Get Off the Treadmill and Onto the Trail
Define success on your own terms and not on someone else’s
Many workplaces are set up for those who want to achieve. You get an entry-level job when you graduate. Then, after a couple of years, you are up for your first promotion. Then, after another few years, you aim for the next one. Maybe you join the management track and start learning to lead people. You are rewarded for having a positive impact in the organization, and your compensation grows as your skills and experience expand. Over the course of a decade, and then another, you climb the ladder one rung at a time.
Conventional wisdom holds that a good career is like being on a treadmill: You track your exercise and quantify how much progress you are making using the numbers on the console. You have set programs, goals, and outcomes that you want to achieve, and as your fitness improves, you continue to move up the levels. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with that. But what if there was another way?
How we are trained vs. the real world
We are taught from a young age to tie actions to rewards. Study for a test? Get an A. Prep for the SAT? Gain 150 points when you take the exam. Work hard in high school? Get into a good college.
Like school, the workplace is set up for those who want to achieve. Your job has scope, but you can expand that skill and grow. There are clear markers for success, whether ratings, raises, or promotions. However, these rewards weigh things that are not easily quantifiable.
Boiled down, a promotion is a mix of arbitrary factors. The criteria might look something like this:
Your skills + Experience + Performance > Company-level threshold for moving to the next level
As Yuji Higaki, Senior VP of Engineering at Niantic, said, “Promotions are an arbitrary yardstick that are 100 percent someone else’s definition of growth. Getting promoted will probably mean you’ve grown in some dimension, but it’s a dimension that is defined by the ladder you’re on.”
This is where the treadmill falls short. Much like the corporate ladder, treadmills track very specific things: calories burned, distance, and time. But what if you got off the treadmill and went outside to hike a trail? Hiking on a trail is not just about the metrics and calories, but about the experience: the sights you see, the challenges you overcome, and the path you forge.
In the real world, your job is about your skills in the workplace. In your career, however, the important skills take many other dimensions. These other skills, the ones you gain elsewhere, can help you improve, grow your network organically, and expand your options in ways you won’t expect.
What it means to be on the trail
Often the easiest way to get promoted is to keep doing the same thing for a long time and focus on achieving mastery. On the other hand, the best way to have a well-rounded and fulfilling career is to explore different roles, identify what you love about each one, and find your sweet spot. One of these strategies is about deepening your skills, and the other is about broadening them.
I had a friend who moved from Engineering to Technical Program Management. While she has a Computer Science degree from a top-tier program, she found that she thrived more as a TPM because she loved problem-solving and enabling large, complex products to get shipped. She decided that growing in Engineering wasn't right for her, so she took a step back and tried a different role that she knew little about. This new path aligned better with her temperament and her extroverted nature. While at first blush, an Engineering role can seem more prestigious and financially beneficial, she realized that her passion lay elsewhere and chose the trail rather than the treadmill.
Keep in mind that taking the trail does not always have to mean a wholesale departure from your role. Instead, it could mean spending time on something you are passionate about, like learning a new skill or broadening your work. This can unlock new connections and opportunities while allowing you to stay in your current job. For example, the women who started Women in Product were nearly all strangers to each other when we first met, but we put time into creating a non-profit that now has over 30,000 members. For us, the trail was not just about focusing our efforts on our jobs, but about giving back to others in our community. Many of those who were early leaders at WIP ended up creating an informal network, one that has helped many of us change jobs and explore new opportunities over the years.
Another way is to learn a skill that you can employ that will build your network. Ha Nguyen hosted a couple of seasons of her Product Speaker Idol competition. During the program, she had a professional trainer show participants how to create slides and give talks, did group and individual critique sessions, videotaped them, and then judged them in the final competition. The winners spoke at the Women in Product conference. Today many of the original participants are regular panelists and speakers at various events. Product Speaker Idol helped many people, especially women, to grow their speaking skills and their network. Programs like this or Toastmasters can arm you with new skills for your role as well.
Finding your trail
Staying on the treadmill is easy because you can see the milestones. Get promoted by the end of 2022, become a director in three years, hit VP by the time you’re forty, and so on and so forth. But a treadmill only tracks things that are actually measurable.
Getting on the trail is not about easy markers. It is about pushing yourself to work out on uneven ground, explore different detours, and breathe new air. It is about continuous learning and growth while pushing yourself to reach a new, unknown elevation.
Your trail may take many forms, whether taking on a new role or starting a side hustle. It may look like creating a new community group or running for local office. Maybe your trail is teaching a class at your alma mater or writing a book. Finding your trail means thinking about how you define success beyond the cycle of promotion. It’s about looking in new directions, past the obvious goalposts, to identify your own concept of fulfillment, success and happiness.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
What is something that would give me energy and meaning?
What is something I am passionate about that I am not engaging in today?
Looking back on this moment five years from now, what is something my future self would wish I had started to do today?
What do I wish I had started years ago?
This new year, commit to getting off the treadmill and picking your trail. Set a goal for the end of 2022, and then, on the first day of the year, start doing something, anything, to move toward that outcome. You may feel like you don’t have time, but start with ten minutes a day, and over the course of a year, you will have invested over 60 hours on something new.
A treadmill and a hiking trail both offer a workout, but only one offers the ability to broaden your experience and expand your horizons. When you stand at the top of the mountain at the end of next year, you will realize that you could not have achieved that view without taking a journey off the beaten path.
Hi Deb, thank you for this post! If I tried a stretch role, failed the first time but learned a lot, what's your advice of trying it again the second time, while I might have a job security risk?
Been following your writing for some time now — thanks for taking the time to write this newsletter!
This treadmill vs trail analogy reminds me of the difference between working in your zone of excellence (high competency but meh passion) and your zone of genius. https://twitter.com/SahilBloom/status/1454505435159883776?s=20