Life is like a long drive through highways, towns, deserts, woods, and hills with a mix of easy & difficult paths, turns & bends, elevations & descents, and pleasant & unpleasant experiences. Are there career lessons to learn from a long drive? Read on.
Over the past few months, owing to the pandemic, I happened to drive long distances in my car shuttling between my adopted home in Chennai and my parental home in Kerala. I drove through relatively flat highways within Tamil Nadu, to roads passing through hills, valleys, small towns, and villages in Kerala. There were good roads, and bad. There were sights of beautiful scenery, and of people going about their lives. There were also sights of vehicle breakdowns and those that met with awful accidents. There were sunny times, and there were heavy rains. There were vehicles that traveled the same pace as me, and those that I overtook. And then there were those who raced past me in their swanky top-end cars.
Driving alone on a few occasions for 10+ hours at a stretch gave me an opportunity to drift away from the music, podcast, or audiobook in the background to reflect on many things. One theme that kept coming back to me is the many similarities between one’s career and long drives.
Just like in a long drive, the objective of a good career should be to take you and your “co-passengers” (spouse, kids, parents, friends) to the destination comfortably and safely. Whatever be your destination, the ride itself is as important, if not more. It has to be enjoyable and pleasant. There should be excitement, but not with added risks that could lead to accidents. There could be breakdowns and illnesses, and you should be prepared. You may have planned stops along the way, and some unplanned ones just because you found something interesting. You may have planned the routes all the way to your destination, but you may end up taking detours for various reasons.
Here I present my thoughts on the similarities between long drives, and a professional career, and the learnings on how to build a successful career.
1. Steady Pace Makes for a Pleasant Ride
You hit a 6-lane highway, and it is very tempting to test the vehicle’s speed limit. You see an opportunity to reach the destination faster. You press on the accelerator, and then all you see is the road and the speedometer. You are so focused on the road, that you don’t notice the scenery around, and can no longer have a conversation with your co-passengers. You may reach the destination faster, but the ride was not enjoyable for you or for your co-passengers who were holding on to dear life through the journey.
You come across similar situations in your career as well. You are doing well in your job, and you know that if you work harder you will be able to earn more, get faster promotions. You decide to put your complete focus on your career, ignoring relationships and even your own health. You forget to enjoy life, to feel the air, to smell the roses. You may ultimately achieve your career goals, but many times at the cost of relationships, and irreparably harming your loved ones. And we have also seen people in our circles who were doing extremely well in their careers early-on, and then eventually burn-out or hit a wall. For a successful career and a more fulfilling life, it is better to take it easier, to travel at a steady speed. That way you will be able to feel the air, soak in the sun, and smell the roses along the way.
2. Take Regular Breaks
Little breaks on the way are important for a safe and comfortable drive. If you drive too long without breaks, chances are that your concentration will come down, and the probability of accidents become higher. Taking those little breaks at the roadside teal stalls, or dhabas, or at touristy view points lets you relax, and refresh for the next leg of the journey. And you may also get to meet new people from whom you may also discover an interesting new route that you were not aware of, but which makes the journey enjoyable.
Similarly, taking breaks in your career also helps you go the long haul, and come out successful. Breaks can be in the form of holidays, or sabbaticals, or even career breaks. Each break can become an opportunity for you to rediscover yourself, learn new skills, or even explore something new. One good way to make breaks useful for your career is to use them to acquire new skills. It could be a hard skill like coding, or a new language, or even a new hobby such as painting or cooking, or writing. Who knows where it will take you. As Steve Jobs mentioned in his hugely popular Stanford commencement speech, you may someday connect the dots backward and know why it all made sense.
3. Safety and Comfort Above All Else
If you are traveling long, and through difficult roads with co-passengers, chances are that someone will feel sick at some point in the journey. It could be an old parent, or a young kid, or a spouse. It is important to stop, to make sure the ill passenger is feeling better before starting again. Even after starting again, you may need to slow down till the passenger is ok. Or you may even need to take an unplanned overnight break to make sure all are fine.
