Know Your Previous Job Patterns

If you are looking for a job, it's more important that you know what your previous patterns are, so that you can make a choice: Do I repeat my previous pattern this time? Without knowing, we tend to repeat the same behaviors. Once we know, we have choices.

One of the best ways I know how to do this is with a career timeline.

Take a piece of paper that is sufficiently large for your career. When I do this at AYE, I tell people to take a piece of flipchart paper and turn it landscape. A regular piece of paper or two taped together might work if you've been working for a while. Just turn it so you have it landscape, not portrait.

Now, the X axis is time, and the Y axis is satisfaction and/or happiness. The middle of the paper is the neutral line, the top of the paper is the most satisfaction you can ever imagine being and the bottom is the least satisfaction you can ever imagine being. You are going to make a career timeline of your career, including the plotting of your major career and/or personal lifetime achievements on the X axis. You have at least two ways to do this:

  1. You can plot the major events first and then draw how you felt, the ups and downs before and after the events up until the present day.
  2. You can make a continuous line, noting the major events.
  3. There is probably a third way I haven't considered. Be my guest and let me know what you did, so I can include it as an option!

The idea is that we have patterns of behavior that we repeat. My patterns are not your patterns. Your colleagues' patterns are not your patterns. No one has patterns that are just like yours.

Note: careers are not linear. I don't know a single person who planned a career and then had their career move linearly upwards. Most people have careers that move up, down, sideways, up, sideways, down, up, and other variations. If you thought your career should always move up, up, up, think again. It's fine to take a step sideways or down. I have. Most people do. The ones who say they haven't are either confused, mistaken, or are possibly lying.

This should take you a while. The first time I drew my career timeline, it took me about an hour. I missed a few things. You don't want to miss anything.

Start with Your First Job

Where do you start? With your first job. When was your first job? When you chose your first job. Why am I being vague? Because I don't know if you considered babysitting or mowing lawns your first job. Do you? Then include it.

I considered my first job the one when I graduated from college, not the factory jobs in high school or the programming job or the operator job in college. Why? Because those jobs were not full time and did not showcase my, ahem, sterling qualities. If your teenage jobs did showcase your sterling qualities, then, please, do include them. Some of us, like me, took a little longer to season. If in doubt, start when you took your first full time job.

If you are a new grad, start with your very first job. Yes, your very first job, whether that was an unpaid babysitting job for your parents when you were 12, or that unpaid internship last year.

So, are you with me now? You have taken the time to chart your career. You have noted the major events and drawn how you felt about those events. Now is the time to mine your career line for its goodies.

Mine Your Career Line

Step back and look at your career line. Look for patterns. What do you see? Do you see some common ups and downs?

Talk with yourself, pair with someone, or use a trusted advisor. When I look at my career line, I noticed some common patterns. When I get bored or have no work, I get unhappy and look for a job. When the work is not in my control, I get unhappy and look for a job.

Now, here is where I thought the three questions from Three Interview Questions That Might Not Reveal Anything might be helpful to your career timeline:

  • How did you find out about the job? Did you network to find your job? How deeply?
  • What did you like about the job before you started? What were your expectations? How closely did your expectations match reality?
  • Why did you leave? Was it a culture fit? Was it something different?

You have some other questions to ponder:

  • What circumstances provide you the most satisfaction in this job?
  • What patterns do you tend to create for yourself?
  • How did you feel while doing your career line?
  • How do you react to positive events? To negative ones?

Your career timeline will look something like this:

I have my career timeline annotated with numbers. When I lead my session at AYE, I discuss what those numbers mean. For example, #3 is when I had nothing to do. I was down because I was bored, but not seriously down.

The time between 12 and 13, I was at a job that was wrong for me and I knew it. That was a long time to be at a job that was wrong.

Because I'm by nature a positive person, I don't spend lots of time below the neutral line, so I would have to explain the line to you. I made this line back in 2006, so it doesn't have the most recent 6 years on it.

The key is that you look for what causes the ups and downs. You look for your patterns. Not every up or down is a job change. It's an up or a down. You want to know what causes the ups and downs, and then what prompts you to change jobs.

I once saw a career line that looked like this:

This is a person who repeats one particular pattern, again and again. It is useful to know this pattern. You can always make a choice to continue this pattern. You might make a choice to break this pattern.

This person preemptively left before anything really bad could happen. His expectations were so high that anything could look bad. We discussed this and he had some ideas about moderating his expectations and not leaving companies right away.

I learned about this technique in Jerry Weinberg's Becoming a Technical Leader. I will be offering a session at AYE this year about it. Want to join us?

3 thoughts on “Know Your Previous Job Patterns”

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