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What’s Your Career Map?

Gabe Heilig

Founder, Action Resumes—Pentagon

The maps in our minds
We all use maps, whether we go anywhere or not. Maps aren’t just about physical places “on a map.” Maps are mostly in our minds, it turns out. The models of reality we use to steer us in one direction or another when we have a decision to make—these decisions are made using maps we have in our minds. Often without even realizing these maps are there. When we have a complex decision in front of us, what the world looks like at that moment depends on the map we’re using to see it with. That’s what we use to navigate.

One type of map is a narrative map. A story. As we’ve all just come to realize, political candidates have stories and those stories influence how we vote and how we feel about the people we vote for. And you have a story, and so do I. Everyone has a story.

The important thing is to know your own story, so you can see where your map is leading you. Otherwise, you’re going to be lost in your own story—lost in your own map.

Because they are so fundamental and integral to our thinking, we often don’t even notice them. Yet our mental maps guide us toward where we wind up. And when we get there, if we don’t know how to read our own maps, we’re likely to feel confused, and even frustrated. “ How’d we wind up here?” you’ll ask yourself.

And your self will be thinking, “ Dude—you didn’t look at the map!!”

Maps are especially important in our careers. If we don’t have a map, or a story we feel we can trust—and if we don’t know what that story is—we’re likely to spend a fair amount of time wandering around, wondering why we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

A smart person once offered me a useful definition of intelligence. He said it was: “ the ability to predict consequences .” I like that. It’s a definition that has a map inside it, one that can take somebody somewhere.

Another smart person defined “intellectuals” not as people who read a lot of books or earn advanced degrees. No—he defined an “intellectuals” as: “ people for whom the consideration of an idea can change the way they live their lives.”

I like that definition also. I like it because it presumes that thinking is dynamic.

So—here’s a simple exercise:

See if you can observe your life in process. Where is it going? Can you map out where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re headed? How much of the journey you’re on is actually something deliberate and consciously chosen?

Listen to some of the thinking inside your head—that radio station we all keep on all the time. Are you sure all that yakking is helpful? What world is it telling you to live in?

Do you know? It’s actually a useful thought to think about.

With a new map, you may be able to steer yourself in a new direction—and grow your world in a new direction.

Think about it.

Let’s think of new metaphors
The stories we use to navigate our lives are themselves shaped by the metaphors we use in our thinking. Metaphors are embedded in our thinking like those little sticks we use to train tomato plants when they start to grow. Metaphors are like the molds manufacturers use to make tools. Once a mold is cast, all the tools will come out looking and acting the same.

Well—government agencies and large corporations use language in a way that’s meant to convince us that they never make mistakes. They talk about “systems,” not people, since people make mistakes. Large organizations like to convince us (and themselves) that they’re above making mistakes. So they use language that sounds like it came out of a computer. But computers came out of human beings. We imagined and invented them.

They didn’t think themselves up. We thought them up.
Nevertheless, many organizations want to eliminate the thought that they might be possibly doing things wrong. So they de-humanize and objectify their metaphors—the mental maps they use to describe and define their realities. The next time you’re in a meeting at your office, notice how certain kinds of metaphors are used.

“That’s going to be our new default setting on this project.”

“Fred—how’s your personal branding campaign going?”

“What kind of product are you putting out there when you interview for these jobs?”

“Joan got laid off, but they’re going to reboot her department and call her back.”

Metaphors like these are common in conversations these days. We use metaphors from the worlds of computerized technology, manufacturing, marketing and media. They’ve become so common, we don’t really notice them. We just use them and keep talking.

The question is: What does it do to our thinking?

Wait a second. Stop. Right here. Just— stop . Stop thinking.

Look around, inside your mind. Suppose we used a different kind of metaphor .

Would that help us change the maps we use to think about decisions we’ve got to make?

Would it help see ourselves and our life choices more usefully? Would it give us perspectives and options we don’t have now? And would these new angles of approach open windows to a different world, one we might like better than the one we’re living in now?

Suppose we began using organic metaphors, drawn from the life forms and living processes in Nature. Would that make sense? We’re part of Nature, after all.

Suppose that instead of thinking about our careers in terms of ladders and organizational charts—and instead of thinking of ourselves as “products” and “brands”— what if we considered this: Our professional lives and careers are alive! Our professional lives are not things: not ladders or boxes on an organizational chart. They are life forms. What’s more, they’re the creations of other life forms— us.

And since we’re alive, the ideas we think about are also alive. They can grow and even have “idea children” and create a whole family of thoughts and ideas. What a thought!

Gabe Heilig has assisted over 5,300 people in advancing their careers. If you have a question, feel free to ask. Other people may have the same question you do and he may answer your question in print in a future column. You can reach him at gabe@ideadesign-dc.com