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Are You in a Career Trap & What Can You Do About It?

Do you find yourself prepared for a successful career in the cutting edge digital ecosystem? Find out what a career trap is and know how to fight it.

20 Mar, 2021

If you know of anyone who is in the age group of 30-40 years and has recently lost his/her job, you are most likely to have come across a textbook case of career trap.

Indeed, one of the tragedies of the post-pandemic life is that many people have lost their jobs. With unemployment figures rising every day and stories of desperation emerging  even as life adapts to the new normal, uncertainty about jobs continues to haunt people.

At least, most of the jobs that were lost are not coming back.

While there are a lot of macroeconomic factors at work, there’s a pattern to be recognised at a personal level too.

This blog is about identifying that pattern. This pattern is The Career Trap – a pattern that almost everyone has experienced either in personal life or seen someone else experience it.

But there’s a twist.

It’s a pattern that no one recognises as a career trap. It’s an invisible trap. 

And that’s why it’s more dangerous than you’d imagine.

In this blog, let us look at what a career trap is and what you can do about it – how to try to rise from it or how to stop yourself from falling into one.

What is a Career Trap?

A career trap is the dead end you hit when you realise you are not progressing in your career. Any or all of the following things are likely to happen to you if you’ve fallen into a career trap:

  1. You realise you are about to be let go by your company
  2. You realise you cannot move to another company with a hike
  3. You realise you cannot expect a job at another company at all – forget about a hike!
  4. You find yourself forced to accept a demotion or a salary cut in your company or move to another company with a pay cut
  5. All of these factors make you anxious and further interfere with your chances of doing better, moving ahead in life, and realising your potential
  6. You feel your skill is not relevant anymore. Traditional guys faced this in a digital environment too.
  7. In spite of picking digital crash course certificates industry still notice you,as you come from non digital background.

Whom Does a Career Trap Affect?

Career Trap typically affects people aged 30 and 40 years. These are mid and even high level workers who have abnormally advanced in their careers. These are executives who got a headstart at the beginning of their corporate life but are now suffering because of that same jump they received at the beginning.

You are likely to have fallen into a career trap if you too:

  1. Are 30-40 years of age
  2. Quickly climbed the corporate ladder of success
  3. Joined a family or relative’s firm (or any firm with the help of personal recommendations) with a higher designation 
  4. Are qualified with the right degree (like MBA) but do not have enough experience in tackling business problems
  5. Jumped in terms of salary hikes and perks without demonstrating the accountability towards delivery and value addition to your company

But wait a minute! Doesn’t having salary hikes and perks mean that you have added value and over delivered to your company?

Doesn’t all your corporate glory indicate that you have been successful in solving business challenges and are therefore quite talented?

Don’t good things come to people who are wiser and more experienced? Don’t they after all become seasoned marketers or seasoned business leaders?

Not quite!

Let us look at how experience and career trap are connected. 

How Are Experience and Career Trap Connected?

A career trap can be easily understood with the help of this graph.

Career Trap by thedigitalfellow

On the X axis, you see the number of years of experience you go through in your career from the time of joining the workforce to retirement. Assuming you start working at the age of 20 (that is, the time you graduate), you have roughly 40 years for working. Again, that’s assuming the retirement at the age of 60 years. 

 

On the Y axis, you see the designations you get as advance in your career. You probably start as an intern, go on to become a management trainee, then a manager and so on until you become a CXO.

 

A healthy career graph looks like this:

Notice that this individual has grown slowly but steadily throughout the 40 years of his/her life. There are no sudden jumps in designations in a shorter span of years. 

Such a career shows progressive growth.

Now look at this unhealthy career graph:

You’ll notice that this individual has jumped at a degree of 45 or more in the first few years of his/her career. Some people get the designation of Senior Manager offered on a platter very soon – without having to spend a minimum number of years as interns, trainees, assistant managers, managers and so on. 

“But surely these are prodigies! These are talented people who made a mark, even over delivered and are quite deserving of the rewards!” We can hear you say.

The phenomenon of career trap disagrees.

Look at the graph in totality:

After these “talented” people reach 30-40 years of age, they have nowhere to go. They already become VPs, MDs, CEOs, CMOs and so on. In a healthy career graph, these designations were conferred on people who were 50 years or above.

In short, they’ve stopped growing vertically – in terms of designation and salary too. 

Now, they have nowhere else to go. No career-growth goal to chase, no designation to chase. 

Incidentally, this age also happens to be the time when another popular phenomenon hits – the mid-life crisis!

Again, we hear you say, “But what if one has become successful at an early age? Are we living in fast times anyway? It’s a good thing that people are seeing growth sooner. Why should one have to wait if one had the brains to grow quickly?”

How Can You Fall into a Career Trap?

As mentioned earlier, career trap is difficult to spot precisely because it looks like success. You can fall into one by:

  1. Getting promoted faster
  2. Getting increments quite early
  3. Getting a higher designation sooner than normal

Take a good look at your career graph and check if you’ve had a jump greater than 45 degree.

So far we’ve been looking at the tangible side of the career trap – something that is quite visible. But there is another side too.

The side of knowledge.

Getting promoted faster and so on are not by themselves bad. What makes these bad for you is your inability to grow intellectually as you progress in your career. The following graph will help in clarifying. 

To the above graph, we add one more factor: that of learning and knowledge.

On the X axis, within the bar indicating the number of years of experience is the knowledge you gain and the experience you collect in a given span of your career. Ideally, as you progress, you learn a lot and demonstrate your learning through the way you handle the business challenges. That experience pushes you to another level. So your career till you are 60 years old is about a growth in your knowledge. You become worldly-wise – that’s a long way from the novice you were when you started. 

