Everything That’d Be Different if You Stopped Believing in a Linear Career Path

Here’s a line I’ve heard over and over when successful people are asked about their career paths:

I didn’t really follow a traditional path…

It seems to be offered as a preface, or a caveat, that the person before you got to where they are this way but that it’s not the standard formula.

There are certainly still fields that have pretty clearly defined roads and milestones, such as medicine or law. (Though even then, there are other options besides working as a doctor in a hospital or working at a big law firm.)

But what if we all just acknowledged that there frequently is no one standard formula anymore and stopped expecting a nice, neat road we could speed down toward a fixed destination with no turnoffs or alternate routes?

“We are suffering from the career myth—a delusional belief in the outdated idea of linear career progression,” Tania Luna, a psychology researcher and partner at LifeLabs Learning, and Jordan Cohen, Vice President of People in the US for Weight Watchers International, wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review article. They continued:


Consider the etymology of the word ‘career.’ It comes from the 16th-century word for ‘road.’ When we envision a career, we imagine a direct path with a final destination. And not long ago, this concept was useful. Career growth meant attaining incremental increases in prestige and compensation. You could look at the past and use it as a gauge of the future—taking the steps that others took to get to where they got. This vision of career growth no longer matches reality.


So, if you released your hold on the linear path career myth, as Luna and Cohen urge, what be different?

  • You wouldn’t limit yourself. “It is fine and even preferable not to have a concrete career path in mind,” Luna and Cohen write. “Being overly attached to a specific path can turn into a career trap—blinding us to nonlinear opportunities for growth.”
  • You wouldn’t put so much pressure on yourself to know what you want to do for the next several decades when you’re taking your next step. You’d embrace the fact that what you think you want now might change as you mature and get more professional experience.
  • You’d let yourself learn what you don’t want in addition to what you do want, and adapt and adjust accordingly.
  • You wouldn’t compel yourself to make something work that’s not working. You’d realize that “it’s OK if what you thought would make you happy didn’t,” as Kat Boogaard wrote for The Muse. And you’d allow yourself to make a new decision.
  • You wouldn’t dismiss the idea of doing something different than you imagined when you first started out because “it’s too late now.”
  • You might not consider doing something different a switch or an aberration to be scared or ashamed of, just the next step in a route you knew full well would have exits and construction and traffic and scenic detours.
  • You’d learn new things you’re interested in, even if you don’t immediately see a connection to your current job or the promotion you think is the only step forward. And ironically, those transferable skills might be the thing that propels you forward.
  • You wouldn’t hold so tightly to the idea that promotions and money are your only markers of progress and success. That means you’d be able to free yourself to focus on the substance in addition to the surface, finding goals that will fuel your work even after the initial excitement of a promotion or raise wears off.
  • You’d think about all the ways you can use what you know and do—and your list of potential next steps would expand. The new mindset might help you cope with changes in your industry or a shortage of jobs.

In short, assuming there’s a straightforward and unequivocal route you’ll be able to follow to an unchanging destination is a myth that will only hold you back. Don’t ignore what’s actually happening and how you’re feeling right now. I’m guessing you’ll ultimately go further. And that you’ll be happier in the process.

By UCLA Extension Career Services
UCLA Extension Career Services