Let’s take a short etymological trip and explore the word “career: where does it come from and what was its original meaning? Bear with me. It’s important and you will see why.
The original word meant “vehicle”. It derived from the Latin word “carrus,” “wheeled vehicle” or “chariot.”
It then evolved. In the 16th century, the term “carriera” in Italian began to be used metaphorically to describe one’s course of life or vocation. This notion of a career as a vocation or occupation has existed for centuries. It was grounded on the assumption of stability, longevity, and mastery within a particular field. Google & ChatGPT docet.
But let’s think about this for a second. And we don’t need Google nor ChatGPT to think.
Developing your craft and dedicating your life to it was never an option! It was a must. It was linked to survival but also to ambition.
To win your seat on the Mount Olympus of your area of competence was not an easy task but it is what drove greatness, mastery and genius! Ask any great Renaissance artist and business man of the time and they would avow to that. Their profession was intrinsically linked to who they were and what they excelled at.
Fast forward to modern times.
With the Industrial Revolution, new dynamics in the labor market, and the rise of the middle class, things radically changed. New paradigms emerged.
From “careers” being “carriers of your vocation”, they became “ladders of your ambition” and “measurement of your success”.
As organisations grew in size and power, companies began having increasingly complex hierarchical structures that needed effective leaders. The whole notion of career development, talent management, performance management, competency models, training and succession planning took center stage and became a business of its own, as we well know.
And it is a serious business.
Managing careers, grooming and preparing leaders to take increasingly higher roles of responsibility and deciding on who gets the top job is key. It requires the ability to spot talent early on, to develop, support, accompany that talent in time and ultimately make the call. This is part of our job as HR professionals. It is the bread and butter of what we do. And it is extremely satisfying when you see how people progress in their careers. But it takes time and talent.
How long does it take to groom C Suite leaders and have them ramp up that ladder of ambition and success?
It depends on what type of business we are talking about.
My direct experience from working in Fortune 500 companies has shown me that it takes a good 20 to 25 years to be recognised as being a competent and credible CEO and executive leader. But, here’s the catch! This is not only the result of careful grooming. This is also because they had it in them!
The most successful people I have EVER worked with in and outside corporate structures and whose careers I have accompanied throughout the years, are those who saw their work as much more than climbing ladders and pursuing their ambitions! For them it was a manifestation of who they were and what they excelled at!
Well, what do you know? Post modernity meet antiquity! These Renaissance people were on to something….something we forgot to remember. This is why etymology is important: it may give us a hand and help us recover meaning in our careers.
Plenty of research shows us that to be truly successful in your “career”, regardless of which area you are in, it has to be fully in line with who you are, what you’re great at, what you are passionate about and what is important to you.
The reason is simple: you will never survive the pressure otherwise!
You have to be in the right element to succeed. You need to feel like a fish in water and you have to be the right fish in the right waters! If you want to be in a shark tank, you need to be a shark. If you’re a goldfish, you’d better stay in a bowl. The former love their shark tribe, the latter would not survive with sharks but would thrive with goldfish. The problem is that the notion of success has been linked to getting in that tank with sharks even if they tear you to bits!
When we move away from the notion of career = progression = success and embrace the idea that a career is a vehicle through which your full potential comes alive, then work is more than a job and a means to make a living. It is a manifestation of who you are. And a career is your carrier. It is the highest form of that manifestation.
This recovery of etymology and meaning is well overdue.
It grounds us to the basics and it forces us to take responsibility. It gives sanity in a complex world of work where we are constantly running after the next big change and counting on someone else to help us: our boss, our sponsors, our networks, our alumni, our governments, our companies. No. Our careers are greatly in our hands! Companies can offer the opportunities but we are the only ones who truly know where we can play to the best of our abilities and be successful. If we don’t know, we have to figure it out. Don’t fake it! You won’t make it if you do. The mask will fall sooner or later or you will.
The good news is that this way of thinking is becoming increasingly prominent. Less so in companies for we know that institutional changes always take longer to sediment and anyway their focus is different: it’s about building healthy C-suite pipelines with viable ready now candidates. Numbers count. Some derail, some leave, some make it, most don’t.
But people themselves are increasingly realising that how they spend their time and where they put their skills and talents to work is important. Their mobility in and out of companies is not only due to market and labour dynamics. It is also due to profound inner reflections and the desire to recover a sense of who they are as professionals and who they want to become. There are higher chances they will build more fulfilling careers when they see them as carriers of their talents. This is applicable from sharks to goldfish and everything in between.
When you start seeing YOUR career as THE vehicle of expression that reflects who you are, what you do and what you are absolutely great at, you will see your world of work through completely different eyes!
You will look at your job differently. You will question if what you are doing is fuelling you or draining you; if it’s strengthening your talents or downplaying them; if it’s taking you down the right path and if it’s the direction you want to go.
You will want to discover what your true potential actually is. Not only based on what your boss, HR and your organization is telling you through performance reviews and assessments but also based on what other trustworthy people around you tell you. Friends, family, mentors, trainers, coaches, colleagues, significant others.
You will recover a sense of empowerment as you unpack many things about yourself that you may have overlooked but that are important. This may lead you to reset your priorities. Maybe you dedicated too much energy and attention to work or perhaps you’ve parked your ambitions for too long and now is time to get back on track.
You will want to figure out where you can play at your best. Is it where you are at the moment? Is it in a similar sector, function? Is it in a completely different area? You may decide to take a break and learn a completely different skill set triggered by the curiosity to expand your knowledge. This may open up new paths that you didn’t even imagine possible and then decide it is the right one for you.
You will know when you are on the right path because you will feel it! Your “chariot” will swiftly travel across the path ahead, it will overcome the road blocks that pop up and you will feel strangely at ease. The people around you will cheer you on and you will feel elated at what you do and the impact you have.
You will also know when you are on the wrong path. This works in both directions. Your “chariot” will feel heavy, out of place, constantly afraid of what lies ahead. You will feel awkward and insecure being around people, you will mirror them and bend to their expectations rather than honour yours. You will watch out for the tiny obstacles as opposed to focus on the greater goals.
Henry Ford said it best: “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” I would add they are also those frightful things you see when you’re on the wrong road and your chariot is not the right vehicle to carry you!
The right vehicle, the right carrier, can take you safely and successfully on different paths and journeys. It is there to serve you not to block you. It will allow you to explore different roles, industries, areas of interest; it will facilitate personal and professional encounters that will enrich you as a person and as a professional.
So get on your “chariot” and drive it to where it needs to go and where it wants to go! The World of Work is, after all, a world of travel and of encounters. And it has radically changed. We have entered a new era. It is exciting and revolutionary. You just need the right “carrus” to explore it and enjoy it. Once you start seeing your career this way, you will never look back!