Five Words That Can Stall Your Career

“Self talk is the most powerful form of communication because it either empowers you or it defeats you.” – Wright Thurston

I believe that the language we use when thinking about and describing our careers and ourselves is an important yet often overlooked component of career development. Much of the current self-development literature points out that it is better to demonstrate positive self-talk (e.g., “I can do this”) versus negative self-talk (e.g., “Nothing I do ever works out”). While some self-talk is easier to categorize as good versus bad, a large portion of it is not. Consequently, we may be unwittingly sabotaging ourselves and our careers by using seemingly ordinary language.

Here are some words you should consider using with caution or, better yet, completely toss when thinking about your career:

Career Path

The term career path is a so strongly embedded in discussions and career literature that it may seem difficult, even treasonous, to consider abandoning it. But quite frankly, it needs to be banished from the career discourse.

A career path is usually something you follow and has been taken by others, most often because it already exists. A path denotes a road or trail that leads to a specific point. The word feels prescriptive and assumes there are existing paths for all end points and is conveniently sign posted. How wonderful if that were the case! But the reality is that we often set out in life only to end up somewhere different than we expected or planned. Ask a room of entrepreneurs and it’s doubtful they followed an existing path; most often they were trailblazers who found a purpose, set a vision and followed that instead. They didn’t wait for someone to hand them a map.

The word career path usually leads many people to assume that career decision making is like taking exits on a highway (e.g., “If I pick this path, I will end up here.”). I’ve had many clients express confusion and frustration because they couldn’t see the path forward. Consequently, they became paralyzed and would not take action until they felt clear on the path. I have also had other clients turn down opportunities because veering off the path was something you just don’t do. What these clients had in common, is what they were looking for: certainty of outcomes and/or career guarantees. This type of thinking doesn’t account for all the life that happens in between decisions and outcomes. It also places way more emphasis on the career versus the person. These individuals mistakenly assumed that how their career was being applied to them was more important than how they applied themselves to their career.

Career path is often used when looking forward, but it’s often easiest to see when looking back. The last time I looked, most careers were far from predicable and don’t come with a set of instructions. I invite you to banish the term career path and others like it (e.g., career track) from your career discourse, because it’s outdated and restrictive. The word career on its own will suffice.   

Try

When asked about your next action steps or efforts, people often respond using the overused and automatic go-to word, try. “I will try to reach out to that person,” or “I will try to apply for that job.” Let’s face it, saying you will try to do something likely means you won’t.  The word try casts a shadow of doubt. It’s indicative of less commitment, it sounds tentative, and leaves you with just enough wiggle room to expect or assume failure, and therefore not take any more action beyond uttering the statement. It’s a convenient strategy to protect yourself from the negative perceptions of failure or rejection. After all, you didn’t say you were going to do it, you only said you would try to do it. Instead, replace “try” with, “I will” or “I won’t.” It’s true that some of your early attempts may not be well executed, but each time you attempt to forego using the word try, integrate your learnings into the next attempt. And when you know better, chances are you will do better.  Don’t try, either do or don’t.

Push

How many times have you heard that it’s important to push yourself in order to accomplish things whether on the personal or career front?  Perhaps you have been told (or you are the one telling others), “If only you would push yourself harder, you would be more successful, thinner, richer, happier,” etc. The word itself conjures up notions of applying concerted effort in the hopes that we get a well-deserved outcome for our efforts. Here are some examples of the definition of push:

to exert a thrusting force upon something

to use steady force in moving a thing away

move (something) in a specified way by exerting force

to press upon or against (a thing) with force in order to move it away

Simply reading these definitions makes me tired and not very interested in doing any activities that would be described by the above definitions. Some may call me lazy, but I prefer the term selectively, or strategically, action oriented.