Similar situations may also come up in one’s long career when a loved one needs attention and care. Such situations warrant putting family over career, and to make sure the affected person is fine. That should be the priority rather than the next raise or promotion that you were working towards. You can make up for any career setbacks in the longer term, but it will be hard to win back broken relationships.
4. Tailgate, but with Caution
You might have seen videos of tournaments such as Tour de France where teams are cycling together, and the leader of the pack (the one who ultimately is expected to win), is at the back. He is tailgating his team and conserving energy. As much of 15% of energy can be conserved by tailgating even when driving. In a long drive, that would mean going longer with the same full tank, and probably also reach the destination faster when you have the leading vehicle that is going at a good place. The issue is that if you don’t tailgate with caution, you can be involved in a very messy accident. It is important to keep the distance so that you can apply the brake or move aside in time in case the car in front has to abruptly stop.
In careers too people come across opportunities to tailgate. Occasionally in your career, you have an opportunity to work under a star performer boss, who is earning top dollars and getting promotions ahead of the rest. People tailgate such star performers showing personal commitment to them, and working hard to be their worthy deputies. The high-performer also rewards their deputies for their contribution as they grow, and get more opportunities. They may also take the loyal deputies along to their new company in case they are switching jobs. It’s a good way to grow faster in your career with less energy spent.
But the flip-side is that your performance gets so associated with the Star’s that in case he/she goes through a bad patch or has a career accident (let’s say a scandal or fall out of favor of management), you are also affected. This is akin to an unexpected career “accident” from which you may find it difficult to come out. It is hence advisable to keep a safe distance from the person you are tailgating so that you can safeguard yourself. Keep a strong professional relationship with your boss, but not at the cost of your relationships with others. Don’t polarise yourself by getting into circles in which others are excluded.
5. Keep Distance to Overtake a Slow Vehicle
Imagine you are on a narrow road, and stuck behind a very heavy vehicle that is going very slow and covering most of the road. The vehicle in front is not moving as fast as you would like, and neither is it allowing you to overtake. You honk and blink your lights, but to no avail. And you are unable to overtake easily as there are vehicles coming from the other side.
Similar situations can also happen in your career when you may find yourself stuck under a boss who is not ambitious or hard-working, making it difficult for you move ahead. The boss may also not allow you to work hard, or may not credit you for your good work for fear that you will overtake him/her at work.
What you do in this situation is also similar to what you do when you are tailgating. You have first keep a safe distance from the vehicle. But this time the idea is to be able to see ahead of the vehicle and make sure you are ample clearing to overtake. If you stay too close to the vehicle you won’t be able to do this. On the work front too, such situations warrant keeping a safe distance from the superior, having your sights on opportunities ahead, and grabbing the chance to overtake when you get one.
6. Change Gears Based on Road Condition
It is a fundamental principle of driving that you drive at a lower gear when on an incline. You may have a very powerful engine, but an incline is not when you test our speed limits at a higher gear. Similarly, on the job front too, you have difficult phases similar to an incline. It could be your industry being in a downturn, or your company not doing well, or your own performance not being up to the mark. These are times when you recalibrate your pace and go slow to be able to go over difficult times.
On the other hand, when you are going down a slope, you have the chance to conserve fuel by going on neutral and letting gravity do its job to take you down. Similarly, in your careers too, you will have phases when things are going just fine, and all you need is to steer things right. In such situations, it is best not to try too hard, and to conserve energy for possible difficult periods in the future.
7. Be Prepared to Travel Back to Move Forward
You may be having the best map to your destination, but it is possible you lose your way and set forth on a path you did not intend to take. Or maybe it’s a path that you intended to take, but the journey along the same is not enjoyable anymore because the road is bad or because there is a bad traffic jam. It is possible that this is the only route to your destination, and you have to endure the hardship to reach the destination. But if you have set out with an open mind about where you wish to reach, or the route you wish to take to reach there, this is the time to drive back to where you lost your way or took a turn and travel by the alternative route.
