Have you already passed the peak point in your career? Or is it still ahead of you? Even more significantly, how do you know if it is behind you, ahead of you or perhaps right in front of you?
I was recently part of a small, warm celebration of former colleagues marking the 30th anniversary of Vancouver’s EXPO 86. Lo those many years ago, we had been part of the staff that put on a World’s Fair that attracted 22 million visitors over the course of 5 ½ months in 1986.
Understandably, it was a peak career moment for many people. There was the rush of being part of something so big, so global. The opportunity to be part of a group of people that included those that were hand-picked for their unique skills, those that got there because of who they knew, those that were already event gypsies (or later became so) – and somehow all mushed together into an extraordinary team that put on an extraordinary event. Heady stuff! No wonder many of the staff and volunteers still mark their EXPO 86 experience as the high point of their career 30 years later.
The anniversary gave me pause to reflect on what actually makes a career highlight. When your job is attached to words like World Exposition, Olympics, World Cup World Tour of (fill in the blank for any number of bands and other performers), there may be an expectation that that job is as good as it will ever get. Maybe you continue to find ways to keep working on those events and it gets better and better, and then again maybe the first gig was the best one or even your only one in that world.
Not everyone – in fact, the majority of those creating and living careers – don’t have their stars hooked to major events. Their careers are linked to the financial services industry, mining, green energy, education, medicine, or any number of other “real” jobs. Whereas the major event industry tends to have a life compressed into a few single digit years, most people’s careers are more of a slow burn that starts with education, evolves into early experience and makes it way through a series of highs and lows over the course of 20-30-40 years.
Whether your career is on the more traditional scale or wild and wooly, how do you know when you have actually hit the peak point? Is it when you are making the most money ever? Or when you have the most people reporting to you, or when you are simply feeling like you are running on all cylinders, nothing can stop you, you are on fire! Maybe it is simply when you are having the most fun, loving the people you are working with. Or maybe a career is like mountain climbing and the peak always seems to be ahead of you.
As ever, I don’t pretend to have all the answers to these questions but here is what I have observed over the years – perhaps with some tips that may help you identify the peak of your career:
All that glitters is not gold – the big shiny events and projects are fun to work on and sometimes there is personal career gold along the way…and sometimes it is just glitter. Glitter can blind you for a period of time so it does not sustain a career – but here’s the thing, neither does gold! Whether you define gold as financial rewards or a big title, or in some other way, it tends to be fairly fleeting. A sustained career peak of solid gold is a rare thing. If things like money and title define your peak, then enjoy those things while they are happening. The trick? Figuring out how to turn those riches into something that does sustain you not just through a career, but also through a life.
The race is run at many different speeds – in my observation, slow and steady can win the career race but sprinters can do just fine! Some people shoot out of the gate early, run a fast and successful career race and then do fabulous other things with their lives from personal achievements like travelling the world to making a difference in other people’s lives. Watch those people and observe when their “podium moment” really was.
You can always get what you want – I subscribe heavily to the belief that all we are given is time and the raw materials to make the life, and career, that we want. The thing that I see people struggle the most with is working out what it is they actually want. If the only raw materials you have to make dinner are eggs and butter, chances are that you will make scrambled eggs. If you have a pantry full of all sorts of culinary delights, the question of what’s for dinner can be much more complex. Similarly, your career can simply be made from what’s readily at hand, or you can zero in which of the many delights in front of you that will be most fulfilling. Either ways, you have the ability to decide on what the best career meal of your life will be.
Sometimes there is no TV coverage – if you are standing somewhere on a podium, accepting an award while a roomful of people and millions of others watch on TV (ok, on Facebook!), then chances are that may feel like the peak of your career. And maybe it is. But I am reminded of a peak moment in my career that was realized as I leaned wearily against the wall of a hotel elevator, all alone and with really no one else in the world who knew that this was a peak moment for me. No one else needed to know except me.
Yes, it is about the people – solitary moments of glory aside, our lives and our careers are very much about the people we share them with. Can you have a career peak when you work with people you don’t like, don’t respect or have nothing in common with? Maybe but it is less likely. We are social, competitive, collaborative beings who like to bask in the acknowledgement of others. But that can simply be the quiet words of thanks or recognition from a co-worker, a parent or the person who really liked the vegan wrap you just made for them. There is a somewhat tacky saying that gets posted on walls of all descriptions: It is hard to soar like an eagle when you are flying with turkeys. Harsh but true. Trick is to figure out how you can be an eagle and not one of the turkeys.
I wish you many great career peaks – those that you can savour because you have already hit them, those that are yet to be scaled, and most of all those that might be right in front of you.