Why it's okay to not know the answer to; "What do you want to be doing in 5-years' time?"
Many EAs that I meet tell me that they “fell into” this career. They started a job and discovered they were really good at it, enjoyed it and stuck at it, but it was never part of their plan. It is a rare occasion that I meet someone who has made a planned and conscious decision to become a Business Support Professional and I get really excited when I do meet these unique creatures. I am so intrigued by their career inspiration and to be quite honest, somewhat envious that this has always been a career of choice and not something they stumbled upon. My recent LinkedIn Poll confirmed my hunch with 78% of respondents confirming that they too fell into this career.
I’ve become intrigued by what the impact is of falling into a role rather than planning your career. We already know that we are in a profession which has a very low career ceiling. Some companies may have 0-3 levels of Business Support roles and, with the help of the Global Skills Matrix, hopefully the concept of providing a career path for Business Support Professionals will increase. However, I’ve become curious that, if the majority of Business Support Professionals have fallen into this career and traditionally there is no career framework, what impact does this have on how we view our careers and self-belief, particularly when, as PA/EAs, we are die-hard planners. Is it a problem if we’re not sure how to answer; “What do you want to be doing in 5 years’ time?”. To answer this, I’ve looked at a few career theories.
The Social Cognitive Career Theory is based on three key elements which all interact with each other.
Self-Efficacy: Your self-belief that you have the capabilities to perform certain task.
Self-efficacy is not fixed and can increase or decrease through a variety of means, but the most influential is through personal performance accomplishments. For example, if you take on a task and do it well, you will feel a stronger sense of self-belief in your abilities. Equally, if you do not perform it well, then the opposite will happen.
Outcome Expectations: The outcome that you will receive having performed a certain task.
Like Self-Efficacy, Outcome Expectations can be developed through learnt experiences. For example, you performed a task well and received a special “thank you" note, bonus or reward in return for the task. This can also include one’s own reaction, including feelings of pride.
Personal Goals: The determination to engage in a particular activity or to affect a particular future outcome. Setting personal goals helps to organise, guide, and sustain our own behaviour. Goals constitute a critical mechanism allowing us to have personal agency or self-empowerment.
These three elements continuously interact and influence each other. For example, if goals are set and achieved and then rewarded, this will increase one’s self-belief and feelings of achievement and outcome expectations. If a person has a high level of self-efficacy (self-belief) they may set themselves higher goals than a person with lower self-belief. In a perfect world, career goals would be set within areas of interest, so that we build careers in industries that are of natural interest to us. However, life is not perfect and often career goals and decisions are made with a backdrop of financial pressure, family circumstances and the level of support within one’s immediate environment.
Therefore, if most EA/PAs have fallen into their career, we do not get the rich reward of feeling of having achieved a goal and the subsequent boost in self-belief and outward recognition of achievement. I can’t help but wonder if this has a particularly negative impact on us, because by nature, we are die-hard planners.
This all feels rather depressing to me, and I certainly don’t feel dissatisfied about my career as an EA. Granted, when I first started as a PA I had very little self-belief and absolutely zero goals. I treated my employment as a means to pay the bills rather than a career that I could learn and develop within. The moment I seized an opportunity at work to lead the Wellbeing Programme in 2017, correlates to when I began to change my outlook and my employment changed from being a job, to a career. What happened in this moment was “Happenstance”.
The Happenstance Learning Theory.
Developed by John D. Krumboltz of Stanford University, the general concept is that unexpected events will happen in life and the trick is to view them as opportunities to be taken advantage of rather than obstacles. Instead of having a set of career goals, Krumboltz encouraged a very loose career plan, because unplanned events can often lead to good careers and that indecision is a desirable trait as it helps establish a sense of open-mindedness. To be able to reframe obstacles as opportunities there are five skills which must be developed:
1. Curiosity to explore learning opportunities
2. Persistence in managing obstacles
4. Risk taking
5. Optimism when navigating unplanned events.
I asked Psychologist Dannielle Haig about this idea and I was interested to hear that this also links to having a growth mindset; “Having a growth mindset is pivotal for seizing opportunities as it empowers individuals to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, and see effort as a path to mastery. Importantly, this mindset fosters a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. People with a growth mindset perceive opportunities as platforms to learn and grow, rather than insurmountable challenges, and they are not afraid to take risks. They believe that abilities can be developed, which enables them to achieve higher levels of success and fulfilment. In an ever-evolving world full of possibilities, having a growth mindset is the key to unlocking potential, overcoming obstacles, and making the most out of every opportunity that comes one’s way.”
I fully support more companies introducing career frameworks, however, if you are working in a company which has not yet introduced one, do not be discouraged. Firstly, not everyone’s career path with look the same. Whilst it is inspiring to see other people progress, it is unlikely that any two people will follow the exact same route, and you may need to carve out your own. Secondly, having no set career framework can also be seen as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. Following a fixed career framework could be somewhat limiting as you try to stay within the structured boundaries that have been set and there is already an expectation as to what you can and should achieve at each stage. View the lack of a career framework as an opportunity to create your own career path. Seek out the projects, events and activities that are of interest to you, and ensure you are financially rewarded for any additional responsibility, (know your worth). It is not about luck or waiting for opportunities to happen, but by actively looking out for the opportunities and moments of “happenstance” staying curious and being flexible will create thriving careers. Say "yes" to more things that give you energy and fuels your passion.
I've concluded that I am comfortable to not knowing or planning exactly what I'll be doing in 5-years time. I know what interests me and will aim to develop those interests more, and I have a general idea of the direction I want move towards, but I am also open to opportunities and adventures which may come my way. I never planned to become an EA, it was a moment of happenstance, and I think that has turned out pretty great.
With thanks to Dannielle Haig, for her time and insights on this topic. I always love our conversations.
Krumboltz, J. D. (2009). The happenstance learning theory. Journal of career assessment, 17(2), 135-154.
Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D., & Hackett, G. (2002). Social cognitive career theory. Career choice and development, 4(1), 255-311.