Is Your Career By Design Or Default?

Whether you have been in the world of work for 30 minutes or 30 years, a career path requires thought, effort, and cultivation.

In the book, “Alice Through the Looking-Glass,” by Lewis Carroll, Alice has a discussion with the Cheshire Cat.

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don’t much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice: ...So long as I get somewhere.

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

Like most of you, I’m frequently asked, “Which courses should I take?” and “What’s my next step?” And my first question, just like the Cheshire Cat, in essence, is “Where do you want to go?”

In the book, Alice responds, “I don’t much care where—so long as I get somewhere.”

Like Alice, most people respond similarly. “I don’t have a plan. I just know I want to go somewhere.”

This back and forth between Alice and the cat has been swimming around in my head for a while now as I connect with learning professionals around the world. Those of us with the most expertise on developing and expanding skills, on career paths and development, often neglect our own careers. Whether you have been in the world of work for 30 minutes or 30 years, a career path requires thought, effort, and cultivation.

Take a moment to stop and reflect on your career to date and answer this question: Was your path to this point by design? Or by default?

For many of us, it’s by default. We find ourselves in a job and aren’t quite sure how we got there. Or we suddenly realize we’ve been in our current role forever.


Do you have a plan? If not, I encourage you to carve out some time and make one. Alice didn’t care where she went, but if you really thought about it, I bet you do care. If you closed your eyes and imagined the perfect role, what would it look like? That’s it. The first step in having a career by design is to define your vision. Step one can be challenging because it requires you to reflect on what you want.

  • What is my career aspiration for the next three years?
  • What is important to me?
  • How do I feel about my career?
  • How do I love spending my time?

Get clear about what you want, so you can ask others to support you.

Now that you have defined your vision, you have to determine what it will take to get there.

  • What skills do people in that role have?
  • What experiences have they had?
  • Identify the specific expertise, knowledge, and skills you need to be considered for that role.

One way to do that is to leverage LinkedIn, Indeed, or other Websites. Look at the profiles of people who hold the type of position you aspire to. Look at the job descriptions for roles that intrigue you. What skills do the job descriptions mention? What accomplishments do the profiles contain? This will give you some insight into the skills you’ll need to be considered for that role.


Once you have a better idea of what you’ll need for that next role, you need to take an inventory of your current skills and then leverage the resources around you to fill in the gaps. Whether it’s taking a class, listening to an expert, watching a series of training videos, getting a certification— it’s time to take action and acquire those skill sets. This could include raising your hand for a new project at work or asking someone to be your mentor, but don’t rule out the volunteer world. Haven’t had much experience with budgeting? Consider volunteering for a charitable organization. There isn’t a fundraiser coordinator out there who would turn away help with handling the finances. Have you had the opportunity to lead a team at work? If not, you can obtain those leadership skills through myriad volunteer activities. Ask for specific help and you will be surprised!

As you build out your skill set, bucket your development goals into industry knowledge, skills related to the discipline you are seeking, and personal leadership skills. How well do you know the business you are in? Do you understand the key metrics and drivers of that business? Do you have skills and experiences in the more cutting-edge components of the learning field? Are you leveraging agile methodologies in your design approaches or are you still stuck on ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation)?

Networking is another key step in the career process. When thinking about networking, I break it down into three buckets:

Networking within your industry—Meet with someone who holds your job at another company within your industry.

Networking within your discipline—Connect with other learning professionals in a variety of industries.

Networking within your company—Seek out individuals from other departments, those you don’t interact with often or know nothing about what they do. Every year, I identify three people in each category I want to meet, connect with, and learn from.

Just like any goal, success comes when you commit to yourself and to others. I’ve found that when I ask someone to hold me accountable, I stay on track. Be specific with your requests—for example, ask someone to help you update your resume or to connect you with someone in his or her network.

If you take these steps, you’ll find it’s much more likely you will find yourself in the perfect role doing what you want to do.

Gail Kelman, FLMI, ACS, AIAA, CASL, is the head of Learning and Career Development at Training Top 125 company Guardian Life. She is responsible for talent development and talent management processes, including the summer intern program.


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