Here’s the career story I was told over and over as I was growing up:


“Work hard in school, graduate, find a good job, and move up that corporate ladder.”

I had big goals and I hit the ground running with 4 full-time job offers when I graduated college. I was on my way up those rungs. But shortly after arriving on the first rung of my ladder, I realized two things.

  1. I didn’t like this ladder enough to spend 40 years on it
  2. The ladder itself seemed to be changing

Sound familiar? I liked what I was doing fine enough. My co-workers were great, I traveled just the right amount, and I was paid decently. But I didn’t feel particularly excited about the work that I did each day. I didn’t see how what I did added value and I definitely didn’t want my boss’s job. Getting to the next promotion scared me more than excited me because I was worried I’d go too far down a path that wasn’t the one I wanted to be on.

And what about the changing ladder? There are so many jobs that we have now that didn’t exist 5 or 10 years ago. There are also so many jobs that will likely cease to exist in the future, including my first choice of profession. In addition, gone are the corporate pensions that keep employees around for 40 years. Now it’s much more acceptable – heck, even expected – that you don’t stick to one path forever. The average millennial stays in a job for 3.1 years, and they’re not necessarily leaving to advance up the next rung of the ladder somewhere else.

What has replaced the ladder (where you slowly move up in your career, one rung at a time) is the lattice: the ability to move up, down, sideways. Really, wherever you choose. But with this freedom comes ambiguity and that ambiguity can leave you stuck. Which way do you want to go? What path do you want to go down? Is it time to move sideways or up?  And then how do you actually do that. All the advice you received from the career center about how to find a job isn’t really as relevant anymore.

The career lattice is highly adaptable, but you have to know how to use it. 

Here are 3 things you need to do, in order to create your own career lattice.

Use Design Thinking

Before I read the book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans, I had no idea what design thinking was or how to apply it to my working life. In a nutshell, design thinking means that you’re reframing problems to be action-oriented, creating a number of solutions, and testing them out to see what works.

By using design thinking you’re embracing the fact that you and your career will grow and change over time, and you’re letting yourself explore that process. Rather than just taking a linear step forward in your career (hi, ladder), you’re asking yourself what you like or dislike and prototyping different solutions to move you in the direction you choose (the lattice).

While the book walks through excellent frameworks for how to bring design thinking into all aspects of your life, a crucial concept that stuck with me is to pay very close attention to the parts of my job that I really enjoy and that give me energy as well as the parts of my job that frustrate and zap my energy. By becoming really mindful of what you like and don’t like, you’re picking up on breadcrumbs that are being left for you to help shape your career and build your lattice.

Careers are highly adaptable, but in order to create the next step in your career, it’s imperative to be tuned into the nuances of what you love and what you don’t, so you can take the next step forward (or to the right, left, or down).

Develop Your Own Training Plan

Developing your own lattice means taking control of your skills development, rather than staying on the training plan created by your company. If your company does offer training programs or classes, you should definitely take advantage of them, but don’t let that be your only source of education. Most of the training that companies offer help you to become a better employee and succeed on the path that you’re on. These training programs are usually very specific to a ladder and don’t help you carve out a path on the lattice.

If you want to carve out your own career lattice and gain the skills and confidence to make your next move, think outside of what your current job responsibilities are and gain skills in areas that interest you, rather than just in areas that will help further your current career path.

For example, if you’re in a more traditional marketing role (such as brand management), try taking an SEO or design course. Love the limited writing that you currently do with your job? Take a copywriting class. 

You may not love what you’re learning and that’s ok. You’ve taken the time to realize that skill isn’t the next step in the path you’re creating. And if you do love it? Well, then…

Act and Ask

While the first two ways to build your career lattice involve personal introspection and training, there is only so much that can be done in a silo. Once you’ve decided what you’d like more of in your work or you’ve developed new skills that you’d like to put to use in your current job, it’s time to act in the way you want to be seen and ask for opportunities.

Acting the way you want to be seen isn’t difficult, but it does take a conscious effort on your part to make sure you’re portraying the image or the expertise you want others to see. Be engaged and offer your opinion when the subject comes up. If the subject doesn’t come up, bring it up, and then offer up your knowledge. Don’t let your new knowledge, skills, or interest stay hidden. Offer your expertise and people will start to think of you in relation to whatever it is you want to pursue.

Just like with anything else, if you want to put these newfound skills to use, you need to ask for the opportunities. Again, let’s say you’re interested in trying out some SEO work. Take a look at your company’s website and see if there’s any way you might be able to add value. Once you identify a small project you can take on, ask to do the project by positioning it as an easy win for your company. If you’re interested in learning & development, pitch a speaker series or ask to host a lunch and learn for the department. When you ask to take this on, make the benefit clear to the company so you’ll get an easy yes.

For example, “I noticed we didn’t have any training programs around (insert topic of choice here). I think it would really benefit the team if we learned more about this and how we can use it in our work/for our clients/on our teams, etc. I’ve started outlining a training program and I’m happy to take this on as a project because I feel really passionate about how this will impact our business. Would you support that?”

And just like that, you’ve started to test out the next step on your lattice.



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