What do you do when you hit a difficult patch in your career? When you feel a bit lost and worry that you’re off track? It happens to all of us. Probably more than once.

Well, one thing most of us do is seek advice. And I was often that person in the office who people came to for that advice.

Some were at the start of their careers and anxious about where they would best make their mark. Others were already quite senior and had that lost feeling of, “I can’t see doing exactly what I’m doing for another 10 years – help!”

Most were mid-career, worried that their progress had slowed and that they wouldn’t amount to anything after all.

For each of them, here’s the starting point that got our conversations onto a great track and ultimately led them to actionable insights.

A Map of Your Career

So whether people came to me feeling anxious, lost or worried about their careers, I found the best thing to do was to help them step back, zoom out and get their bearings by providing a visual of their entire career. Here’s what I drew to help them ”get” their career situation instantly.

The Career S-Curve

I call it the S-Curve, and it’s a graph of one’s career potential over time. It’s also the shape of a learning curve, which is another way to think of our careers – as a series of learning opportunities.

Think of the S-Curve as a map – like those floor plan directories in shopping malls with a big orange dot marked, “You are here”.

I love those maps because they give you your departure point, or where you are right now. Then you have a base from which to venture forward to where you want to go. You also get a feel for how close or far you are from your desired destination.

Two Key Questions

Just as with the shopping mall map, the two most important questions for your career map are: (1) Where are you now?, and (2) What does “arriving” (a.k.a. “success”) look like for you?

Being able to clearly identify those two points makes it much easier to navigate from here to there.

Where Are You Now?

So, let’s talk about you. How do you figure out where you are now on the map?

As a starting point, let’s think of your career in three primary stages:

  • Aspiring” – the early stage
  • Driving” – the middle stage
  • Arriving” – the advanced stage

The Career S-Curve

Aspiring:

When you’re in the Aspiring stage, you’re just starting out and exploring career options. You’re working really hard, developing skills and gaining a variety of experiences. But your visible achievement is still quite modest because you’re building a foundation.

It’s like those construction sites that are fenced off with dark green hoarding. You walk by on the way to work for months and it doesn’t look like any progress is being made. But what they’re doing is extremely important – they’re digging the foundation.

Driving:

Then comes the Driving stage, when you’ve chosen where you want to make your mark and have to demonstrate all the things that it takes to be excellent in your chosen field. In my case, it was how to run a deal, lead a team, build client relationships, and become a “rainmaker”.

In the construction analogy, this is when all of a sudden the building structure seems to go up in a very short period of time. Similarly, your visible achievement tends to be much higher during the Driving stage.

Arriving:

Then, you’ve achieved the level of success that you wanted, which is what I call the Arriving stage. You’re still working hard but you’ve achieved so much that the incremental achievement no longer seems as big. This is because expectations of you have risen along with your capabilities. And here I mean your own expectations as well as the expectations of others.

Back to our building, this is when they’re working on the interior and putting in all the pipes, wiring and walls. There’s a tremendous amount of important work going on, but it doesn’t look like much is happening from the outside.

The Question Mark:

At some point during this Arriving stage, you may find yourself thinking, “What’s next?” “Is this all there is?” And indeed, there is a question mark at the end of the Arriving stage.

That’s when you have some choices to make. Do you opt out and retire altogether, keep doing what you’ve been doing and “coast” a bit, or decide to get on a new S-Curve, whether that’s re-upping your commitment to advance where you are or doing something completely different?

Which S-Curve Are You On?

The good news is that none of us is limited to just one S-Curve in our careers. In fact, your overall career S-Curve is made up of smaller S-Curves that link up. While each distinct segment of your career constitutes a different S-Curve, you don’t have to start all the way at the bottom when you jump onto a new S-Curve. That’s because you’ve developed skills, capabilities, experience and wisdom along the way that you can build on.

For example, my first career S-Curve was my 24-year investment banking career. I then got to the question mark and chose to get on a new S-Curve and become an entrepreneur who helps achievers accelerate their time to success. In my second S-Curve, I’m just starting the Driving stage.

What Does “Arriving” Mean for You?

Now that you’ve established your starting point, it’s time to determine what “Arriving” means to you. There is no “wrong” definition, as long as it’s your definition of success, not what society, your family or anyone else says it should be.

Having heard an array of answers over the years, I’ve found they tend to fall into two categories. Both have their upsides and downsides.

  • Extrinsic: These definitions of success are easily quantifiable, but have to be bestowed on you by others. For example, “becoming the CEO”, “getting paid $1 million”, “being named to the Executive Committee”.
  • Intrinsic: These are qualitative definitions that are largely under your control, but it’s harder to determine whether and when you’ve achieved them, particularly from the outside. For example, “being able to give back to the community”, “becoming a role model for younger people”, or “feeling satisfied that I’ve made the most of my abilities”.

Don’t overthink this. Remember, there is no “right answer”, just the answer that pleases you. And you can always decide to change it. It’s your life and your career.

If arriving for you is being a bazillionaire, great! If it’s saving the whales, fabulous!

Just jot down what comes to mind and, yes, you can have more than one definition.

A side benefit of this process is making friends with your gut instinct, your intuition. That’s the part of each of us that knows best.

Once you’ve listed out those quick instinctive answers, you can step back, analyze and pressure test as much as you want. That said, I find most people end up returning to their initial thoughts.

What’s Your Answer?

So, I’m curious – share a comment and let me know:

How many S-Curves have you had in your career so far, and where are you on your current S-Curve?

What is your definition of “arriving”? How will you know when you’ve achieved “success”?

Then next week, we can talk about how to navigate from here to there…