The Arc of a Great Career: 5 Steps

The real hero’s journey: the great pros come full circle

What is it that makes for a great career versus a merely efficient one?

Many people do their jobs well enough to survive many years. They manage to avert layoffs, furloughs, downsizing and restructuring. Somehow, they prosper. They adapt. They advance. Yet they never achieve their fullest potential. They never seem to be completely satisfied with their lot in their professional lives. They never reach their full promise.

Conversely, there are the big winners — the great ones,images

“the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn like fabulous yellow roman candles and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road

What separates the roman candles from the matchsticks?

This marks my 32nd year recruiting top professionals in the advertising industry. I’m fortunate to have a significant sample size to make observations and draw theories upon what separates the wheat from the chaff. What I’ve noticed is the stars all share a similar arc in their careers. In fact, the “arc” is actually a career that comes full circle — the hero’s journey.

Nobody asked me, but these are the 5 steps:


  1. STUDENT: We all begin as novices. We all start the same way, in the metaphorical mailroom. Our careers are narratives, coming-of-age stories: allegories. A literal AND a figurative journey unfolds. Call us Ishmael, and our industry the Great White Whale. I remember cutting out the daily advertising columns from the Wall Street Journal and pasting them into a binder. This began in 1990, and by 1997, I filled up 6 large binders of advertising industry content that I studied every weekend. I slept with the Red Book. This is the time we begin building our career skills.
  2. JOB: A speaker at a Mary Kay seminar once spouted, “JOB is just an acronym for ‘Journey Of the Broke.'” This is true. If you approach what you do every day as a job, that’s all it will ever be. You will never make a lot of money, you will always live beyond your means. And your career “cycle” will become increasingly vicious. But, we all start as entry-levelers. Our first “big break” is simply landing a job. Rule #1: Never let your boss beat you to the office in the morning. My first big break came as an assistant basketball coach at The College of the Holy Cross. It’s where I learned how to recruit and where I also learned Rule #1 from the head coach. It was great advice from a work ethic standpoint. This is the point of the arc where we begin defining ourselves.
  3. CAREER: Ah, this is what happens when we get good at what we do — when people value our work and our particular skills. These are the chapters of the allegory where our professional lives take on a direction. A roadmap develops. We stay the course. Our goals are met. We gain clarity. We adjust. We reinvent ourselves. We change, morph, transform. This is the time in our lives when we hit our stride.
  4. VOCATION: I speak often of the “vocation-based” professional mindset. At its core, it’s approaching what you do as if it were a higher calling — as if your career chose you and not vice versa. It’s the WHY we are, not the WHAT. This is pretty heavy stuff, when you really think about it. But, when it happened to me, it was truly an epiphany and changed my life. Crazy to think that my work was part of a bigger picture, a grander scheme. Crazy to think God could work his ways through my work ministry. Crazy to want to give something back. Uh…not so crazy. What will you be remembered as? What will be your legacy? This is the true mark we make.
  5. STUDENT: Elliptically, it all comes full circle — we wind up where we started. I can’t say it better than this guy:

TS Eliot“We shall not cease from exploration /And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning…” — T.S. EliotFour Quartets

It amazes me how many folks on LinkedIn describe themselves as “experts” at what they do, especially at this final stage of their careers. I’m leery of experts. I want to be remembered as a student.

5 thoughts on “The Arc of a Great Career: 5 Steps

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