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There many strategies you can use to select and plan a career path, but perhaps the two most basic patterns are bottom-up and top-down.
Bottom-up career planning
Bottom-up career planning means figuring out how you can best take advantage of the career building blocks you already possess. It’s a low-level, objective method of planning.
Perhaps the simplest form of bottom-up planning is when you pass a store window with a “Help Wanted” sign, and you apply for a job there because it’s available and because you think it’s a halfway decent fit for you. A more complex method of bottom-up planning involves assessing your current needs (salary, hours, benefits, location) and qualifications (education, skills, experience) in order to figure out what line of work would best suit you. Then you might create a resume and start looking for work based on what positions you feel qualified for, or you might go freelance and/or build a business around your capabilities. In the back of your mind, you’re asking, “What kind of job should I get?” or “What kind of work am I qualified to do?”
Bottom-up career planning is pretty much the de facto standard. When people do any serious career planning at all, they almost always use a bottom-up strategy. The very act of creating a resume is largely a bottom-up process.
Have you ever taken one of those career assessment tests? That’s also a bottom-up process. In high school I took the Kuder Occupational Interest Survey, which is a lengthy multiple-choice test that’s supposed to help you determine what kind of career would best suit you. It asks strange questions like, “Would you rather watch an opera, a political rally, or a fire?” Then it compares your answers to those of various career professionals in its database. The results tell you which careers are filled with people who think like you do, so I guess the assumption is that you’ll be happiest among your own kind. It seemed a bit Brave New World-ish to me. Incidentally, the top 3 matches the Kuder spit out for me were: (1) computer programmer, (2) forester, and (3) math professor. An unfortunate limitation of the Kuder is that it can’t recommend careers that don’t exist at the time of the test. I suppose forester is pretty close to blogger though; they both keep the trees safe.
After we got our results, I had a lot of fun ribbing an intelligent friend whose Kuder recommended bricklayer as his top career choice. For all I know he’s probably building web server farms today.
Top-down career planning
Top-down career planning means getting in touch with who you really are at the deepest level (either soulfully or mentally, depending on your preference) and figuring out the best way to outwardly express and share that core value with the world. This is a high-level subjective method of planning.
A very simple form of top-down planning would be to say, “I really resonate with the concept of courage, so I’m going to make a career out of being courageous.” But of course you can delve much deeper into your values, character, and other soulful attributes to come up with a more detailed career concept. In the back of your mind, you’re asking, “Who am I really?” or “How can I best share my core, innate value with the world?”
Top-down career planning is much less common than bottom-up. Top-down is sometimes seen in artistic fields like music, art, and drama, but even then it’s rare to see it executed consciously. For example, deciding to be a musician because you love music is still bottom-up. Deciding to express peace because you recognize that the core of your being is perfect stillness would be top-down, and composing peaceful music would be one of many media you could use for that.
Many people have done top-down exercises such as clarifying their values or writing a mission statement, but they rarely take the process far enough to actually develop those core ideas into a full-time career. This is why you see people with mission statements like, “I want to use music to teach people unconditional love and compassion” who work in retail sales.
Bottom-up vs. top-down career planning
Bottom-up career planning starts with the practical, low-level, physical aspects of a career. It regards things like salary, qualifications, security, perks, and potential for advancement as the most important elements to get right. Once you have those things in place, it’s up to you to do the best you can to enjoy it.
Top-down career planning starts with the high-level, spiritual and emotional aspects of a career. It regards creative self-expression as the most important element to get right. Once you have an outlet for creatively expressing the real you, you then work through the practical issues of developing your skills and generating income to meet your physical needs.
Both strategies have their strengths and weaknesses, so a balanced approach seems wise. I wouldn’t recommend applying both strategies with equal weight, however. I think the best career planning combo would be about 80% top-down and 20% bottom-up.
What would this 80-20 combo look like? It means that you’d invest the bulk of your career planning efforts into figuring out who you really are, getting in touch with your core values, and deciding what it is you really want to express to the world. The result of that would basically be a statement of purpose that deeply resonates with you. Once you have this, you’re really 80% of the way there.
For example, Erin knows that she’s all about compassion. She’s very clear about that. She knows that no matter what the physical form of her career looks like, it has to be centered around the expression of compassion. Otherwise she wouldn’t be expressing her true self. She’ll never be happy and fulfilled in a career that isn’t a strong fit for expressing and sharing compassion, regardless of her qualifications, how well it pays, or how otherwise perfect it seems. Given that she knows this, she can continue with the top-down planning process to drill down into exploring different ways of expressing that, such as by blogging, offering intuitive readings, helping people in the forums, etc. As soon as she got clear on the core value she needed to express, it wasn’t that hard for her to get the low-level pieces in order, including developing her skills via education and practice and finding a sustainable way to generate income from her work.
When I first met Erin back in 1994, however, she was working as a secretary. She held many secretarial positions before that too. Why? Mainly because she can type 90+ words per minute. If she kept going with that bottom-up approach, she might have eventually progressed to being an executive assistant. That would have been a great fit for her qualifications and experience, and it would have met her physical needs just fine, but secretarial work would have been a very weak outlet for expressing her core value of compassion. Interestingly, her typing skills now serve her very well as a blogger.
If you put bottom-up planning ahead of top-down planning, you’re putting the cart before the horse. That approach just won’t yield the right level of clarity. It’s not a good way to consciously build a fulfilling career. It’s like looking at the ground to explore the stars.
I see the results of excessive bottom-up planning in my email inbox every week. People who center their career paths around their qualifications, skills, and salary requirements so often end up miserable — or at the very least disillusioned — even when they seem to be thriving from an objective standpoint. It’s rough when people succeed in getting what they asked for, only to realize they asked for the wrong thing. After 10-20 years, they’re dying inside while their souls are screaming for them to just stop and quit everything… invariably to move to a career that will serve as a better outlet for their creative self-expression.
Just because you can do something and get paid well for it doesn’t mean you should. Don’t confuse your medium with your message. You’ll be much more fulfilled if you pursue a career that allows you to express your true self as fully as possible. Then educate yourself, practice, and build your skills to get good at compatible forms of expression until you can abundantly satisfy your physical needs. That may take some time, but if you’re really expressing your true self, the process should be fun and enjoyable.
Your optimal career is simply this: Share the real you with the physical world through the process of creative self-expression. In order to do that, however, you must first discover the real you. But it makes no sense to choose a medium for self-expression (i.e. a traditional career), such as being a doctor, writer, or entrepreneur, until you first determine what it is you’re going to express.