at the time when I was surrounded by people that were 18-19 years old. I know that people where I lived before my university studies had started asking questions of the kind if I wasn’t to become anything. To do something with my life. I needed a few years break from school before going to university studies , and it turns out that was a great decision. I was able to study in a matter I had never done before.
One of the goals I setup in my career was to become a CCIE by 30. I’m not sure why. It just seemed like getting it later would be too late. I ended up getting it at 31, with two small kids, which I think is a pretty great feat but looking back now, the only reason to get it at a certain age, is if you expect your life situation to change. The age itself is not what’s important.
A Career Compared to Athletics
I’m a passionate runner and in something like athletics, there are generally two types of running. There’s the short races like 100m, 200m etc, where the focus is on brute power. You can’t try to win a 100m race by outsmarting Usain Bolt. Then there are longer races like 5000m, 10000m etc. It’s quite possible for a runner with a worse PB to win a race, because there is more strategy involved.
What you need to understand about your career is that it’s a long distance race.
Let’s look at some of the characteristics of racing and how that’s different to your career.
Talent – Becoming the fastest person in the world involves a lot of talent. You need to get lucky in your mix of DNA. Of course, without hard work it doesn’t help, but you’re not going to be the fastest person just by working hard.
I don’t consider myself to be the same raw talent as someone like Petr Lapukhov, Nick Russo, Luke Bibby etc, but I’ve still been able to have a lot of success by playing to my strengths.
Time Span – In athletics, you have a rather short period of time where you can compete to be the best. It takes time to get enough training in to compete with the best, and then there is the matter of where you have your physical peak according to age. That means that you have a realistic chance of winning somewhere around the age of 20 – 35.
Your career has a long time span. There is time!
You are not retiring at 35. Or if you are, congratulations! Most of use are in this until the age of 65-70, though. That means that you probably have around a good 40 years of working. There’s time to get a degree. There’s time to get that cert. There’s time to get that job that you want. Even if you got into IT at a later stage, focus on building the best version of you and don’t compare yourself to others.
Finish line – In a real race, there’s a finish line. A race only takes part for a very short period of time, even for the longer races.
In real life, there is no finish line. Or it’s one that keeps moving. You will have different goals at different stages of your life, and there is no finish line. There is no time limit on how long you are racing for.
Winning – In a race there is only one winner. In your career, there are multiple winners. There’s no limit on how many winners there can be. Someone wants to be in networking. Another person wants to be in security. Someone wants to be an Engineer and another person wants to be an Architect. There are so many different types of jobs and roles and we are not all gunning for the same spot.
If you are happy where you are, you are winning.
Winning is not only about being the best. It’s about enjoying what you do, making friends, having a life that has balance. Balance is however a relative concept. Some people want more family time, some people focus mainly on their work, and that’s fine too. The point is that there is no strict definition of who the winner is.
Distance – We often treat our careers like it’s a sprint. While in reality it’s more like a marathon, or even an ultra marathon. You can’t go into a marathon and pushing it everything you have for the first kilometer, the rest of the race will be very painful then.
Focus on maintaining a sustainable pace.
There will be times in you career where you do a lot of work or study really hard, but you want to stay within your limits. Pushing too hard, you won’t make it all the way, or you’ll have to take a break to be able to come back.
Strategy – Once again, we tend to treat our career as a short race, also from a strategy perspective. We are trying to be faster only by brute force.
In longer races, it’s about strategy and playing to your strengths.
If my strength is that I have a really good finish, then my strategy would be to have a slow race so that I have enough energy for a good finish. I could try to achieve that by taking the lead and slowing down the pace. On the other hand, if my PB is among the best but I have a slow finish, I need to try to get rid of the competition before the final lap.
You need to assess what your strengths and weaknesses are and take them into consideration in your career.
If you can play to your strengths, and use a strategy where your weaknesses are not constraining you, you will be more successful.
Your career is not a sprint. It’s a marathon! You have plenty of time to achieve the goals that you want to. You are in this for the long run and need to build something that is sustainable. Use a strategy that plays to your strengths. Realize that there can be multiple winners and that you are a winner if you are happy with what you do.