Life on the river

When I meet people to talk about their professional situation, they almost always start off by telling their story. What many people’s story shows is how little conscious thought they had apparently put into choosing the overall direction of their professional life.

Your future choices are, in part, determined by what you have done in the past and an honest and objective accounting of how you have arrived at a specific point in your professional lives is the first step in thinking about what to do.

Because digging through past choices can be difficult, I use metaphors for the purpose. One of them, compares your professional development to traveling down a river in a raft or canoe.

You may have started your career 5, 10, or 20 years ago through a personal contact, an advertisement or perhaps an internship. Since then, you may have the sense that your professional life has then evolved almost by its own volition as you moved from job to job or company to company. Perhaps you never really stopped to question the path or the river you have been are on or seriously thought about making a different choice.

Rivers can be compared metaphorically to sectors, industries or to the broader idea of spaces.

Most of us get an internship or our first real jobs in our late teens or early twenties when our ideas about what to do are still incomplete and uncertain. In terms of the river, we start our trip by putting our boat in whatever river happens to be closest or most accessible to us.

As time goes by your internship might have turned into a job and that job then might lead to a promotion in the same organization. Perhaps some years later a former supervisor recruited you to another company or you were contacted by a headhunter who offered you another position in the same field.

If you think about your professional life in these terms, you might see that you may have just went along with the current, perhaps jumping into a different boat from time to time. As we go down the river, personal fulfillment and happiness are assumed rather than sought out.

A river will always take you in its own direction and at its own pace. In real life what this means is that if you have a personal goal which is different than that which the river is taking you, then you may have to find a different river all together.

In long distance canoeing changing rivers is called portage and involves picking the boat up and carrying it over the mountains to another river, which is going in a different direction. Portage, like changing your career path, can be difficult as the trip itself may involve months of job hunting with the financial and psychological strain that goes with that process.

In another twist to the story some people have had to pick up their metaphorical boat and take it to another region or country as result of economic, political, or geo-political changes. Changing rivers might also be necessary if a river suddenly “dries up” as a result of technological change.

A student of mine in her early 40s made the point that the longer you wait to change, the heavier your boat gets as you load it up with spouses, children, property, and other commitments.

Sometimes rivers move very slowly. You might be thinking about quitting your job because you feel you are moving much too slowly. Many of our full-time MBA students come on the program because they feel they are not learning or moving fast enough.

A river also might also have moments of great intensity as the water speeds up and runs through the rapids. The danger is that when dealing with such situations you may lose track of the things that are more important like spouses, family, friends, and even your health.

Another aspect of the metaphor is that it is very possible to fall out of a boat or capsize in a river. In real life, of course, there are times when we lose our job, get fired or laid off, or realize that we have to quit in order to protect our integrity or health.

Perhaps the most common mistake I see from people who have lost their job is to jump into the first boat they can in the same river without taking a bit of time to catch their breath on the shore and re-confirm that the river is in fact the right one for them.

The last aspect of the metaphor is that if you want to know what the future might look like, then you may want to talk with people who are 10 or 20 years further down river than you are. They will be able to tell you if there have been rapids or periods of calm and what the river looks like far ahead.

Does this metaphor strike you as helpful? Does it seem that your professional journey is, in some way, out of your own control and that you have been travelling down river for some time? If the answer to this question is yes then the deeper question is if you are on the right river in the first place?

Published by Mike R

I am a professor at IESE Business School and lecture on strategy, sustainability and geo-politics.

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