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Wayfinding: The Art of Navigating Your Career

By Dan King

Photo of navigation signsWayfinding. It’s knowing where you are, knowing your destination, and following the best route. Quite simply, it means “finding your way.”

Early seafarers of the South Pacific practiced wayfinding to navigate open ocean voyages without instruments, through careful observation of natural signs, like the skies, the sun and the stars. They looked upon navigation not merely as a technique of getting from one island to another, but as a way of life, a combination of philosophy and religion into which one was initiated.

This ancient art offers a fitting archetype for navigating our careers today. No. I’m not proposing that you scan the heavenly bodies for career insights (although there are many who believe you should), but if we reawaken our senses to the primeval philosophies of these early Polynesian voyagers, we can enliven the way we assess and plan our careers.

The relentless pace of change we experience at work today has a turbulent effect on our career development. As we try to stay afloat in this sea of uncertainty, many of us wonder: Should I change careers? Make a lateral move? Relocate? Leave my company? Adrift in restructuring, reengineering and rightsizing, we’re forced to make critical career decisions on a regular basis. And we don’t know what direction to go.

Wayfinders forged their direction by observing the stars, sun, moon and planets — and they read the waves and clouds to determine currents and predict weather. Later, the art of celestial navigation became more sophisticated with the creation of navigational tools like sextants, astrolabes, nocturnals and planispheres. Eventually people could set a course and sail to their destination using only a chart, a compass and common sense.

In the same way, we need to navigate our careers by charting our position, setting a direction and planning the best route. Charting a career course amidst our prevailing winds requires us to read signs accurately, observe trends and forecasts, and respond with appropriate career actions and adjustments. And a little common sense doesn’t hurt either.

Knowing Where You Are

From your current vantage point, you may think you’re in still water, but your career is never motionless. If you’re not steering it, then you’re likely drifting. You’re going to end up somewhere, so best that you start reading the signs. Scope out your current work situation. What’s working and what’s not? Evaluate your likes and dislikes, considering such variables as the role, responsibilities, tasks, co-workers, boss, work environment, hours, location and benefits — both tangible and intangible. What are you gaining above and beyond a paycheck? Interesting projects? Stimulating colleagues? Flextime? Independence and autonomy?

Take stock of your skills and accomplishments. What skills do you possess? What accomplishments can you point to that demonstrate your capabilities? Be aware that we all have an uncanny ability to get very good at doing things we don’t like doing and, unfortunately, we sometimes build our careers around them.

Inventory your cargo of skills. Which skills do you actually enjoy using? Where are the gaps? Make note to shore up your competencies and capabilities in the areas that interest you most.

Analyze the internal and external environment to determine your organization’s position and prospects for the future. Which trends signify continued viability? Is a storm approaching? What are the risks to you? If you’ve allowed your career to just happen by accident, then it’s probably fair to say that your career may be just another accident waiting to happen. What are the measures that confirm that your career is not sinking?

Knowing Your Destination

If you’ve never figured out “what you want to be when you grow up,” it’s never too late. The job you are in now will not last forever. It will evolve and change. So what would you do if your job went away tomorrow? Where would you go?

Scan the horizon five years, 10 years, 20 years ahead. Draw a picture of the ideal job: the role, the responsibilities, the tasks, the people, the environment.

If your picture is out of focus, then gather information to help you gain more clarity. Read articles (like this one) and books, take a career planning course, do some informational interviewing. Or identify a contemporary wayfinder to help you — a coach, a mentor or a career counselor — someone who can help you generate career options and determine viable career paths. If you know what you want to find, you’ll increase your likelihood of finding it.

Following the Best Route

By way of some process (planned or unplanned), you arrived at the point that you are today? Did it occur through careful strategy or by happenstance? What disruptions and diversions impeded your journey? What adjustments do you need to make moving forward? If you’ve reached 80-percent mastery of your job, it’s time for a change. Consider these possible routes:

  • Change Parallels: Explore the possibility of a lateral change in job position but not necessarily a change in status or pay. A lateral move can provide you with new experience and expertise, which could be critical to your success later on. If you want to learn new skills, work with new colleagues, or test out the waters in a faster growth area of your organization, changing parallels is a smart option to consider.
  • Drop Anchor: Consider the advantages of “staying put” and expanding or changing the responsibilities of your current job in order to provide growth experiences and increase visibility in the organization. This “growing in place” option can provide opportunities to increase contacts through greater exposure to key individuals, and thereby provide more chances for recognition and job enrichment.
  • Make Headway: Pursue existing channels for the traditional upward or vertical move to higher levels of responsibility, with more money, status and power. Vertical movement usually is achieved as a reward for excellence in the current position and as a result of having demonstrated performance equal to that required in the higher-level position. This may be the most straightforward option, but paths can frequently be blocked due to heavy “regatta-like” competition and a shortage of available “boat slips.”
  • Stem the Tide: Think about realigning or moving down in the organizational hierarchy. This can be an effective response if you wish to move back to a more satisfying position, alleviate current job-related stress, balance personal time or make a career change. It can also provide the appropriate experience for smooth sailing to a step forward later.
  • Slip the Mooring: Develop a strategy for “cutting loose” and moving out of the organization entirely. In situations where your job may not match your current interests or you no longer fit the opportunities available in your organization, you may be best to seek growth opportunities elsewhere. Be careful though of “running adrift” — moving out requires careful mapping.

In the words of career development guru, David Campbell, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” The “wayfinders” of the Pacific Islands understood this. They believed that the navigator reaches a point where it is not that you go out in search of the island; instead, you point your boat in the right direction, and the island comes to you.

In this spirit, we have to find ourselves physically, orient ourselves mentally and emotionally, and try to find a star to steer by spiritually — or we’ll be tempest-tossed with no career direction.

© 2010 Career Planning and Management, Inc., Boston, MA. All rights reserved.

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