Experts say too many people suffer from a 'delusional belief' about their careers that doesn't do them any favors

thinking woman workMikhail Goldenkov/Strelka Institute/Flickr

  • Writing in the Harvard Business Review, psychology researcher Tania Luna and Weight Watchers International executive Jordan Cohen say that people's belief in the "career myth" - the idea that careers follow a linear path - is holding us back.
  • It's no longer the case that employees can expect incremental chances to advance up the career ladder.
  • Instead, employees need to embrace uncertainty by changing roles, or even industries, without a final destination in mind.

Choosing a career can be a daunting proposition.

But part of the reason why may be because we're looking at career paths the wrong way.

That's what a growing number of experts are saying. Last week, psychology researcher Tania Luna and Weight Watchers International executive Jordan Cohen said modern employees are suffering from their belief in the "career myth," what they call "a delusional belief in the outdated idea of linear career progression."

As the authors explained in an article for the Harvard Business Review, employees today can no longer rely on an outdated system of career advancement - one that presumes employees will be given incremental chances for career advancement along with raises and title changes.

But modern career trajectories are rarely so cut-and-dry. They often involve quickly adapting to new roles as they develop, and for many employees, it's normal to switch companies or even industries several times in a career.

"When we envision a career, we imagine a direct path with a final destination. And not long ago, this concept was useful," the authors wrote.

"This vision of career growth no longer matches reality. We no longer need to be good at predicting the future; we now have to succeed when the future is unpredictable."

Their observations have been echoed by other modern-day executives. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said it's better to think of careers as a jungle gym than a ladder - there are various ways to get to the top, and some of them involve descending or hitting a dead end.

Digital marketer Mitch Joel shared that sentiment, advocating in his 2013 book that workers should be willing to change careers and evolve. "Take on a challenge within your organization, work with a new department, change something within your business that is antiquated or draconian," he wrote.

Lunia and Cohen acknowledge in their article that giving up on the "career myth" can be scary, as it suggests an uncertain future. But they noted that even if your career isn't following a logical, continuous route, it doesn't mean you're wasting time.

"Every job you've held and every relationship you've forged is a kind of key that can unlock a future opportunity," they wrote. "The keys don't have to make sense together. There doesn't need to be a clear, linear narrative to explain how you got from A to B."

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