Forget the career ladder and the job for life. Work to learn, experiment and elevate yourself

By Oliver Sylvester-Bradley on 11 Sep 2014 - 14:48

Picking a career is scary! You might get it wrong...

I remember being asked all through my child hood "what do you want to be when you grow up?" It seemed like a fun question to start with, but by the time I got to sixteen I was worried. I didn't know the answer. Careers fairs and advisors never helped, they just made the decision sound even more final, as if I only had one chance to pick the perfect career and if I messed up my qualifications, or made the wrong choice, my life would not be worth living.

There's no such thing as a "job for life" these days

That was back in the days when "a job for life" was not only the default it was also considered a good thing. These days there's no such thing as a job for life, "The permanent contract is only worth as much as the notice period” and since "any business in any industry could run into financial trouble and lay off staff" you're never more than a few months away from your final salary cheque anyway, so don't get hung up on the idea of a "proper, permanent job". "Jobs for life" are not a practical, or desirable proposition these days anyway. Who wants to work for the same company for 50 years?

Changes in the economy have made it a higher risk strategy for companies to take on full time employees. "A survey of companies with more than 1,000 employees by Staffing Industry Analysts found they expect 18% of their workforces to be made up of temps, freelancers or contract workers in 2013, up from 16% in 2012." All of which provides great opportunities for people who aren't quite sure about their "career path" and don't want to get stuck up the wrong "career ladder" without any opportunity for "lateral movement"?

If you are prepared to take the (largely non-existent) risk of working as a freelancer or contractor you not only receive the advantage of a flexible career path you also receive numerous lifestyle benefits, like avoiding the stress-inducing commute and office politics for starters.

My Dad thought I was mad to give up my full time job working for a solar energy company in order to go freelance. But I'm pretty sure I've earned more money, had more fun and more flexibility in my life ever since. Sure, I don't have quite the same pension scheme anymore, but who wants a company pension which even the salesman admits "may not be worth a penny by the time it matures"?

There are now circa 1.6 million freelancers in the UK[1] and we can't all have made the wrong decision! Freelancers have a wealth of lifestyle benefits over the office based, permanent worker the holy grail of which seems to have been defined as the "digital nomad", who has mastered the art of making money from the beach!

By working in different roles and companies, for a few weeks or months at a time you expose yourself to all sorts of unexpected situations from which you are practically guaranteed to learn. By being embedded within a business, even the simplest of us can't help noticing where the money comes from, how the product or service is produced and marketed and most importantly, how that delivers a margin to pay peoples wages. These insights are not things that people will tell you (unless perhaps if you ask!) but having seen and experienced them first hand you will have expanded your business acumen, your CV, and, most importantly, your mind.

Working as a freelancer, or on contracts, is the best way to get to see if you like working in an industry and the best way to learn

If you're wondering if you might like a job in media for example, get a freelance gig at a magazine or newspaper. Volunteer if you have to (only if you have to) but get your foot in the door. You'll soon be able to tell if it is a good career for you. Keep experimenting in different industries until you find the one you like, which gets you excited about the work. Then, and only then, once you KNOW what it is you want to do, should you start applying for full time roles.

You'll learn so much from a few freelance stints that once you apply for a full time role, not only will you have the experience you need to actually get an interview you will also have the stories, the understanding and passion. These are the things that help you win an interview. When you make a bold and true commitment, providence moves too!

If you stay in a job any longer than two years you will stagnate

I worked at the solar energy company for six years and I maintain to this day that was four years too long. In almost every job I have had I have started off being extremely challenged, working hard and learning fast. Then, after the "fresh face" becomes indoctrinated by the "…that's just the way we do things here…" mentality, its almost inevitable that the original challenge fades and you end up "going with the flow".

It might seem like a sweeping statement and perhaps it is, especially in relation to some highly technical or detailed industries where training lasts for several years, but I have never met anyone who has not stagnated in some way from staying in the same role for more than two years.

Enjoy your life. Work to learn. Elevate yourself.

Work is not meant to be something you suffer. In the society we have created work has become one of the most defining elements of our lives. But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy our work. In fact we NEED to enjoy our work to live happy, healthy lives so if you are not enjoying what you are doing, think again about your career. Perhaps it is time for some more experimentation? The worst that will happen is you will learn something.

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Oliver Sylvester-Bradley
Elevator Cafe

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