When I listened to the latest episode of Mind Tools Expert Voices, I was reminded of a famous and influential book. It’s a groundbreaking text that’s been around for decades and read by millions, and one which – I believe – has a great deal to tell us about having a better career, and being happy and successful at work.
I’m talking about Eric Carle’s timeless classic, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
Your Career Story
Storytelling in general is a powerful theme in the podcast. Experts like Robert Kaplan and Pippa Grange talk about “seizing the pen” and starting to write your own career narrative.
Other guests, including April Rinne and Dorie Clark, talk about finding your own sense of purpose as you plan your next steps. You stop being a character in someone else’s story.
And there’s a recurring point about regularly rewriting your career plan – because your job, your sector, and you, are in a constant state of flux. As educationalist Barbara Mistick puts it, “It’s the end of the career ‘track’ as you know it.”
Always Hungry for More
But what reminded me about “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in particular was a comment from futurist April Rinne. “We’ve been taught,” she tells my colleague Rachel Salaman, “that we will only really matter to the world if we have more, more, more, more, more.”
And I instantly thought about the caterpillar at the start of Eric Carle’s book. He eats one apple on Monday, two pears on Tuesday, and so on, until he’s so full he feels sick. He’s obsessed with getting more. But he also seems to be stuck on that old idea of a job “track,” steadily plowing on with his work, day after day.
In the podcast, author Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones calls this “survival mentality.” And that rang a bell with me, because there was a point in my career when every day felt like a battle to survive.
Thriving or Surviving?
I was working in education, and quickly moving forward in terms of job title, responsibilities and pay. But I’d reached a point where my well-being was in reverse.
The organization I worked for was under pressure, and everyone was stressed. We all had more to do than we could handle. There seemed to be new emergencies every week.
I knew I had the ability to make a difference. But too many things were getting in the way for me to have the impact I wanted.
As hard as I tried, I got very little satisfaction from my work, and I was struggling to see beyond the day-to-day grind.
I desperately needed a plan.
Lessons From Expert Voices
Mind Tools Expert Voices is the podcast where we explore key workplace topics with handpicked expert guests. The latest episode is about career planning, and how rewriting your story can help you to stay successful and satisfied at work.
Butterfly Thinking for a Better Career
In Eric Carle’s book, the hungry caterpillar eventually becomes a beautiful butterfly, and can then enjoy a rather different role – one that’s more varied, less stressed, and presumably much more enjoyable than before.
For humans, however, it’s not always easy to make that type of transition. It can feel scary to leave the familiar behind. There are risks involved in moving to new settings and taking on different challenges.
When I felt stuck, having people to talk to was vital. Friends helped me to think through my options, and several people suggested positive next steps. I didn’t make a detailed map for the rest of my career, but I did decide on my first move – and then made it.
Leaving education meant that my pay dropped significantly, and I had to learn to navigate the world of self-employment. I financed some of my own training, and invested time in networking. It was scary – but exciting, too, because I was reshaping my career, and using a much wider range of experiences and skills.
Like a butterfly, I started to dip in and out of different, tempting-looking things. I had a much wider and more attractive viewpoint. I didn’t feel trapped at ground level anymore.
How to Change Your Career Story
In the years since, I’ve developed what April Rinne calls a “portfolio career.” In the podcast, she tells Rachel that this is “… a shift in how you think about what you’re capable of doing, and what you want to do. So everything, every job, every skill, every role… the skills that you learn parenting… all of these things go into your portfolio.”
You end up with a résumé that makes you “… uniquely positioned in your sector or in your organization. It’s really empowering.”
Work won’t always go smoothly, of course. Many of our experts recognize that even small career shifts can be scary. I certainly had my fair share of knocks as I navigated my new path.
But not making changes is also a choice – and it can allow others to make choices for you, often not to your advantage. As Bill Wooditch puts it, “If you think about fear, maybe by procrastinating… you’re creating a much, much tougher fear for yourself than going after something.”
My Life as a Butterfly
As the next phase of my career began, I was energized to run projects of my own, and to explore opportunities that I’d have been too busy, or too scared, to consider before. After a couple of years working alone, I saw a chance to take on a team role in an unfamiliar sector – and seized it.
Suddenly I was working in an exciting new industry, and my daily life was very different from when I’d been at my “dead end.” I was interested in work again, and felt like I was having an impact. My new environment suited me. I could use my full portfolio of experiences and strengths.
I only wish I’d taken control of my career story – and spread my wings – a bit sooner. As Barbara Mistick says, “If you can tap into your passion for work, then your level of engagement changes and your ability to be successful changes.” It’s a virtuous circle. As in Eric Carle’s book, the sun shines!
Building a Better Career From Here
The Expert Voices podcast has a wealth of ideas for finding good places to work, and great jobs to do – ones that match where you are in your life now, and where you want to go next.
In my experience, the first step is the hardest. But if you’re pursuing your interests, and finding new ways to bring value and find satisfaction, you’ll be moving toward something better. You’ll be on what Richard Shell from the Wharton School calls the “windy path” to career success.
In short, you’ll be turning into a butterfly! You’ll spot more opportunities from up there, and enjoy a richer life now.
And I’m not the only one who sees butterflies as a good symbol for happiness. When Richard gives Rachel his take on career planning, he says something that took me straight back to my favorite children’s book:
“It’s very hard to catch a butterfly. But if you go someplace where there are butterflies and you just sit down and be still, a butterfly will very likely come and sit on your shoulder. And I think happiness is like that.
“If you spend your life chasing it, it’s pretty hard to catch. But if you go to places where there’s a good chance that your talents, your emotions, your relationships will be in resonance with that situation and just sit there, the chances are pretty good the happiness will find you.”
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What Are Your Career-Planning Tips?
How are you shaping your career from here? What’s worked for you in the past, and when have you learned from your mistakes? Please share your experiences, insights and ideas, below.