Is your career ladder leaning against the wrong wall?

Article first published on Forbes.com

When we are immersed in the task at hand — jamming for a deadline, perhaps in the weeds of some brand’s positioning or designing a wonderful, immersive experience for a product that plays no part in our own lives — then we can easily lose sight of who we are or what it was that brought us to this point.

Under these circumstances, we’ll often make career decisions by not making decisions. We just default to aiming for the next rung on the ladder. But we could be following our uncritical noses up the org chart without any insight into where that will lead us.

When I worked in a corporate environment, getting promoted and job-hopping to a bigger office with a larger team, I used to think of myself as rising up the ladder, but always wondered whether it was leaning against the right wall. What would the top rung look like and how would I like it?

The corporate ladder is not something that was designed with you in mind. That org chart was designed (or, more likely, evolved) in reaction to a variety of operational business goals and crises. You cannot assume that it was designed as a personal career development course for your especial benefit.

Have you looked seriously at what that next slot up involves? It likely is a very different balance of doing the work and doing the politics. It probably involves even more personnel issues and organizational challenges and removes you further from the work you enjoyed in the first place. Not to say that is bad — in fact, that might seem thrilling to you. Just make sure you do your homework so you know what it is that you wish for.

Another option is to examine the position ahead of you and start to re-envision it to your own design. Figure out whether it might be possible to move up that ladder, but to redesign the rung so that it suits you.

There should be times in our working lives when we step back and re-evaluate. Who are we really? What do we really want to use our talent for? Are we doing what we love? Are we doing the best work we could be doing? Are we serving the planet and our fellows as well as we could be? These are all variants of the same question.

Sometimes we have the push for this introspection thrust upon us. We get fired. Our company goes belly up. The world doesn’t use mainframes anymore. The flavor of the month changes. Print media goes away.

But let’s not wait to subject ourselves to those unpleasant triggers. Carve out the time and personal bandwidth for looking into what you’ve achieved that made you proud and recognizing what makes your heart beat faster; make it a goal. As one new client put it: “Rediscover yourself.” Another client is relishing the opportunity “to focus, in a totally new way, on who I am, what I’ve accomplished, what I might have to offer others, and most importantly, to start to imagine possible futures for my working life.” This surely sounds like a better course of action than just following our noses.

So unless your only goal is to move on up those rungs, advancing like levels in a video game, then you should be seriously thinking about what it is that you are good at and what are the successes that bring you joy. Taking the next rung on their ladder may not be taking you nearer to your nirvana. Quite the contrary, it may be moving you toward the Peter principle destiny of reaching your level of incompetence: the ill-considered rung where you’ll underperform, get stuck, and climb no further.

This need not happen to you. Rediscover who you are and design your own ladder; don’t just blindly climb someone else’s.