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Avoiding the Career Cul-De-Sac

Find out how to advance in your career in our latest blog post.

By Robert L. Dickie III

Maybe you’re not familiar with the term “serial job-changer,” but I’m sure you know one. It’s a bright, motivated individual who never stays in one position for long. The résumé is dotted with few, scattered, short-lived accomplishments (impressive accomplishments though they may be) because the grass always looks greener at another company. Perhaps you yourself are tempted by the serial job-changer lifestyle—looking for a more attractive title or a higher salary.

Serial job-changers usually blame external circumstances for their dissatisfaction. What seemed like a dream job fell short because of an ornery boss. A great, casual work environment feels ruined by one very negative coworker. The relaxed startup offering lots of freedom was more bureaucratic than expected. Corporate hierarchy is stifling and makes it difficult for an employee to advance quickly. So a serial job-changer throws in the towel early and looks for something new.

While there is nothing wrong with changing careers, as sometimes it really is the best option, what matters is the motivation behind your change. In our current “gig economy” it’s normal to change careers 8–14 times. But there’s a difference between wisely and thoughtfully taking advantage of the gig economy and changing jobs like, well, like it’s your job.

A dissatisfied employee who changes jobs every year or two often find themselves in a “career cul-de-sac” by the time they’re in their mid-thirties. And once you hit a career cul-de-sac, you’re stuck. There is no merging lane onto the career superhighway; the only way out is to backtrack.

People in the career cul-de-sac are usually suffering from regret. A possible consequence of leaving a job every couple of years is that you may find it difficult to find a former boss or employee who will give you the glowing recommendation you need. If you get stuck in the cul-de-sac you may eventually find yourself wishing you had tried to work out your issues with that one cantankerous boss or had made more of an effort with those difficult coworkers. Maybe you will wish you had a longer list of accomplishments for your previous manager to brag about when someone calls for a reference.

Often those who jump ship at the first sign of struggle or frustration are confused a few years down the road when their careers aren’t at the same level as those of their peers. There’s a lot to be gained from sticking with a job, even in challenging situations. You may not plan to stay with the same company forever, but know that there are long-term benefits if you’re willing to work through your issues.

There are a few things to consider when you are thinking of leaving your current job for something that may seem better. If the answers to the following questions are yes, you may be in a good position to change jobs. But if you answer no, it may be that you are running from career trouble and starting down the path leading to the career cul-de-sac.

A constant career tip is to maintain good relationships with your boss and coworkers.

1. Would your current boss/coworkers give you a glowing recommendation?

Relational harmony is crucial to a stable career. If you burn bridges at every job, you’ll have a difficult time landing future positions because past employers will refuse to give you positive references. A lack of quality references is a huge red flag to future employers, as no one wants to work with someone who takes off and expects other people to clean up their messes.

Coworker relationships are a great barometer for how you are doing in your current job. If your colleagues feel positively toward you, you’re on the right track. But if you dread going to the office and complain to (and about) your fellow team members, it’s time to adjust your mindset. You won’t do yourself any favors if you make yourself and your coworkers miserable while you figure out your next step. Also, if you haven’t been in a job long enough to even have positive or meaningful relationships with your coworkers, that also is a red flag.

2. Will your role be a difficult one to replace?

Ambition is a great thing, and you’ll need plenty of it to build a remarkable career. But success is cumulative, and you should work hard to create real impact in one place before moving to your next job. Seek ways to go above and beyond, offer thoughtful insights into the organization’s long-term strategy, and approach your supervisor with constructive feedback that helps your team. You want people to remember your enthusiasm and contributions. You should have a list of accomplishments you can easily put into words. The bigger the hole your departure will leave, the better the evidence that you’ve done quality, substantial work for your company.

Another career tip includes discerning if a new job could increase your earning potential or be a new career opportunity.

3. Are you leaving for a position with increased pay/responsibility and a better title?

More likely than not, you’ll have a difficult time landing a job with a higher salary and impressive title if you’ve spent most of your career bouncing from job to job.

Unless you’re pursuing a military career or are a rising star at a Fortune 500, you’ll need to spend a few years in each position or company you choose. Careers in which people move quickly from job to job are the exception, so study the average success story in your industry. How long did the top CEOs spend in management positions before rising to the top? What types of experience did the highest-earning salespeople accumulate before they hit their strides? Seek out a mentor who can help you develop a strategy to reach your goals and who can offer counsel when you feel the urge to jump ship too soon. It’s possible that you’ve shown loyalty to a company that for some reason will not give you the pay and title you deserve (signaling it might be time to explore options elsewhere), but oftentimes you don’t have the position you dream about because you haven’t put in the necessary time and work right where you are.

When you run from problems, you act on an impulse. But if you can take a step back and see your current job in the context of your entire career, you’ll understand the importance of maintaining good relationships and making real contributions at each step on your path. It can be hard to have patience in some of these seasons, but each step is necessary to get to your destination and end goal.

If you hit the restart button every year or so, you will never gain the momentum needed to build a thriving career and might soon find yourself stuck in a cul-de-sac. But if you can change your perspective by seeing your momentary work issues as opportunities to persevere and create a great track record, you’ll be able to cultivate a rich, long, fulfilling career.

If you’re feeling restless in your current career, many people are finding “side hustles” to be a great way to increase income, have fun, and learn valuable skills needed to thrive in the information age. We are building Bonvera to be the best place for these people to come and have fun and succeed at a high level.

Follow Robert Dickie III on Twitter @RobertDickie and on Taking the Leap Podcast. You can tune in on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or on your favorite podcast player.