May 31, 2012

Your Career Is Like A Marathon

Running a marathon is not a casual habit. You don’t wake up one day and say, “Hey, I think I’ll run a marathon today”. Marathons require planning and commitment, as do careers.

Julia McNamara ‘96

Running a marathon is not a casual habit. You don’t wake up one day and say, “Hey, I think I’ll run a marathon today”. Marathons require planning and commitment, as do careers. So, in the spirit of the upcoming New York City marathon, here is some advice from a few marathon runners who have also been very successful in their careers.

1. Make the commitment. Whether it’s asking for a raise, pursing a promotion, or running a race, often the hardest part is making the commitment. Many people would like to run a marathon but are afraid that they can’t, so they don’t ever try. As a novice, your first inclination might be to not tell anyone that you have decided to run. That way, if your motivation fails or something gets in the way, you can back out gracefully. That is the wrong approach. Don’t keep this commitment to yourself. Tell everyone you know about your plans to run a marathon or to change jobs. In this way, your goals become real and other people will hold you accountable.

2. Commit to the process. To move your dream from a wish to a goal, you can’t just make a commitment to get started. You have to commit to the process of marathon training or job hunting. Many people wait around hoping that something great will just happen to them. A dream job will fall in their laps…or they will run a marathon without training for it. The likelihood of success is about the same. So make a commitment to get started and focus on the process of the marathon training or job search. The Careers webpage of the Columbia Business Alumni website, outlines each step of the job search process. Learn the process and make the commitment.

3. Make sure your goals are realistic. Not everyone can run a marathon or work for the most popular mobile app company. But that doesn’t mean you are out of the race. Acknowledging and correcting for one’s shortcomings is imperative. Perhaps your next job is a “bridge job” that ultimately prepares you for your dream job. Be clear about your goals – do you have a “time” goal (i.e. find a new job in six months) or are you running because you just turned forty? Figuring that out will guide your training plan. Set your focus and your goals on the things in your control (number of miles logged/week; number of networking meeting per week). This will decrease your level of worry, anxiety and frustration.

4. Get advice. If you have your eyes set on a promotion, a new job, or on a marathon, it’s good to talk to those who went before you. Search for a mentor, talk to a career coach, call Columbia’s Alumni Career Services office, chat with an executive recruiter or a fellow alum that’s done it before. You might only learn one new thing but you’d be surprised at how much it does for your self-confidence. Knowing that others have done it and succeeded will make you want to start.

5. Develop a plan – It’s hard to find the time to pursue your goals when you have a full-time job and/or family responsibilities. When developing the plan, you must pick the end date and work backwards. This will help you realistically schedule your time. All of the runners I interviewed looked at the marathon date and planned backwards for the eleven months before that. While you may not need eleven months to train for a marathon or find a new job, its most important to make a gently progressive plan, allow for a tapering period closer to your deadline that will allow you to gather energy for “the race”. The established rule is to slowly increase your weekly mileage/networking by about 10% each week so that your body (and your brain!) can adapt. The most important part of the plan? Write it down! Hang your schedule on your fridge, if that will help motivate you.

6. Stick to it. Training for a marathon and managing your career are not linear processes. There will be ups and downs, make adjustments along the way as you are injured or other responsibilities take precedence. There will be stages of your life (and your marathon training schedule) when you can handle more and other stages when you can handle less. Sometimes, you will have to run at things head on, other times, when obstacles appear, the best answer is to just run around them.

7. Train with a team! You can't reach the same level of intensity, or hold yourself to the same standards when working out on your own. You won’t have to look very far for a training buddy. There are lots of choices – running clubs, virtual training buddies and other resources. On the career management front, consider working with an executive coach or with a job search group to help you reach your goals. Not only will training with a team be motivating for you, you might motivate others to challenge themselves mentally and physically.

8. But, don’t overtrain. While enthusiasm is good, there is a downside: overtraining. This is the #1 reason people get injured. Learn the importance of sticking to the training schedule. Make sure to include some rest and cross-training. Similarly, too much networking can tax your professional relationships and over-preparing for interviews can make your answers sound canned and disingenuous. In short, don’t try too hard and accept the bad training days as well as the good ones.

Words cannot describe what you feel when you cross the finish line, or get the job offer you’ve been waiting for. It’s a huge sense of accomplishment and should fuel goal setting and achievements in other parts of your life as well. Top runners and coaches have long said – the high that comes from a great marathon can quickly morph into a major downer if you don’t have a plan for the aftermath. That plan doesn’t need to culminate in another marathon, or another job change, but it should contain some meaningful goals. After you do get that offer (and you will), set new professional goals, that little by little, will help build the career that you have always wanted. The career of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.

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