There’s a stereotype when it comes to a successful career that you need to be continually moving up the ladder (whether your environment is corporate or not). The prototype for a well-worked “career” is that you continue to get promoted until you’re the boss. But what if not everyone wants that? What if it’s not right for you?
As we started Happy Work Spectacular Life, we had so many conversations around the word “career” and the connotations it has because not everyone’s version of success means climbing the ladder. A successful career doesn’t have to be a straight line; it may end up looking more like a portfolio or a body of work that you are proud of.
The hallmark of our career coaching is that everyone’s career (or whatever you want to call your version of work) is going to look different, and we place the highest priority on making sure we meet each client where they are. In service of that mission, I wanted to highlight someone who has self-reported as not having a career and loving it in just that way.
I sat down with Jennifer Nack Schellinger, the business manager for Chicago-based management consulting firm Strategic Talent Solutions, to discuss the difference between having a “career” and a collection of jobs, what that’s meant for her, and how she figured it all out.
This came about because you mentioned in passing that you don’t feel like you have a career, that you’ve had lots of jobs and that’s how you like it, so what is the difference between the two for you?
First, to clarify, I think I came to this understanding, that I chose a path that led to jobs rather than a path that led to a career, which is a nuanced difference but one that’s important to me.
I think that if you talk about job versus career, “job” has somehow a negative connotation whereas “career” has this, “go get ‘em,” success in the workplace kind of dynamic attached to it, and I don’t agree with that. At least not in terms of what my personal experience has been. So, a career attaches to it a particular trajectory and a sort of long-term strategic approach and also in my definition lends itself to staying within a particular industry. As it happens and as I reflect on my professional life, the jobs I have taken have fallen into two categories: either public relations and marketing or business administration. Both of those have afforded me interesting and compelling opportunities.
I only left a job twice because they were just the wrong place for me and one of them was in marketing and one of them was in admin, so the downside was not attached to the industry but rather the culture and the nature of the job.
When you finished college did know that this — a collection of jobs — would be your professional path, rather than taking a “career” path?
I didn’t know. I graduated as an English major, so what kind of professional path could I assume? At that time, I was opportunistic, so I took an internship first at the American Dietetic Association in the marketing and PR realm. I thought that was interesting, and it leveraged some of the skills I learned in college- writing and communicating. However, I didn’t feel super committed to that place so I spent a little time thinking, “What do I love?” And I love theater, so I did theater PR for a couple of years.
I think it wasn’t until I had gone through a series of jobs, and I had a moment when one of my friends said to me, “It seems like you undersell yourself. Why wouldn’t you want to be the director of something?” And I realized, I’m not underselling myself. I’m doing exactly what I want to do at the level that I want to do it, and it was then that I named it – I’m not a career person, I’m a job person. That afforded me certain liberties to be where I was, be happy where I was, and not have to defend it. I remember that moment very clearly and it allowed me to be where I was with comfort and with confidence rather than feeling like I had done something wrong or missed an opportunity or wasn’t doing something that was expected of me.
That must have been such a freeing moment.
You mentioned that evaluating the best fit is different when looking for the next job versus the next step in a “career,” so how would you evaluate the next step or job for you?
I’m still content with where I am, so I don’t necessarily see a next or looking for the next fit, however, given my pattern if something was presented to me, I would think, “Well, what could that look like?” The stakes are higher now because every time I’ve made a career move, I’ve had an increase in salary and increase in stability, an increase in being able to support the life that I’m living. So, with a child going off to college with me reaching what is probably the last phases of my professional life, my criteria are sort of high.
The job I have now is the job I’ve done the longest ever, and what has kept me satisfied and kept me here is the people, the camaraderie, the personal and professional support that I feel in this role. So I would want to somehow have a sense that that was possible in my next role as well, would there to be one.
One of the things we have to be careful of at Happy Spectacular is that moving up the ladder is not always the next step for everyone. This is the reason we’re having this conversation.
I think we’re allowed to create our own definition of what works for us, and I think there are certain expectations, I would say particularly for women now. It’s not for anyone else to tell you what your potential is– the work is to dig deep into yourself, to name what you want and what you believe you can do, to understand it, and make sure you’re living up to your own standards, whatever they may be. That moment for me was very solidifying.
For someone who is in your position who doesn’t have a professional passion so they aren’t making their professional choices based on building a “career,” how would you recommend they evaluate the next steps in their professional life?
I think there’s a path of discovery along the way, so don’t be afraid to make your first choice because that’s all that it is. The beauty of that, and what I’m trying to impart to Henry [my son], is it’s just one choice at a time and none of those choices have to be for a lifetime unless you want them to be.
Once you start down a path, if you stay in touch and allow doors to be opened or open them yourself then opportunities manifest, they just do. You have to be receptive to them. And if you’re feeling unsettled or uncomfortable where you are, create an opportunity. So, I think to not be afraid at the early stages and know that this isn’t a forever thing, it’s just your next thing.
For me, an important thing to evaluate is having a sense that I’m contributing to the whole. This is also a big part of what’s rewarding for me. I don’t need to be directing all of it; I just want to be making sure that I’m contributing to the overall success.
For someone farther along in their career, if you’ve created a professional path that has involved changes and different types of work, I think the advice at this point is the same as at the beginning: stay connected, stay aware of what opportunities may or may not be out there, and entertain them, calling from your own experience and making sure that the kinds of things that do work for you in your current space are replicable in the next.
For example, if you really like it when there are people in the office where you currently are and you’re going somewhere where they say, “You’ll be holding down the fort all by yourself,” understand the gut reservation you may have about that and don’t take it too lightly because this affects you and how you feel when you show up matters. I just think if you find yourself in your current position in your mid-fifties and you’re not happy about it, talk to as many people as you safely can. Because at this stage of the game, you probably have a fairly sizeable network and each of those people have networks; you never know. I’ve called my same friend with three different job opportunities, and as it turns out, she doesn’t really want to make a switch, but she was able to sort through that and get to that understanding by entertaining other opportunities. It further refined for her that she actually wanted to stay where she was, so keeping the conversation going, even if you’re not looking, but might want to. Leveraging the people and the relationships you’ve built up until this point is a good resource.
The refreshing example that Jennifer sets about how to make your work life a happy and spectacular part of your whole life is inspiring. Remembering that our job isn’t to fit into someone else’s concept of work or career, but to thrive in our life, at work and away from it.