Career metaphors

I’m editing my draft of Mosaic. One of the chapters is on strategies for keeping your career moving forward, sustainably, even if you have a full life outside of work. The broad advice is to keep thinking ahead (time masters are like chess masters), to do real work, to invest in people, to be strategically seen, to build in space. I would love to come up with a good metaphor for this. What implies sustainable, smart growth over time? There are the usual running metaphors, I suppose — a career is a marathon, not a sprint. Or driving metaphors — we’re looking at the long haul. I’d love to find something that tied in, somehow, to mosaics. But doubling up on metaphor is hard.

Actually, here’s a broader question. What metaphors do you use to think about your career? People like to say it’s a jungle gym now, or a labyrinth, not a ladder. Sometimes it’s a highway, with people opting for fast lanes or slow lanes. What do you think it is?

In other news: For some reason, I really enjoyed the kale wars discussion over at The Frugal Girl. She got something approaching a metric ton of kale in her CSA delivery. What should she do with it? The kale smoothies tasted like salad. The kale chips still tasted like kale. Pesto is her last hope…



18 Responses to Career metaphors


  1. K says:

    How about food? For smart growth, we need to get enough protein, fiber, vitamins (the real work, the being seen, the personal contacts) and not fill up on empty carbs (say, too much Twitter). If you only have time to grab a snack, make it a handful of almonds (making a valuable contact or focusing on an important step toward a project) rather than a bag of potato chips (reading an article that’s only tangentially related to your career). Maybe you could even tie it into the mosaic idea with the arrangement of food on your plate or in your weekly menu plan.

  2. Shanna says:

    I always like farming metaphors. You’ve got short term goals that may entail sacrifice (make hay while the sun shines) but you also can’t damage your long term chances (don’t eat the seed corn.) You also have to invest in resting the soil and feeding it with nitrogen-fixing covercrops, two activities that are often missing when people compare themselves and their businesses with mechanical automatons.

    • Laura says:

      @Shanna- my brain is turning at the idea of trying to use nitrogen-fixing covercrops as a metaphor :) It’s funny because one woman profiled in this chapter actually runs a John Deere farm equipment distribution business. Maybe I work those cover crops into *her* profile…

  3. Shelly says:

    I really don’t have a metaphor that I use for career capital. I have to say I have always been someone who will get involved in some ways at work (I have been on committees and will take on a project) but I had never though about deliberate actions to work on career capital until I starting reading your blog a couple of years ago.
    At first it gave me a moment of panic as I’m in my early 40′s and I felt I should have had more career work done.

    There has been some changes in my work place (some not so great). I’m trying to focus more on the individual “tile” pieces in areas such as being seen and professional development. I know somehow these pieces are the stepping stones to a shift in my career. It’s frustrating not being able to see a clear path but I think that ties into the labyrinth where it is not a straight line anymore but a twisting and turning journey.

    • Laura says:

      @Shelly- sorry about the panic – not my intention! But I do think it’s a useful thing to think about — investing in one’s long term sustainable growth. I know there are things I don’t do well that I’m trying to work on too. There’s also wisdom in realizing aspects of one’s personality. I am not a connector type and never will be. So career advancement advice that works for people who are natural networkers will not work for me, so I need to figure out other ways to grow networks.

      • Shelly says:

        I think that you naturally make connections with all the interviews that you do. I think the next step is to actually try to develop on going connection with those people that you resonated with.
        (and no worries – it was a good kick in the pants panic that has made me much more thoughtful in my actions towards work capital!)

  4. Chelsea says:

    What about the process of actually assembling a mosaic? You have to focus on both the minute details of how the tiles fit together (the day to day) but keep in mind the overall picture (life) you are trying to create.

    • sara says:

      I was thinking of something similar to this. The Sistine Chapel wasn’t painted in a day, or some other “artistic” spin on the marathon/Rome/long-haul metaphors.

  5. H says:

    This isn’t exactly what you are looking for, but I explain what I’m trying to do as treading water, and I mean it positively. Keep my connections active, keep strong performance reviews, keep building my skills, but not move up for the moment. Maybe a better (positive sounding) analogy is to keep the same time. I want to be able to pick back up when I’m ready from this point rather than start over.

    • Laura says:

      @H – I get what you’re saying, and it’s too bad that treading water does have such negative connotations! (or at least not positive ones). It’s more about being in the ready state. Maybe you’re not going all in but you’re not drowning either.

  6. We must cultivate our garden. –Voltaire

  7. Griffin says:

    Am I wrong or does one not know exactly what a mosaic will look like until it is completed? No one has total control over her career, but she might be playing with certain colors and a certain number of tiles. Your colors might be what you’ve chosen–field, skills to focus on, etc. Your number of tiles might be like your educational assets and your cultural capital.

    • Laura says:

      @Griffin – I think people plan them out pretty extensively, especially if they’re going to be intricate. Like you’d sketch where the tiles go or design it with a computer layout program first.

      • Griffin says:

        Ha! Clearly I’m not crafty or all that artistic when it comes to using my hands. I have found the jungle gym metaphor the most useful in my career planning. Anything else seems too rigid and short-sighted. I like the idea that you need to keep your eyes open for different ways to move around and up and across.

  8. Nother Barb says:

    Scaffold? Cross between ladder and jungle gym, but possibly safer and room for more than one thing on it.

  9. Lonsdale says:

    Chess? As opposed to checkers, where the pieces are all identical and function identically, and can only move forward. In chess, you have a lot of different pieces to work with; they can move in a lot of different ways (some only straight ahead, some only side ways, some diagonally, and so on). It’s about all the pieces working together to address a variety of conditions. Similarly, in our career toolkits, we have a multitude of skills and experiences that work for us in different ways, and there are all kinds of ways to “advance” that don’t necessarily involve charging straight ahead as quickly as possible.