Where to next?

A recent member of the Weekly Journal asked me this question, and I was then subsequently asked the same question by a number of final year design students at a local University.

Many designers who are 5-10 years into their careers ask themselves this question. I myself was asking myself this question ten years into my own career.

At this juncture in your career you’ve been in the industry for a little while and feel like you know it well enough. You’ve probably run your own freelance business, you’ve worked in a few agency/studios and you’ve probably strung together some experience that is the beginning of a life-long career in design, digital and/or brand development.

Or, you've recently graduated, you've probably finished an extra year or two of additional studies that the University convinced you were 'really good to do' and you're wondering ... 

Where to next? 

Fair enough. It’s the right question to be asking.

If you’re not asking it then I’m assuming you fit into one of the following categories:

  • you’ve comfortably settled into a job and aren’t thinking about a career (there’s a distinct difference between a job and a career)
  • you’re jumping from one job to another without much design in the jumps you’re taking
  • you’re chasing the bright lights of high-profile agencies or high profile work, and your version of ‘next’ is really just another agency with the founder’s name on the door — or a profile big enough to satisfy your need to work there
  • you're comfortable going from junior to mid-weight, to senior designer and you know (dammit you know) that the next step is a design director or similar. (Please note that none of those were written in Sentence Case which should show you the view I have on chasing titles—more on this soon).

If you are in fact, asking yourself this question—what next?—you’re focussed on your future, driven to craft a purposeful career for yourself and care enough about the next steps to ask it out loud even if other people think it's a dumb question.

I applaud you and commend you for asking it.

I’ve found that the people asking this of themselves are sitting at a crossroads in their lives and careers, where they’re simply stuck and unsure. And their question about what’s next is more about which road on the crossroads they’re going to choose than where they’re actually headed as an ultimate, career destination. It's a life question as much as it is a career question.

The answer to this question is really in you. (Yes, I’m a big fan of Alan Watts.)

It’s not to be found written in a book or in a text book of career-progression. After 5-10 years of working in an industry, or 3-4 pushing through a degree, you’re already well on your way to establishing a foundation (or foothold) on a career that could possibly take a number of trajectories. Yes, even as a graduate.

Many will tell you that you should follow a linear trajectory to:

  1. Pay your dues
  2. Rise through the ranks
  3. Earn your job title
  4. Work long hours
  5. Do lots of free internships
Don't listen to this type of industry bullshit. More on this in future posts, but in a nutshell I think all five points are a joke told by more senior people who don’t want to see younger people succeed in ways they themselves could not. 

Where you go next is completely up to you. #FTW!

This is the very reason why I have a category on this journal, I call Rattle The Cage.

This is how I believe you can make this decision on your own. I personally believe you have to be crystal clear on the vision you have for your career, and more importantly, your life, to be able to get anywhere near answering this question.

This vision needs to inform everything you do. If not, it’s really nothing more than a wish. A nice-to-have.

Much advice on career-building in creativity seems to omit the important fact that your career is intricately intertwined with your own personal life. The decisions you make outside of work are going to influence your performance and progression in your career as much as the decisions you make in your day-to-day job do.

So, to begin answering this question (What’s next?), I’d like to ask you a question:

Where do you aspire to be in 10-20 years time?

Where will you be? What work will you be doing? Who will you be working with? Where will you be living? What are your circumstances?

Write the answer down. Draw a picture. Take a photograph. Tear a picture out of a magazine. Whatever you do, make it tangible. Make it grand and aspirational; but most of all, make it real and true to yourself. Don’t bullshit yourself. Be honest.

Stick it on the wall and ensure that every decision you make, is about that vision.

Most often than not, your 10-20-year vision has very little to do with your day job or career. Nor should it. It should be bigger than that. I believe that your day job and career should be an enabler of greater things.

To illustrate this point, my own vision doesn’t reference the work I do at Tank, yet every decision I make at Tank to make the business a success, is about the vision I have for my own personal life. 

Your job is simply a job. Your career is a history of purposeful jobs that you've crafted throughout your life, to achieve this vision. It’s something you do day-to-day. Establish perspective. 

Stop chasing job titles, positions of seniority or fame. If your day-to-day isn’t providing you, or pushing you towards the goal you have for your own life, I'd suggest you re-evaluate why you're doing it.

The question of What’s Next? is a big one, it is also a profoundly loaded and intricate question that needs to be understood in of itself.

To illustrate this point, imagine you’re on a long journey through a vast, barren landscape with nothing but a backpack filled with food and water, and a compass to guide you. 

You’re feeling tired, weak and lost but you’re determined to keep walking forward towards a final destination of which you’re not quite sure. The sun is setting and you really need to find shelter because even in the balmy climate, the nights are cold.

You arrive at an open plain and see another traveller walking towards you. She has a horse, a carriage filled with provisions, and a trailer filled with passengers who look jovial jovial and strong.

You stop and ask her, “Excuse me I'm lost. Can you please tell what I should do next?”

She looks at you and asks, “Yes, but where are you going?”

You point in the general direction of where you're headed.

She looks at you and asks "Why?"

In the next few weeks I’m going to be writing a series of posts that will give you the tools to answer the question: What’s next?

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