Zoom out to gain perspective

You are... where, exactly?

Where are you in the context of your career? When you think of your previous job, your current job and your next one, what trends do you see in your skills? If you were to plot your professional development, what would the graph look like?

Would you say your career path has been a smooth, upward climb or has it been pretty bumpy? If you looked at your entire career as journey mapped out, where would the "You are here" pin be placed today?

Zooming out: a skill we learn

While you're pondering those heavy questions, here's a story. When I got my first smartphone (a little later than most folks), I was so excited... until I tried to use the touchscreen.

Ack! What did I just do? Oops, touched something wrong again... Where is the 'undo' button? Where are any of the buttons?

It took me a while to get the hang of it, especially zooming in. The "pinch two fingers while still touching the screen" trick was something that did NOT come naturally to me. Remember, I first learned to print a document by typing C:\>print a:\readme.txt /d:lpt1. (If you have no idea what that means, it's an ancient language called DOS and translates loosely as, "I'm really old.")

Once I mastered the technique, I loved zooming in, especially when looking at photos. You could examine every detail of a photo down to the pixel, and zoom out again in a flash to see those pixels back in context. It was much easier than the Ctrl-+ keyboard shortcut I was accustomed to.

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So aside from reminiscing about the days of 5 1/4" floppy disks, where am I headed with this long-winded tale? I'm getting there, I promise!

Just like zooming out on your tablet or smartphone, it's helpful at times to zoom out on your career trajectory. But it's a skill that must be learned, it doesn't come naturally.

What does it mean to zoom out?

By "zoom out" I mean more than just expanding the time horizon you're examining, although that's one aspect of this reflection exercise. 

I mean looking beyond your immediate boss and coworkers, past individual projects or tasks. When you zoom out, think about the role you played in the organizations you've belonged to. Were you usually the 'idea person' or the 'process person?' Did you attend to the details or stay focused on the vision? Were you the glue that kept the team together, or did you usually keep your head down and avoid office drama?

Allow yourself time and space to perform a careful examination of the business climate that your organizations were part of during your tenure. Were your managers focused on growth, or clinging to a narrow ledge trying to survive? Was the company you worked for one of many in a competitive marketplace, or was it one of very few within a niche market?

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Growing pains or midlife crises?

You may even decide to zoom out wide enough to see how the economy affected the industry you worked in, or how outside forces like the unemployment rate factored into your job history. Think about the relative stage of your industry and how the "growing pains" of that industry affected the companies working within it. Was there an established community of practice for you to draw upon, or was your company blazing a new trail?

When you've taken the time to consider the climates and environments you have worked in over the years, then zoom out on the organizational structures you've experienced. Have you worked in companies with a flat organizational structure, moderate hierarchical structure, or regimented hierarchy? How many layers were there from CEO to intern?

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Synthesizing your reflection

After you've done some thinking, taken some notes, and reflected on where you've been, try to put all the pieces together. In my case, zooming out helps me see that I have most often thrived in climates of rapid change where my skills as a communicator and ability to adapt quickly are needed and valued. I'm most likely to flourish in an established industry where there are already best practices to use as a springboard. I do all right in moderate hierarchies but am most comfortable in a smaller, flatter organizational structure where I can easily access people in different functions.

My role in organizations has usually centered around making connections, communicating with sincerity, and building collaborations with partners. Although I'm not a detail person, I have enormous respect for those who are, and know enough to get out of the way when they need room to work.

Understanding where and why you flourish

These insights have helped me understand why I flourished at some jobs but not at others, and why I felt deeply satisfied in some roles and incredibly stressed in other roles. It has allowed me to make some sense of my career progression, to visualize it plotted alongside economic indicators and industry trends.

The ability to zoom out and see your career from a distance is a skill that takes a LOT of practice. It's not easy to shift from feeling frustrated because "your boss is a micromanager," for example, to understanding that you are more likely to thrive in a flatter organizational structure within an industry in the early stages of development.

Gaining this kind of perspective is also not a "one and done" exercise. Every time I devote time to this exercise I glean new insights. I also get a greater appreciation for those (rare) outstanding managers I've had, along with a better understanding of how difficult managing staff can be, especially in challenging times. When you go from the one pixel view to the big picture, this broader perspective is humbling and empowering at the same time.


If you would find it helpful to work with a career coach to help you zoom out on your career path, drop me a note! You can sign up for my email list as well, and I'd love it if you followed me on Twitter

Photo credit: "Earthrise" courtesy of NASA, taken by Bill Anders in 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission. The very definition of zooming out!