Is Your Job the Enemy of Your Career?

“ ‘I don’t know that there will be jobs. There will be careers,’ said Charles Whitaker, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, which teaches more about the business side of media than in the past. ‘We’re telling students they need to be much more entrepreneurial about their careers.’ ” — The Baltimore Sun, March 31, 2009

I was privileged to participate in an ASBPE webinar last week with editorial consultant and ASBPE Lifetime Achievement Award winner Howard Rauch. Our topic was the impact of digital media on editorial jobs and careers. I took the big-picture approach, looking at how to manage your career in the social-media era, while Howard offered a close-up, quantitative view of how digital media is adding to editorial workloads.

One thing we did not have the chance to address was the relationship between a job and a career. I suspect most editors tend to equate the two, not intellectually so much as practically. If you have a job, that is, doing it — whether badly or well — tends to constitute your entire effort to build your career. For most of us, it’s only when you don’t have a job that you start to think intensely about career-building.

When jobs weren’t so hard to find, and weren’t changing so rapidly, this blind spot wasn’t a big issue. But these days, if you don’t think explicitly and consistently about your career while still employed, you’re heading for trouble. Don’t let your job be the enemy of your career.

So if you’re currently employed, ask yourself who’s in control: you or your job? The fact is, before you can master your career, you have to master your job. To put your job in the proper perspective, and to give your career its due, I suggest the following three tactics:

Triage, baby, triage. Frankly, most of what you do in your job doesn’t matter.That may sound harsh, but for most editors, busywork is a major job component. Add to that the ill-advised projects and misguided digital initiatives that tend to increase in scope and number as advertising declines, and you may find that a majority of your time is spent on fruitless tasks.

Even in the best situations, the Pareto principle, or 80/20 rule, tells us that 80% of your achievement as an editor will come from 20% of your work. By prioritizing — triaging, really — you can focus your best efforts on the parts of your job that matter most. Both your employer and your career will benefit.

Nurture your inner freelancer. Chances are, at some point in the past you were a freelancer, and you found out just how hard it is to make a living that way. So when you got your job, you may well have said good riddance to your freelancing ways.

Bad move. I don’t so much mean that you should keep taking freelance assignments — although if you can, more power to you. More important is the freelancing attitude. If you think of your job as a long-haul freelance gig, you’ll have more control over both it and the direction of your career. As Seth Godin has pointed out, all of us are already self-employed. We just need to start acting like it.

Be a blockhead: write for free. It’s one thing to freelance when you’re getting paid. But why would you do it for free? In effect, you’re extending your working day by many hours for no monetary return. As Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” But sometimes, being a blockhead pays off in other ways.

Don’t get me wrong: at some point, you have to be paid in cold, hard cash for your writing and editing work. But there are other reasons than money to write, such as building your reputation, developing new contacts, and sharpening your skills. Your job often provides too small a canvas to allow you to show what you can do and to make the most of your talents and interests. So offer to write a guest post on one of your favorite blogs (such as the ASBPE National Blog, of course), or create and write for your own blog — or better yet, both. Who knows? At some point your unpaid sideline may turn into a whole new career.

As professor Whitaker suggests, the day may come when there are no more jobs, only careers. If you have a job now, great. But your job is fickle. Don’t let it distract you from developing something you can count on: your career.

By John Bethune

John Bethune is an editorial consultant and the publisher of the B2B Memes website, which focuses on how new and social media are transforming the B2B publishing business. Previously he was vice president for content at Canon Communications, where he oversaw both print and online publications. John’s ASBPE involvement includes ethics committee membership and Azbee Awards judging. You can reach him at john [dot] bethune [at] or follow him on Twitter at @johnbethune.

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