Similarly, in careers, you will have difficult times when you realize that may not have taken the right career or job choice. Instead of trying to endure the pains of continuing in the job or profession, it is better to step back and reset your career path before moving forward again. This could even mean that you start afresh in a new career, or join a job at a lower level than what your experience-level deserves. You may even need to have a pay-cut to make such a switch. Such decisions may make it difficult in the short term because of bruised egos, “standing” among your peers, or even short-term monetary pressures. But in the mid-long term, you will make up much more by being in a job that you enjoy much more, and where you are able to be a better contributor. Eventually, your chances of making a better, longer and more fulfilling career is where you find your best fit, and are able to be in the “flow”. So, don’t hesitate to step back if required to forge forward in your career.
8. Don’t Compete with Those Who Overtake
There are situations when you think you going at a great pace, but you then find a vehicle zipping past you. The vehicle may be a larger vehicle with higher HP or one similar or smaller than yours. You may have the tendency to try and race. Many times such unwanted competition with complete strangers on the road does not end up too well. It disturbs your mental peace, and the chances of your having an accident are high.
Similarly in careers too, you may find people who do better or get faster promotions or higher raises. You feel dejected, and try even harder than before, or decide to quit. Just like in driving this can be disastrous.
The person you are envious of is like the person in the other car. In the journey of life, you are both strangers who happened to be in the same place at the same time. You neither know where the person came from or what is his/her destination. Your ideal response in such situations is to continue to do your best, and not try to beat the fellow traveler. For all you know, in a short while, this person may seek out other opportunities, and may no longer be in the company.
9. Seek help, Offer Help
When you are on a long drive, chances are that you will come across people – complete strangers – who are in trouble. Maybe a car that has broken down, or has met with an accident. The stranded traveller may or may not be seeking help. Maybe they are trying to figure out a solution on their own. Or maybe they are so badly hurt, they are not in a position to seek help. In either case, it is a good idea to stop and check if they need help. A little kindness such as lending a hand to change the tyre could make the journey so much more pleasant for the other person. Or in an extreme case, a call you make for an ambulance on time could save lives.
Similarly in careers too, you may come across people who need help to tide over difficult times. Make efforts to help them even if there may never be any direct benefit for you. The highway of life is where you pay forward, because you never know when you might need help yourself from a complete stranger. And in case you find yourself in such a situation yourself, don’t hesitate to seek help from complete strangers.
10. Respect Signals – Even When No One is Watching
And then there are occasions during driving when you may come across cross-roads with signals but no vehicle visible. There is a temptation to jump the signal as no one is watching, and you think there is no risk as you can spot no other vehicle. Again, this can be a disaster if a vehicle you had not spotted comes in, or a camera you had not seen is actually installed.
Similarly, on your work front, you may have occasions when you are faced with situations when you can overlook business ethics or good governance to achieve your targets or to get a promotion, or even make some money on the side. You may even get away with it a few times because no one noticed. But such acts are set-ups for career disasters. If caught, your career can come to a stop forever. And more importantly, such ill-gotten wealth or fame comes with the burden of constant fear or being caught and self-doubt about one’s real capabilities which are not worth carrying. So, like in signals, respect rules. Never compromise on business ethics.
If you have read thus far, chances are that one or more of the above points resonated for you. Which ones did you find most interesting? Have you had any career experiences that fit well with the above learnings? Do share in the comments.
Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institution or organizations that the owner may be associated with in professional capacity, unless explicitly stated.
A strategy consultant since 2006, Santosh advises clients in a wide range of sectors including consumer, agribusiness, automotive, chemicals, and private equity. Prior to Consulting, Santosh has spent about six years in brand management and sales with leading Indian FMCG companies - Amul and CavinKare.