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It was June 2005 when Steve Jobs gave his Commencement address to graduates at Stanford University, and where he advised “…..don’t waste time living someone else’s life.  Don’t be trapped by dogma which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.  Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your inner voice.” 

It is fine philosophy and great counsel, such that I remember when I first read it over seventeen years ago.  Yet my honest self-appraisal points to at least a handful of less productive career years between then and now, where to a greater or lesser extent I feel I lost my sense of direction.

Thinking about this at the start of 2023 I have been asking myself what additional reminders or ideas were required for me to do better at living up to Steve’s challenge, and I have come up with three inter-related thoughts.

First, we must realize that our careers, like our lives, are finite.  We only have so much time, and time can’t be stored.  It keeps on moving forward whether we are making good use of it or not. 

Consequently, it useful to think of our careers as a “budget of years”. By that I mean that we are granted a certain time-budget, just like an allocation of money and if we spend a particular period of that time-budget on one pursuit then we relinquish the chance to spend it on another.  And, just like managing our finances, if we become more aware regarding the finite nature of the career time-budget, then we become more discerning about how we spend it and we give more thought to the fundamental question “why am I doing what I am doing right now, does it have meaning for the direction I am taking or want to be taking?”  In effect the time-budget helps us make better decisions.

Second, and as a complement to the concept of the “budget of years” it is useful to define a career as a “sequence of opportunities” that we have, over the course of our working lives, to make our impact, and ideally to gain some rewards, both intrinsic and extrinsic for that contribution. 

The first key word in this idea is “sequence”, namely our careers are not one long continuum they are chapters defined by punctuation marks – changes in country, company, colleagues, promotions, projects, technologies and more. 

The second key word is “opportunity”.  Each new chapter is a new opportunity.  It is a window of time where we have the chance to learn, contribute, achieve, and enjoy. 

As with the “budget of years”, if we remain cognizant of the “sequence of opportunities” throughout our careers then we are much more likely to seek out the best of each chapter.  Rather than getting distracted or disconsolate about challenges or conditions of a certain role, we realize that every attribute of a career chapter, good or bad, is a chance to draw something of benefit and indeed to contribute something too.  A difficult customer is a chance to develop negotiation skills.  A heavy travel burden is a chance to read more broadly about the industry.

Third, and building on the first two ideas, comes the “how” question.  How can we discipline ourselves to maintain our awareness of the time-budget and the potential value that exists in of each of the sequence of opportunities? 

The answer is that we should consider each new chapter as a “term-of-office”.  We know that presidents and prime ministers start their term with the aim of delivering on a certain agenda and leaving a legacy in the limited time available.  And we can do the same with our careers.

It is likely that we will hold positions for 2 to 4 or maybe 5 years, but probably not longer.  If from the very start of a new role we have a fierce focus on the real imperatives that define our impact and our legacy, and on the metrics that will evidence this achievement – then we stand a much better chance of making our mark and having a strong sense of purpose while we are doing it.

If we are not disciplined and focused about how we choose to spend your time we can find yourself working very hard, committing a lot of emotional energy but later looking back and not being so clear what was it was all about, and what we achieved.

If by contrast we remember that we have a time-budget, that each chapter presents an opportunity and that to take advantage of that opportunity we must discipline ourselves to deliver on a set of metrics.   Then we will find that we manage our careers deliberately and that we construct a personal history that is a stream of our own meaningful achievements – as Steve Jobs would have wanted.