I know someone who is very good at her job. She is naturally talented, and because she has worked in a range of environments — at least a half-dozen different employers over the last twenty years — she has acquired a formidable depth and breadth of knowledge in her field. These moves were always her choice, driven in each instance by different professional or personal motivations; in each case, the employer she was leaving was unhappy to lose her. In her current position, the projects she takes on or initiates always turn out to be effective and meaningful. Co-workers and leaders value her expertise and effectiveness, and she is frequently accorded responsibilities that outstrip her nominal position. By many measures, including her accomplishments and the respect she receives from colleagues and customers, she is a success.
However, she finds herself increasingly frustrated by the mismatch between her contributions and her standing in her current employer’s hierarchy. She sometimes finds herself subordinate to people who do not know the work as well as she does, but have been promoted to a position of authority due to steady, if unremarkable, longevity. In retrospect, she now realizes that her moves from one employer to another — while sometimes necessary for personal reasons, and always important in the development of her impressive skill set — have cost her in continuity. She can imagine that if she had made different choices at specific junctures, remaining with certain employers rather than pursuing new challenges elsewhere, she might now be in a position of authority from which she could be even more effectual than she is now. She has undertaken, she says, “too many career adventures.”
I don’t know if she’s right. It may be that she has gained more from her adventures than she has lost, and that her current frustration is only a temporary condition that will be remedied as she continues her upward progress. Or it may be that she really has sacrificed her place in line, as a cost of developing deeper skills and a broader network. The reality really depends on the culture of where she works now — or where she may work in the future. After all, sometimes the best way to move into a position of more authority is to leave a place in which we are stuck. Would such a future move be considered a wise climb up a new hierarchical ladder, or just another career adventure?
Whatever the answer will turn out to be for this woman, her experience as a whole serves as a useful reminder that all of our career choices have potential consequences. As a recent career changer myself, I have frequently encouraged others to consider whether they really are working in a job they love, and to question whether they need to make a change, drastic or subtle. Complacency, fear, or even just inertia can keep people from exploring better career options. But those who work to overcome those forces — and those for whom those forces have never been an obstacle, who feel no reluctance, or perhaps even feel a compulsion, to change employers or fields of employment — should still keep their eyes open to the “transaction costs” that any transition exacts. It would be a shame to go through life without having any career adventures, but it could be just as much a shame to look back and conclude that you have had too many.