Creating and Exploring Possibilities
Careers are no longer defined by ‘ladders’. Almost none of us now expect to remain with a single employer or organisation all our working lives. Indeed, over the course of a 45- to 50-year working life, it seems likely that most of us will change not just jobs, but careers—our broad area of work or expertise—at least once and probably more often.
This may be challenging, but it also provides opportunities. However, if we are to take advantage of those opportunities, we need to think ahead. Perhaps not plan, because this type of career pattern is too flexible for anything as rigid as a plan—but consider how we can create and explore possibilities. This page describes some ideas for doing so.
A Change in Philosophy
In their book The Squiggly Career, authors Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis talk about the importance of “ditching the destination” and enjoying the journey.
They mean that your career and working life are essentially a journey. You can’t afford to be looking ahead constantly to find the ‘next thing’, or aiming for specific outcomes. Instead, you have to enjoy what’s happening right now. Embrace your career as a journey, and take advantage of the opportunities that arise along the way.
However, being able to take advantage of the possibilities and opportunities that arise is not a passive process.
You need to prepare the ground so that you are ready to take advantage when the right opportunities arise—and that means thinking about various different types of possibilities.
Four Types of Possibilities
We can divide possibilities into four main types, by both the type or level of skills that are needed, and the way that they are applied (see figure).
The four types of possibility are:
1. Next step
This is your logical next step in your career. This might be upwards, but it might also be a sideways move to consolidate your skills, or develop new skills in a slightly different area.
2. Ambitious possibility
This is a role that might need you to develop new skills, and would be a stretch from your current position, but is not totally unreasonable as a move. You might be able to see yourself stepping into this type of role once you have developed certain additional skills, for example.
Tupper and Ellis suggest that these possibilities can often be identified because they usually have a ‘but’ attached to them: “I might be able to that, but…”
3. Pivot possibility
This is a role that requires you to use your existing skills, but in a new way. It might, for example, be in a new industry, organisation or sector, but with a similar job title, or a complete career change, but building on your existing skills.
4. Dream possibility
Finally, your dream possibility is what you would do if there were no constraints, and the ‘sky was the limit’.
Using the Four Types of Possibility
Identifying a move that would fit into each of these four types of possibility is useful when thinking about your next—or future—career moves.
It can help you see what might be possible now, and also what you might have to do to be ready for an opportunity that arises. That might include, for example, developing your skills further, or finding out more about what skills would be required in an alternative job. You could also start to make contact with people who could advise you (and see our page on Networking Skills for more about this process).
Case study: identifying possibilities
Jo was a civil servant working on policy in the UK Department of Health, but currently on maternity leave, with no specific job to return to once her maternity leave finished.
She identified four possibilities, one of each type:
Her logical next step was a sideways move into a similar job. She identified several at the same level that would interest her, including moving to an alternative department. She realised that this would be relatively straightforward to achieve, but also knew that she should choose the job carefully so that she built up her skills, and wasn’t simply doing ‘more of the same’.
Her ambitious possibility was a promotion to the next level. She knew that this was possible if she found the right job to apply for. However, she also felt that she would be in a stronger position if she took another sideways move first to consolidate her skills. The question was: which skills would be most valuable? She decided to speak to her manager to explore which skills she should develop.
Her pivot possibility was to leave the department, either permanently or on secondment. Her main area of interest was moving into an operational post, working in a hospital somewhere, although this meant finding the right post, or possibly taking a drop in salary. She also reached out to some contacts in hospitals to ask about shadowing them to see if her skills would match.
Her dream possibility was to retrain as a government lawyer. There was a scheme for this, which would provide some financial support, and she decided to look into it. She also talked to her department’s lawyers to see whether they thought she could develop the right skills.
Going through this process sets you up to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
It also helps you to identify whether these possibilities excite you. If they don’t, then don’t bother. You need to be at least intrigued, and at best really excited, by the prospect of each move. If you’re not, you won’t put in the time or effort to start to explore those possibilities.
Is this job consistent with your values? And
Would this job allow you to use your super-strengths frequently?
You should only pursue the opportunity if you can answer ‘yes’ to both those questions.
Essential Skills for Creating and Identifying Possibilities
Tupper and Ellis also suggest that there are three core skills that are crucial to creating, identifying and exploring future possibilities. These are:
Those who are curious are more likely to look around and see possibilities where others only see challenges.
You can find out more about the importance of curiosity, and the three different areas that make it up, in our page on Curiosity.
Giving and Receiving Feedback
Being able to give and receive feedback is crucial to development.
We probably all understand the value of receiving and acting on feedback. We know that it is essential to help us develop. If you don’t receive feedback, you are more likely to develop ‘blind spots’: gaps in your skills that you no longer see.
Those who can give effective feedback are more likely to have a greater impact in their organisation. Those who can facilitate teams to provide each other with effective feedback will have even more impact.
There is more about this in our page on Giving and Receiving Feedback.
Grit (Determination or Perseverance)
‘Grit’ is defined by Ellis and Tucker as “the sustained application of effort towards a long-term goal”. In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth suggests that it is a combination of talent and effort. Talent and effort together, she suggests, develop skill. Skill coupled with further effort provides achievement.
It is, therefore, fundamentally about being able to work hard in pursuit of a long-term goal, despite setbacks.
This suggests that it is at least in part a combination of two main skills, Patience and Resilience. Patience is the ability to wait calmly for success, and resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks, and learn from them rather than be crushed by them.
A Final Thought: Moving into the Future
Identifying and exploring future possibilities is designed to open up your horizons. It does not mean that you cannot take advantage of other opportunities that may arise.
Jo, the civil servant in the case study, actually ended up taking voluntary redundancy and starting a new career working freelance. That wasn’t on her list of possibilities, but it turned out to suit her very well. However, she was only able to do this because she had already considered possibilities, and thought about her skills, strengths and values.
The journey really does matter as much, if not more, than the destination.