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Building Your Career is Like Being a Sculptor

There are two essential ways to shape what you'll do, but most people only consider one

I don’t fancy myself much of an artist in the traditional sense of the word. But in a way, we are all artists when it comes to our careers because we have to create something that is uniquely expressive to ourselves. In that sense, we should take a more concerted effort to our approach when considering what we do and how we do it.

The art of sculpting makes for a unique metaphor because there are two basic processes, modelling and carving. With our careers, we tend to be steered toward the modelling approach and learn to panic when in the carving approach. However, taking a closer look at each will shed light on how we can be more purposeful in our career. Sculpting should be an expression in learning, not anxiety.

The Modelling Approach

In sculpting, modelling involves building up the work by adding more material. In your career, it’s akin to knowing what you would like to do and structuring your education, certifications, and participation around that specific job. A leading example of this would be a lawyer or doctor. The basic premise is that you’re starting from scratch and adding specific pieces to yourself in order to achieve the desired goal.

This approach itself can take on two paths. The first is building as you go, which is like visualizing a piece of art in your mind and then shaping the work to match that. This will probably include making adjustments as you go along, with the physical work beginning to replace the mental image.

Your career will similarly begin to replace your mental vision as you develop and complete each step of your plan. Adjustments here could include things like choosing a more specific subsection of your industry or learning a new language to expand your communication efforts.

In the second approach, you have an actual object to model after, rather than a mental image. The is somewhat of a work-backwards-approach for your career. It is choosing a single job you would love to have down the road, like Executive Director of the Smithsonian or being a senior partner at a specific law firm. From there, you work in reverse order to see what requirements are necessary to obtain that position, considering credentials, experience, and referrals as well.

This new role might be the one directly subordinate to your dream position, or it perhaps one requiring a lateral move across industries. Keep working backwards in this manner until you arrive at a position that you qualify for today or could qualify for in the near future. There will still be adjustments along the way, but this will give you a clearer path for moving forward.

This approach is fairly straight forward and should appear as such. When choosing this path, you have your focus set and should be careful not to get sidetracked with other opportunities that may seem enticing, but not altogether relevant. You should always ask yourself if a new opportunity will put you closer to your end goal.

The Carving Approach

Carving, for the purposes of this analogy, is basically the opposite of modelling. It is the removal of material until you have a finished work. Here, your career prospects and hopes may seem overwhelming because you don’t know exactly what you want to do. This involves trying out different industries and roles to hone in on what really excites and drives you. It’s chipping away the pieces of a big marble block until you begin to see a shape form, and then you start working towards shape in detail.

If you’re faced with a bunch of hills and you need to see what’s on the other side of them, the best thing you can do is run up one and reduce the amount of time you waste deciding. To begin the carving approach, you have to just get started. This can involve exploring a hobby at a deeper level, taking a class on a particular subject, or applying for a job that seems even mildly interesting. You may already have a particular industry you’d like to work in, like healthcare or food service, but not a specific role yet. Take the same steps to try out different areas of the field. Spend some of your free time learning more about what is out there so you have a better grasp of what the industry needs, and will need in the coming years.

The idea is to find something you can enjoy. This means that the decision to change hills, so to speak, should be based on how much you hate what you’re doing. Put differently, you aren’t changing to something else just because you don’t love it. You might be saying, “But shouldn’t I be looking for my dream job?” No, you shouldn’t. And that brings us to mindset.

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport makes the case for forgetting your passion and just being a boss with what you’re doing. Taking particular steps with that will allow you to become passionate about what you’re doing. You need to give up finding your absolute dream job. I’m going to write that again to ensure you read it closely: You need to give up finding your absolute dream job.

A Case for Carving

Instead of doing what you love, you might consider learning to love what you do.

The carving approach doesn’t work like the modelling approach, so you can’t expect that same outcome. What you can expect is to learn a lot about the boundaries of your comfort zone. Newport pushes the idea of craftsmanship, wherein you develop the rarest skills of what your field to become “so good they can’t ignore you” (And if you’re wondering whether you should go read his book, the answer is yes).

This may all seem to be conflicting advice, what with trying out a bunch of things but also sticking to one thing and doing it really well. Remember that these are two steps to be done in order, all under the umbrella of pursuing something you can be good at.

I realize it’s a big ask of yourself to put faith put into the idea that “I’ll love this eventually,” but remember: You don’t know what path you want if you’re carving out your career. This is essentially why many people never take this approach. Giving up the idea of the dream job feels like settling, or worse.

There are plenty of people who attain their dream position, or what they thought it was, and settle into mediocrity. The myths of the dream job can mislead people if they aren’t careful. In addition to the mediocrity achievers, some people search the entirety of their lives going after a dream job, trying the modelling approach, but only end up continuously reshaping it because it never quite feels right.

Take solace in knowing you aren’t alone if you are taking the carving approach. Colonel Sanders didn’t build his chicken empire until he was 65; Vera Wang was an Olympic-competing figure skater before designing wedding dresses; Beth Comstock was a biology major at the College of William & Mary before launching her career to become vice chair of General Electric.

Your life is what you make of it. Go carve something beautiful all your own.

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