Using Career Concepts to Navigate Career and Success

Photo: Tim Graf from Unsplash

“The belief that you can have a meaningful career is the first step to finding one.”

– Sean Aiken, Canadian author and creator of The One-Week Job Project

If you Google “career success,” you will find pictures of ladders, people on top of mountains, people climbing stairs, and upward swooping arrows. You will also notice that many of the folks in these images are attractive and physically fit. So not only is success narrowly defined, but it also appears to be reserved for good-looking and athletic folks. No wonder it’s impossible to cross the line in this success scavenger hunt, never mind win it! Yet we regularly set ourselves up for failure by subscribing to predetermined group think and socially projected metrics of growth, development, happiness, and success. What a way to erode your confidence and undermine your own career.

Consider one definition of career:

an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person's life and with opportunities for progress

The potential for frustration is significant since a definition like this perpetuates outdated ideas of career and success. For example, while I embrace a very liberal description of the word progress, this term is most often used to imply upward movement, which is only one of the many ways to measure progression in career. Another theme the above definition conveys is that time and specifically, longevity, is a necessary component of a successful career. The more time that is invested, the more likely you are to have had a “successful” career. I agree that time is an important component as is effort and aptitude among other things. However, the dilemma the word “longevity” imposes on career decision makers is that it impacts our understanding of what a career should look like, or perhaps more importantly, what it should feel like.

After all, it is possible to feel unsuccessful, even while others view you as successful. The inverse is also true.  Hence the importance of integrating your own values to determine your definition for both career and success. And while the career ladder continues to be the most pervasive metaphor to describe career and success, there are other, much better concepts to consider:[i]

Expert Career Concept

This concept is the most common and traditional conceptualization of career. It emphasizes the lifelong commitment to one profession, mastering knowledge and skills in a particular field. Individuals drawn to this career concept often value commitment, quality, security, and specialization.

Linear Career Concept

This concept emphasizes upward movement, and is characterized by an increased level of responsibility, influence, and status. Individuals drawn to this career concept typically value leadership, competitiveness, and achievement.

Spiral Career Concept

This concept is much less traditional and is characterized by lateral change, typically every five to ten years. Individuals with this career concept tend to develop a much broader skill set, with each transition building upon existing skills. The term “spiral” illustrates how career evolves, spiraling outward from a core set of knowledge, skills, and abilities, with the application of these attributes to new environments. Individuals drawn to this career concept typically value variety and personal growth.

Transitory Career Concept

This concept is the least conventional, yet often the most adaptive, of the concepts and is characterized by the most change. Others may not even view this pattern as a career.  Individuals drawn to this career concept consistently seek change and typically value variety, independence, and flexibility.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not), not all career concepts are valued by organizations or those around you. The most celebrated is the linear career concept as it aligns most closely with the corporate ladder. As an example, you are likely to receive more e-mails that read “Congratulations to Paul on his recent promotion” versus those that acknowledge lateral transitions. Those e-mails usually read as follows: “Bob is moving from Accounting to Project Management effective next week.” Instead of celebrating the courage of transition and pursuit of authenticity, the acknowledgement is often underwhelming. And depending on your organization’s culture, you won’t see many e-mails, if any at all, congratulating someone moving from full-time to part-time. This, despite the fact most of us would jump at the chance to sustain our current lifestyle and commitments while only spending half the time at work - even if we like what we do!

For those who embrace the transitory career concept, they often have a unique ability to navigate a range of roles and situations, yet rarely receive recognition for doing so. A career chameleon of sorts with an unique ability to reinvent themselves and adapt, they are often labelled as unfocused or undecided. These folks are commonly on the receiving end of career advice and judgement that reinforces the linear concept. And it usually sounds like this:

“Why don’t you just get your foot in the door somewhere and work your way up?”

“You’ve already spent x amount of time in that job, don’t change now, you’ll have to start all over again!”


“You’ll never get anywhere if you keep changing jobs.”

Where the hell is “anywhere” anyway…and according to who? It’s not uncommon for people to dish out career advice based on their own values and what worked for them, which may or may not work for you.  And even if that advice does work, the outcomes may still not align with what you actually want. But I digress.

 You may be drawn to a specific concept or you may even combine aspects of more than one. Career concepts are not static, and neither are you. You may embrace aspects of each one over the course of your career. While these are not the only ways to describe career development, growth, or success, having concepts and language to validate your ideas and experience can be helpful towards understanding and describing your career and your success.   

Which career concept resonates with you and why? Perhaps you have your own career concept you’d like to share. Leave a comment below for the Career with a View crew. Like what you read? Don’t forget to subscribe.

[i] Brousseau, K. R. and Driver, M. J. (1998). Careerview concepts: Roadmaps for career success. Decision Dynamics Group