When the road ahead isn’t clear

In 2012, I was sitting in my office at Deutsche Bank, dispirited and disillusioned, wondering what I could possibly do to alter the downward trajectory of my career.

I had a few ideas. I toyed with a startup idea, had begun exploring a topic called “working out loud”, and recently started a blog. 

But what should I do next? Should I try to make the most of my job? Quit and try something new? Do some other kind of work on the side? 

I didn’t know.

Climbing the hill (with your head up)

Around that time I was reading a book called Running Lean aimed at helping startups deal with uncertainty. (The idea for a Lean Canvas comes from that book, and I’m re-reading it now for reasons you’ll see below.)

The book contains a rather arcane reference to a search algorithm that can apply to startups—and also to careers. I dog-eared the page with this text box.

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The author’s conclusion underneath helped me see what I should do next.

While there is no way to completely avoid the local maxima problem, you raise your odds for finding a better solution when you are initially open to exploring and even testing multiple models in parallel.

Making it through the fog

That was it! Instead of just “climbing the hill” at Deutsche Bank, or risking everything to leap onto another hill, the key was to follow multiple paths and remain open to possibilities. So, while I tried “local optimization” in my current job, I also did small experiments with other topics and kinds of work. 

Some of those experiments (like designing an app) turned out to be dead ends. But they didn’t cost much and I learned a lot, so they were still good investments. The experiments related to Working Out Loud led to a book, tens of thousands of people in WOL Circles, and a new fulfilling chapter in my life.

A practical way forward 

Just today, someone wrote me to say that he’s challenged by a situation similar to the one I faced eight years ago. He said he’s looking for a clear path ahead for his career and doesn’t see one.

But do any of us see a clear path ahead, especially now? 

I replied that I still don’t know exactly where I’m heading (which is why I’m re-reading that book). The best we can do is to think of our aspirations and intentions as a kind of compass, not a map. You take a small step, look around and explore and learn, re-check your compass, then decide on a next step. 

The person who wrote to me is in a Circle now, and my hope is that the structure, shared accountability, and support in that Circle will help him to get moving—to take more steps and learn from others who are traveling similar paths.

I hope the road ahead takes him, and you, to some wonderful places. 

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