If you are in a position of leadership, you might find that in addition to pushing yourself, you have to push others. After all, good leaders push others, right?  But what if there was a better way? What if you looked for ways to pull yourself and others? Most of the time we push ourselves because we don’t want to do something, yet we continue to muster up and squander valuable energy doing it. And if we don’t take action, we conveniently guilt trip and wallow in shame because we didn’t push hard enough. If only we could stop kicking our self-esteem when it’s down.

Activities that pull us are likely to be more motivating, more engaging, and more interesting. I’m not suggesting hard work isn’t part of the equation; there will always be tasks we don’t like but are necessary. But it’s possible to work hard and want to do the activities as well. There are many things we have to get done in life, but rarely do we stop and think: Why am I doing this? Do I have to be the one to do this? Can I find someone else to do this? Is there a different way to get better results? What else can I do with my time that I am drawn to?

As Soon As

We’ve all heard this before, “As soon as A happens, then I’ll do B.” For example,

“As soon as I hear back from this company, then I can apply for a job at the other company.”

“As soon as I see what my bonus is, then I can decide if I’m looking for a new job.”

“As soon as I’m finished my program, then I can start looking for a job.”

“As soon as I retire, then I can really do what I want to do.”

We all have competing demands as well as different resources and coping abilities, so it’s important to prioritize and even eliminate certain demands. Sometimes, having too much on the go at once can mean we are half-assing it everywhere. Instead, if we did less, we might find we get more done, and with better results for ourselves and others. However, one must be careful that we are not praying to the Goddess of Assoonas too often.

As many of the above examples illustrate, we often don’t take action in our careers because we are waiting for someone or something to do something first. It’s important to recognize if we are using “as soon as” to prioritize, procrastinate or abdicate. The next time you hear yourself pray to the Goddess of Assoonas, challenge yourself to understand why you are doing it. Is there anything else you could be doing instead to get you closer to your goals? Time moves on whether you do anything or not, so don’t let a young person’s dreams become an old person’s regrets.

Security

If the previous generations have indoctrinated us with any career dogma, it’s that security is the holy grail of career. Get a job with a good wage and benefits and you will be secure and set for life. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that security is but a myth, or at a minimum, our understanding of security needs a makeover.

Consider the following two people:

1) A person who has worked for the same company for twenty years and doesn’t know what they would do if they were fired, laid off or could no longer work.

2) A person who has been laid off a number of times during their twenty-year career but has always been able to find a job in less than a month.

Who has more security?

Most people attribute security to a particular job title, how much they make, if there is a good pension or retirement plan, how long they stay in the job, or labour market information (e.g., Is the job in demand?). Don’t get me wrong, these can be important factors to consider. And while labour market information is indeed important, you need to rethink things if your career decision sounds like this, “I will be a teacher or nurse because those are good secure jobs;” holy heck, you are sliding down a slippery slope! Sure, being a teacher or a nurse is a good job, but only for someone who wants to do that work.

Let’s face it, security is more than what your degree or diploma says. If you can’t get along with your co-workers, you might be fired and hence lack security. If the CEO of your company is cooking the books and the company is in downward spiral but you think you have a job until retirement, you probably lack security. If you dread going to work and your performance smells worse than a tuna fish sandwich left in a hot car, you probably lack security.

The problem with using outdated thinking to evaluate job security is that it can lead you to feel anything but in control, and even misguided in assuming you have security when in fact you don’t. Most people’s understanding of career security centers around what they receive (e.g., a job, a paycheck, a degree) versus what they offer (e.g., the ability to solve problems, offer new ideas, build consensus, build rapport, lead and influence others, identify and sell to customers). I’d contend that security has much more to do with what we give than what we receive.

Security comes from within and it’s actually an outcome of career agility.  If you are aware of your skills, the value you bring, and you have the ability to identify career opportunities and access them, then you posses career agility. If you can articulate your value, and identify those who would benefit from your value, you have career agility. If you are hopeful, optimistic, resilient, adaptable, and creative in identifying and pursuing career opportunities, you have career agility. Stop being a security seeker and start cultivating career agility instead. Perhaps you may even change your answer about which person has more security in the above scenarios.