It’s Not a Career Path, It’s a Career Highway
This is my site Written by Alora on March 29, 2010 – 11:55 am

As a career management advocate turned Entrepreneur Evangelist, I recently had an epiphany that clarified some of the change I’ve experienced over the past two years, as I’ve moved from my old life to my new one.

I’ve been lacking an effective metaphor to describe both the process and my present (and potentially future) state.  This has been tremendously frustrating (for both me and my husband), because my state of mind on this journey radically colors the choices that I am (or am not) comfortable making.

I think I finally figured out how to define it more effectively  We often talk about a “career path.” I think this is inaccurate. I think the right phrase is a “career highway.”

Right Lane = Stability-Motivated Employee

  • One career and as few employers as possible.
  • Stability reigns supreme.
  • Even calculated risks are uncomfortable.
  • Large enterprises and government positions often appeal most to this category.
  • A single employer career with a stable retirment plan and reliable benefits is the Holy Grail, and boredom is acceptable at work in exchange for stability.
  • Any necessary excitement can be sought outside of work when needed.
  • “Progress” is most frequently measured in proximity to retirement, more than rungs climbed up a career ladder.

Second Lane = Migratory Employee

  • The modern normal.
  • An employee who will have 2-4 careers in a lifetime, and an average of 12-15 different jobs.
  • Stability is important, but not above all else.
  • Calculated career risks are worthwhile, if not occassionally exciting.
  • Jumping to a new job is always a possibility if a more appealing opportunity presents itself.
  • This employee is often heavily motivated by autonomy and new challenge, secondarily by money.

Center Lane = Freelancer

  • The newest class of employee, often placing a premium on freedom and flexibility above stability.
  • Often easily bored, and prefering variety with risk to stability with stagnation.
  • Commonly enjoys being a solo entity, and is disinclined towards growing a business that requires taking on the responsibilities of having employees.
  • Collaboration with other freelancers is often a successful and preferential model.
  • “Dollars for hours” is the most common financial model, which can cause business development challenges.

Fourth Lane = Self-Employed

  • Small businesses, often family or small-team owned/managed.
  • Frequently limited in scalability.
  • Often heavily reliant on founder(s) for success.
  • Lifestyle businesses and brick-and-mortar neighborhood businesses often fall into this category.
  • Not uncommon for an owner to discover that they ‘own a job’ rather than ‘own a business.’
  • Freedom and wealth-building often started out as core priorities; over time, the realities of business limitations can undermine those objectives if this was not the intended final growth state of the business.

Left Lane = Business Owner

  • Scalable businesses of all sizes.
  • Owner/founder has decentralized systems, processes and critical knowledge enough to allow for empowerment and delegation among staff.
  • Vacations and sick days for the founder are possible and cause little in the way of organizational chaos.
  • This business is a strong candidate for potential sale, since success is not wholly dependent on the original founder for success.
  • Owners/founders who build this type of business can/do often build more than one over the course of their lifetime.

Obviously this isn’t an entirely clean mapping, and different combinations can blend a bit to create a bit of a hybrid. But I think that the most meaningful part of the highway metaphor is the idea that people can change lanes over time. Different life factors can influence which lane someone chooses.

  • I have seen dozens of female Second Laners have children, and then suddenly switch into either Right or Center Laners (depending on both their personality and their skillset).
  • I have watched numerous Second Laners get laid off and decide to take on an entrepreneurial opportunity by moving immediately to the Center Lane, sometimes working their way farther over as time goes by.

This has been my path. I was an obsessive, workaholic Second Laner who was finding a ton of meaning and fun in the career that served me well, paid me nicely, stroked my ego constantly and took me on great professional adventures for a decade. When I hopped off the highway to move to a new town, I (arrogantly) assumed that I’d be able to just hop onto the new road in my new town without any trouble, and slide right back into the Second Lane again.

Unfortunately, my timing sucked. We left New York for Texas the week that Lehman Brothers decided to implode under the weight of their reckless decisions, and all of my pre-move job interview work collapsed with it. While not technically laid off, I found myself in the same position as many people who were: I was suddenly at loose ends with an inability to find a company that would let me do what I knew how to do. So, I shifted to the Center Lane.

The reality, though, is that at the time we started our business, I used the language that I knew my husband wanted to hear: and it was all Left Lane language. That’s what he wanted, that’s what he was going for, and that’s how we discussed it. The problem, of course, was that — like many new Center Laners — my hope was to bide my time until I could jump back into the Second Lane.

After a rough few months, I was finally given that chance. And, as luck would have it, it was on a trial basis. My new employer wanted the chance to check me out, and I certainly wanted the chance to check them out. As it turned out, that was the best thing that could have happened to my Career Highway Navigation. Going from the Center Lane back to the Second Lane suddenly felt painfully confining. Stifling, even. I was miserable within a week. I never saw that coming, and was a bit shocked to finally get what I’d wanted only to discover that I didn’t want it anymore.

So, after informing my employer that I didn’t foresee being able to sufficiently fill their needs, I stayed around to help them hire my replacement and then ultimately left. Back in the Center Lane again, I was at loose ends once more, but this time with a purpose. I just had to figure out how to make it work.

During this time, my husband began working on his startup. Everything about my husband is Left Lane. The idea of any other kind of business simply doesn’t make sense. And as a deeply collaborative person, he recognizes that he’ll need help to build a business that fits the bill.

Yet when it comes to me, in my professional life, I’m still in the Center Lane. I know that I don’t want to be in the Fourth Lane. But I’m honestly not sure that I want to be in the Left Lane, either. There are variations of the Center Lane model that are more lucrative and more sustainable than a strictly ‘dollars for hours’ model (which I also don’t want), but I’m not at all convinced that I can’t attain the degree of freedom I am looking for, accomplish the wealth-building I seek and manage to stay in the Center Lane.

But then, that’s part of the point: my A-#1 priority is freedom, above all else. I am not risk adverse (obviously), and I enjoy primarily being an individual contributor who occassionally collaborates on larger projects with others; I also don’t want to go back to managing people, projects, processes or products (been there, done that)… but I also don’t want to go back to working for anyone else. Given that, I don’t really see a solution other than the Center Lane for me.

My husband’s priority is to change the world, build a team of empowered collaborators and inspire the people who come into contact with his business to find creative solutions to large-scale problems. This is a goal he could never accomplish from the Center Lane. To do this on the scale that he wants, he needs to be in the Left Lane.

I always like the way the Left Lane looks. But I am increasingly less convinced that I’ll ever necessarily make my way all the way over there. But I’m also increasingly less convinced that I necessarily need to. With some proper planning and organizing, I could find that the Center Lane is the place that I’m happiest. Only time will tell. I just hope that next time I find myself switching lanes, I’m aware of it in time to turn on my blinker.