In praise of radical careering

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Is your career kicking you in the nuts? Kick back.

There are people thrilled with their job right now, who just got a big fat raise and are skyrocketing toward world domination. Both of them can turn the page. I'm talking to the rest of us.

This article is about radical careering. It's about the relentless dedication to having exactly the career you want, no matter how daunting it seems or how demoralized you feel. Even in a job you loathe you're not without options. At any company, in any stage, in any economy, you have the power to revolutionize your career. And with that power comes a significant responsibility: being accountable for your own success.

Radical truth No. 1: Being in a crap job isn't your fault, but staying in a crap job is. See where I'm going? Radical careering is about reclaiming your life. Most of us build brands for a living but don't know where we ourselves want to be. What exactly is your brand? What do you ultimately want from your career? Only when you figure it out can you construct the steps to get there.

Radical truth No. 2: Aspire to be the dumbest person in the room. Working with smart people is the mack daddy. The end-all and be-all. What to do if you're surrounded by myopic clients, apathetic co-workers or wussy management? Constantly upgrade yourself. Learn. Experiment. Evolve. Then scram before you become one of those lurking middle-aged cronies who brags about writing the Wesson tagline.

Radical truth No. 3: Never let the size of your mortgage get bigger than the quality of your work. It's dangerously shortsighted to drive career decisions by your cost of living. You only get to sell-out once. Do it in your 20s and make an extra 10 grand, or do it in your 40s or 50s and potentially retire early. Money follows great work, not the other way around.

Radical truth No. 4: If your company sucks, your work probably will suck. This one hurts and I say it gently. A staff member who's enormously talented and hard-working is still only a tiny fraction of the overall team. Truly outstanding work requires every single person involved to prioritize ideas over everything, even the immediate bottom line. Of course, there's nothing wrong with, say, being at an agency that's not creatively driven-unless you're committed to producing great creative. In which case, you and the company do not share the same goals. You're an artisan in a widget factory.

Radical truth No. 5: Be prepared to get laid off at any point. I'm not recommending paranoia, just keeping your eye on long-term goals. The novelist Anna Quindlen wrote, "Think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do you will live it with joy and passion as it ought to be lived." I find that incredibly inspiring. Figure out where you want to be next, then do something every single day to move toward that. Your job is one stop on the journey, not a sofa to hang out on with a remote control and bag of chips.

Radical truth No. 6: This is the ideal time to accelerate your career. While the industry stalls, crank the afterburners on. Attack undiscovered projects. Become a smarter employee. Build a stronger web of people to support you. Create opportunity from scratch. Live in a bigger picture.

Radical truth No. 7: It's never too late to reinvent your career. It might require courage, tenacity and a temporary pay cut but I've watched it happen several times. Statistically, 50% of people are below average. Becoming even a measly 10% better can take you from a B+ to an A+. You can do that.

Radical truth No. 8: Jump, and a net will appear. I've silently repeated this to myself many a time. Success doesn't come from clinging to obsolete situations out of fear; it comes from putting yourself out there. So when is it time to think about jumping? When you're more focused on surviving than flourishing. When you're losing confidence in yourself. When you've stolen a closet full of office supplies and they're on to you.

Radical truth No. 9: Quality of life, quality of work or quality of compensation: Pick one. Maybe two. Is your priority to go home at 5 p.m.? Or do internationally award-winning work? Or have a wheelbarrow of stock options? They're all valid choices, but they are choices. Being happy in your job is about finding a company whose priorities are in line with yours.

Radical truth No. 10: That being said, nothing's more important than balance. Me, I struggle with this one every day, as a creative director and a mother. But I'm learning. Advertising is an extreme sport; it requires so much focus on the next pitch, the next presentation, the next whatever, that you have to take a stand to make sure short-term deadlines don't eclipse the bigger picture. I hope that, in some way, radical careering can help you reclaim your career, and your life.

Good luck and godspeed. And when you kick back, I recommend steel-toed boots.

Sally Hogshead is creative director, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Los Angeles. This article is an abridged version of an article first published in the September issue of Ad Age sibling publication Creativity.

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