Craft a Sustainable Career

Harvard Business Review

Imagine crafting a sustainable career for yourself. Year after year, you perform work that makes full use of your skills and challenges you to develop new ones. Your work not only interests you, it gives you a sense of meaning. You enjoy opportunities for learning and development. You work with people who energize you. You are confident that your skills and competencies make you valuable and marketable and that you can access opportunities through your network. You are able to fit your work together with the other things in your life that are important to you, like family, friends, and leisure.

This is a rosy picture, to be sure; some would even call it unattainable. For a taste of what is usually associated with the word career, check out the Urban Dictionary's definition, which characterizes a career as "an affliction whose symptoms are loss of life & liberty, general purpose misery, and resentment towards those who are unaffected" and "a euphemism for 'professional labor camp.'"

The entry is facetious, yet it does point to an undeniable truth: many employees spend the better part of their waking hours engaged in work that gives them nothing more than pay. "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden in 1854. Today, over two-thirds of employees are disengaged at work, according to a recent Gallup survey of 150,000 workers. Economic stagnation and unequal access to opportunity keep a sustainable career out of reach of many. Even among the socioeconomically privileged, investment in education, hard work, and commitment to a company is no guarantee of career success and fulfillment.

However, there are steps you can take to maximize your chances of enjoying sustainable career success over the long term. Consider the example of Dan, who worked as sales engineer in the late 1990s for a company that developed voice recognition technology — a perfect fit for his background in and passion for linguistics and computer science. A few years later, the firm merged with its chief competitor. While Dan's job title remained unchanged, his responsibilities shifted in an unfavorable direction. Instead of the more creative work of synthesizing customer needs into technical solutions, at which he excelled, he was tasked primarily with developing proposals and statements of work. Not only did this work fail to capitalize on his strengths, it frustrated him and required skills he lacked. Thus, Dan found himself in a common catch-22: wanting to move into a position that would better fit his skills profile and enable him to recapture his outstanding job performance; he faced diminished prospects of mobility within the firm because he was underperforming at his new responsibilities. Furthermore, given the recent merger, this low point occurred at a time when he needed to demonstrate his value to managers from the acquiring company who weren't familiar with his track record.

To craft his career, Dan explored options for performing interesting work that exploited his talents and offered room for career growth while also increasing the value he provided to his company. He scoured the internet for information about other firms in the industry and found that many competitors employed solution architects, a position that didn't exist in his company at the time. Having gained broad experience with the development and deployment of voice recognition solutions in various contexts over the years with his employer, he realized that the solution architect role would both suit his existing skill profile and work preferences while also increasing his impact in the firm and opening up paths for increased learning. In addition, his research suggested that the role would support the company's strategic objective to take a dominant market position in the rapidly-growing market for voice recognition technology in mobile devices.

Using his respected industry knowledge, market insight, and professional network, he developed a proposal to create a solution architect. He explained how the new position could also enhance retention of high-value employees by providing an alternate career path for other sales engineers who were seeking opportunities for growth within the company. He used evidence from performance appraisals and multi-source feedback to demonstrate that his qualifications matched the position's requirements.

Management accepted his proposal and appointed him to the newly created position, an opportunity that kept him learning, engaged, and performing at his peak, which in turn ultimately led to a promotion a few years later. As expected, the role proved valuable for the company, which in turn hired additional solution architects from outside and promoted other employees into the position.

If you'd like to craft your own career, try out these strategies, which I recommend in my career management courses and workshops:


  • Embrace the fact that you are the pilot of your career. No one else has direct access to your ambitions, interests, and values, and no one is going to take you by the hand and help you create a fulfilling career. The more you practice career crafting, the better you get at it.

  • Develop a discipline of identifying and documenting the ways in which you add value to your employer. Spend a few minutes at the end of each week to record what you've learned and accomplished as well as to record feedback received. Just 5-10 minutes of systematic effort weekly will soon yield a rich archive of material that you can use to deepen your self-awareness, hone your career goals, and document your value.

  • Link your accomplishments to your career goals. Discuss your goals with your manager periodically, even if this process is not formalized. Maintain positive, productive relationships with people who can help you to access opportunities.

  • Pay close attention to developments in your industry and to the strategic direction of your firm. Understand your firm's core competencies — the parts of its operation that drive its competitiveness in the marketplace — and make sure that you play a contributing role. Look for ways to get involved in growth areas.

  • Seek opportunities to work with people who energize you. Many of my executive students recount that their biggest career boosts have come from working alongside smart, energetic, connected people who have taken an interest in them. These productive opportunities are much more likely to occur when you actively seek them out.

A sustainable career is dynamic and flexible; it features continuous learning, periodic renewal, the security that comes from employability, and a harmonious fit with your skills, interests, and values. The keys to crafting a sustainable career are knowing yourself — what interests you, what you do best and not so well, what energizes you — and being acutely attuned to the fields and companies you're interested in, so that you can identify places where you can add value. The "follow your passion" self-help industry tends to under-emphasize this key point: all of the self-awareness in the world is of little use if you can't pitch your passion to a buyer. A sustainable career is built upon the ability to show that you can fill a need that someone is willing to pay for. This holds not only when you're starting a business or looking for a new job; it's also an important springboard for refining your current job and your career trajectory to make it more ideal.

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