A healthy career graph with growth in number of years and experience looks like this:

Notice that just as this individual has grown slowly but steadily throughout the 40 years of his/her life, s/he has learnt a lot too. That learning has got reflected in the career advancement or promotion. Every next designation or raise in pay is well-earned.  

Such a career shows progressive growth.

Now look at this unhealthy career graph:

You’ll notice something abnormal here. This individual has jumped at a degree of 45 or more in the first few years of his/her career. Some people get the designation of Senior Manager offered on a platter very soon – without having to spend a minimum number of years as interns, trainees, assistant managers, managers and so on. 

This is a problem because this individual has not spent enough number of years to gain the experience to move ahead. It is not about domain knowledge. It is also about soft skills. In order to rise to the designation of Senior Manager, this individual should ideally have spent 4 years as a manager. This would have helped him/her gain insights into day to day business challenges as well as an insight into how colleagues work. Becoming Senior Manager would help this person do a better job only after learning all these ground realities. Otherwise, s/he would end up underperforming. 

And that’s how such an executive ends up hitting a road bump. Look at the graph in totality with all 3 variables together: knowledge-designation-number of years:

Without enough experience, you end up in a difficult position. 

The point of a career is not to race to the finish. As Aamir Khan demonstrated in 3 Idiots, life is not a race!

The point of a career is to support you financially as you do something meaningful with your potential and talent. Money, designations, promotions – all ought to happen at the right time. 

That’s why there are two ways of looking at experience: 

  1. One is the regular way in which experience is measured – the number of years. This is the part that’s the easiest to spot on your CV.
  2. The other is the wisdom you gain from those years. This is difficult to gauge. It manifests itself in the way you carry yourself and in the way you innovate or come up with solutions to problems.

So what has changed? Why are so many people reaping the benefits of fast growth now? Are business leaders blind to the traditional notion of progress?

The answer lies in the way we understand digital technology and its impact on all spheres of life, especially our outlook.

Why Career Trap Is a Wide-ranging Phenomenon in the Digital Era

Ever since the invention of the Internet, everything has become faster than before, especially speed of communications. The pace at which business happens, or a customer is connected with has increased by a lightning speed. Businesses have become profitable, and new businesses have come up faster than ever before. 

Therefore, faster growth in careers seems a logical extension of the fast digital times, doesn’t it?

But there’s a problem. Communication is not the only thing to get faster. There’s a tremendous amount of invisible thought and effort too that goes into sustaining this speed. And that requires a tremendous amount of learning. You ought to be a constant work-in-progress.

When I recruit people in my company, the first thing I tell them is that algorithms change every six months. Social Media Today carries daily news reports of all the changes happening in all the social media platforms. What’s ranking high on Google SERPs may sink to page 2! To be able to do well in the digital era, you’ve got to be motivated enough to learn every day and keep abreast of all changes and updates around you.

So your experience no longer is restricted to a number of years. It’s also about your ability to learn faster and respond faster to change. 

In the pre-digital era, you could depend on the traditional MBA degree to last you a lifetime of rewarding career. In the digital era, however, you’ve got to renew your digital credentials and qualifications every six months. Have you been checking on these? When was the last time you learnt about digital technology, digital products, content marketing, digital marketing, search engine optimisation, user experience, and similar areas of innovations in the digital ecosystem?

Without rigorous attempts at learning, it is impossible to sustain growth. What’s trending today will be redundant tomorrow. So the challenges everyone faces are two-fold:

Staying updated with changes

Having the experience to see what matters in the midst of all this change

For example, knowing about Facebook marketing in the initial days of your career might catapult you to CMO in less than a decade. But you won’t be able to stay there if you haven’t invested in knowledge or adopted the digital mindset.

Fast growth in career should therefore always be accompanied by a demonstrated growth in learning.

How Not to Fall into Career Trap

It’s tempting to see growth in terms of numbers. Resist that temptation. Understand that a 45 degree growth from phase to another is too high and might be a problem. It is only logical to start as an intern, then become a manager, then a senior manager or whatever the specific hierarchy of your organisation is. 

Grow not just in terms of designation. Grow in terms of knowledge. Become a part of experiences that are rewarding in the long run. Focus on learning something so well that you are seen as an expert. 

Think of knowledge as something beyond theory. Especially in the digital world, you are said to know something well if you’ve applied a theory/concept in a real context. Application is experience – not a random reading that you don’t apply. 

Brands and businesses fail because they do not invest in people who are competent enough to demonstrate their expertise. And these wrongly promoted people are the first ones to be let go. So ensure that for every penny you earn from your company, you deliver a 10x result.

Focus on gaining experience rather than gaining a higher designation or greater pay. Show an attitude of learning and you’ll be given opportunities to be involved in key projects more closely. Your work in these projects will show your potential to grow and contribute to the company in a bigger way. 

The pandemic has exposed everyone. It clearly identified people who are really knowledgeable. Such people are welcomed and cherished everywhere. In fact, they are essential to a company’s success.

This rest is dispensable of course. 

But it’s something that becomes obvious only when one has lost a job.

Falling into a career trap should not be something that is inevitable. It’s an unfortunate event that helps people found companies of their own or become consultants once they are let go. But these new journeys can get quite frustrating if one does not continue to learn. 

The same race to monetary gains can deviate one from doing the right thing by learning better to looking for lead generation from day one in the new business. That’s why it’s called a career trap. There’s nowhere to go.

On the contrary, if you’ve been learning and growing, you won’t find yourself in a career trap. You might find yourself facing a setback – everyone does. But you’ll definitely bounce back because you’ve been seeking to grow in the right sense, the other kinds of growth will automatically follow.

So, what stage of career do you find yourself in? How fast/slowly have you been growing? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

Let us know what you think.

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