Career Growth

Say "Yes" to Start Your Career, Say "No" to Advance It

Career development is confusing for everyone, but perhaps more so for content marketers. There is no clear career path—most of us can only see 1-2 years ahead in our careers, and we're usually wrong anyway. This is actually a really good thing.

In How Will You Measure Your Life?, Clay Christensen describes Walmart founder Sam Walton's plans to open his second store in Memphis, Tenn., thinking that a presence in a large city would offer more opportunities for growth. But his plans never came to fruition.

Legend has it, his wife said in no uncertain terms that she would not move to Memphis. He also recognized that having his second store near his first would allow him to share shipments and deliveries more easily, and take advantage of other logistical efficiencies. That, ultimately, taught Walton the brilliant strategy of opening his large stores only in small towns—thereby preempting competition from other discount retailers.

Walton opened 18 stores in Arkansas before expanding to neighboring states. Today, Walmart has more than 11,400 stores.

Christensen uses this anecdote to illustrate the importance of deliberate and emergent strategies. Each of us has a "deliberate strategy"—whether we realize it or not—based on the narrow scope of problems and opportunities that we're aware of. It's good to be working towards a specific goal, but...

  • life never goes as planned,
  • it's difficult to see into the future, and,
  • the world is bigger than we can imagine.

New problems and opportunities are always challenging our belief in our deliberate strategy. When better opportunities present themselves, we should take them. The challenge, of course, is recognizing when an opportunity is truly better or just a shiny new object. A deliberate strategy will seem far less exciting when it gets hard to execute. (I highly recommend reading How Will You Measure Your Life? to explore this in more detail.)

The deliberate vs. emergent framework is helpful to a point, but it can't replace critical thinking about your own career development. There are just too many factors—salary, titles, lifestyle, skill development and macro-economic trends to name just a few—to make impulsive decisions about your career.

The Yes/No Continuum

Here's another way to think about this. Early in your career, say "yes" to lots of opportunities. This could mean taking on a job where you'll learn more than you earn, or picking up a freelance gig or starting a side project. The earlier you are in your career, the more useful it is to be exposed to different people, types of companies, marketing strategies, editors, etc. Soak it all in.

As you progress, your own path will become more clear. You'll find areas where you shine and areas where you need to develop your skills. As you get better, you'll have more opportunities to consider but they may feel more like uncertainties:

  • Should I stop your freelance work to focus on my day job? Or should I double down?
  • Should I invest more time on my side project? Or shut it down to focus on my day job?
  • Should I go in-house to focus on different skills?
  • Should I take a call with this recruiter?
  • Should I ask for a raise? Or seek out a more senior role somewhere else?

It's confusing, and it's really hard to tell someone the answers to these questions without understanding the full context of the personal and professional life. But as a general rule, say no more often as your career progresses.

This will get easier because your work should become more satisfying over time. Cal Newport, who has written extensively on this, says that the hallmarks of a happy and lucrative career are autonomy, mastery and relationships. "Put in the hard work to master something rare and valuable, then deploy this leverage to steer your working life in directions that resonate."

This is hard to accept, but the better you are at something, the more you enjoy it. (This is obviously not true 100% of the time, but it's true far more often than most people think. I'd never heard of content marketing until my mid-20's and here I am 10 years later loving it.)

I'll add just one caveat to all of this. Leave room for new things, even very late in your career. Do something that makes you uncomfortable long after you've mastered your craft. Never overlook the chance to be surprised by something new, something you never expected to find interesting and satisfying. "No" can do a lot of good, but so can "yes." Each is a powerful word—use them wisely.