Building Your Career, One Brick at a Time

Brick wall.  Photo by elsie esq.A career is like a brick wall. If it’s built well, from a collection of bricks that fit well together and are thoughtfully put in place, it can be a very strong foundation for whatever dreams you may want to reach for. A great collection of bricks, well assembled, will build a platform for you that allows you to stand tall in your profession.

Yet, sometimes, we find ourselves in situations where we must knock the wall down and start over – or so it may seem.

I argue that the entire scope of our professional life is a series of bricks. Every time we complete a class, we have another brick to add to our wall. Every time we complete a major project, we have another brick to add to our wall. Our choice of bricks – and where we place them in that wall – makes all the difference.

My Story, In Brick Form
I usually think that personal stories explain an idea very well to begin with, so let’s start with my college years. I made the unusual choice of double majoring in two “hard” sciences – biology and computer science. My coursework in these areas helped be to build two seemingly separate brick walls…

brick wall 1

Yet they weren’t entirely separate. Any hard science has some elements in common with other ones: a strong preference for logical thinking, the scientific procedure, the teasing apart of complex problems. It’s easy to see how training in one hard science lends itself in a strong indirect fashion to other hard sciences. However, a degree in computer science does not open doors for a career in biology, and vice versa.

You’ll also note that third brick wall sitting over there, separate from the others but not quite as tall. This was my ongoing passion for writing, a smaller wall built of bricks made from my own self-directed projects and flailings about. We’ll get to that one later on, but for now, it’s clearly not up to snuff.

Luckily, late in my college career, I found a brilliant mentor who helped me to bridge those gaps. He employed me in his research lab, taught me many techniques for applying computer science to biology, got me into some graduate-level courses, and actually paved the way for many of my jobs right after college.

brick wall 2

It was upon that foundation that I started my career. I spent a few years digging deep into life science data analysis using computers. I tore apart databases. I studied (and applied) various statistical models. And, along the way, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Yet, through it all, I still yearned to write. It felt like the thing that I was called to do.

So, as time went on, I began to seek out opportunities at work to communicate the ideas I was working on with others. This was hard at first – I’m a natural introvert and it took a lot of work for me to get over it. I started by taking charge of writing reports on the work that my lab was doing. Over time, this grew into making presentations on scientific data and scientific tools. Eventually, I was giving long presentations in front of rooms full of people who knew far more about hard science than I did – but I was able to communicate with them, translating the ideas in my head into a common language we could share.

brick wall 3

It turned out that this work experience really opened the door to further exploration of my own writing. I began to take my writing in new directions, writing more nonfiction things and exploring new areas – writing about parenting and, eventually, writing about the personal finance changes going on in my own life – The Simple Dollar, in other words.

Eventually, my writing took off and I made the choice – for the time being – to focus entirely on that for my career.

brick wall 4

Will I return to science? There is a very large part of me that wants to go back to graduate school. There’s also a large part of me that feels very compelled to write. Perhaps someday I’ll wind up writing science fiction or “pop” science books along the lines of Fermat’s Enigma. I’ve certainly built a foundation for it.

What Is a Brick?
A brick is any distinct element that helps you build a career. Some common bricks include:

Close professional relationships People who you’ve helped in the past and you can rely on for help in the future if you were to need it. Close confidants or that guy down the hall who owes you one and sticks by his word both apply here.

Completed coursework What classes did you take in college? What degrees did you achieve? Both are important – one builds skills and knowledge, the other is pure resume fodder.

Projects, completed and otherwise A completed project teaches you skills and becomes perfect resume fodder. Yet, I’ve often found that failed projects tend to provide you with much more in terms of personal growth.

Natural talents Everyone has some natural talent in some area. Yes, some are blessed more than others, but each of us has something to build from.

Membership in reputable organizations Groups of like-minded people are not only resume fodder, but are also great places to build strong relationships that can only help you later in life.

Training Much like completed coursework, training both offers you extra skills as well as potential juice for the ol’ resume.

Choosing Where to Place Your Bricks
As you can see, a few bricks are somewhat set in stone (talents and passions). For the most part, you can’t control these – they’re bricks that are already put in place for you.

Most bricks, however, are ones that you choose. You choose what to major in. You choose what classes to take. You choose which projects to tackle. You choose what organizations to join. You choose which friendships to cultivate.

Each of these bricks requires some time investment and distinct effort on your part. A semester spent in a class. Several afternoons spent with a business acquaintance. Three weeks of burning the midnight oil on a project or a presentation. A year spent as president of the Rotary Club.

Some bricks fit anywhere – they’re transferable skills. Time management. Administrative skills. Creativity. Interpersonal communications. Information management. Personal development. Leadership. All of these things fit well into any wall you might want to build – and can be used over and over again.

Other bricks can only be used in certain walls. Specific training. Specific projects. Certain organization memberships. They’re vitally important in building some walls and completely useless in others.

A Brick-Based Alternative to Knocking Down Your Wall
So, let’s return to the situation I described in my own story. What if you have two completely separate walls, one built from your own passions and interests and another built from experience and work?

My suggestion is twofold.

First, work on those transferrable skills. They fit into almost any wall. Find opportunities to work on them and grow them whenever you can. This will not only help your career, but it’ll help any other directions you might choose to take in life.

Second, look for “bricks” that can build a bridge between the two. Jump hard on any project at work that lets you incorporate pieces of your other passions. You’ll build skills and produce a brick that bridges both walls. You can even try to seek these out – suggest possible projects at work, or use your work for inspiration in your other endeavors.

The Final Question
The real question here is simple.

Right now, are you working on another brick to add to your wall so you can stand above the crowd? Or are you peddling in place while others add bricks to their wall – and their walls grow just a bit taller and stronger?

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  1. liv says:

    my brick wall is kinda meh for now. i really gotta work on that.

    on a nerd-note, those brick wall graphics you used made me want to play arkanoid…
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arkanoid

    :)

  2. Kevin M says:

    Excellent post, Trent. I think this also helps explain the value of a liberal arts education, which I had.

  3. MJ says:

    I think I am at square one almost. I am currenly an IT Professional. I have been in the field for almost 12 years now. However, my true passion is working with my hands. I have done commercial construction and furniture building and find that each is SO rewarding, yet financially risky when comared to the stability of my current pay check. It’s a change I have been considering for some time, and maybe by looking at my “bricks” I can find a way to build my NEW career wall. I’ll keep you up to date on my progress.

  4. ub says:

    Ooooh, pretty bricks!
    As a fellow co-liberal-arts-educationee, I agree with Kevin M.

  5. Very helpful analysis of an important number of factors needed to improve your career and advance your position.

  6. Gina says:

    Some serious Pink Floyd in play here.

  7. Ankit says:

    Great suggestions on bridging the gaps between 2 bricks

  8. Hi Trent,

    Something you wrote about triggered an idea for me:

    “a few bricks are somewhat set in stone (talents and passions). For the most part, you can’t control these – they’re bricks that are already put in place for you.”

    I personally believe that everyone has some “inner genius.” It’s this genius (or passion) once untapped and seen for what it really is that brings people the most joy.

    I’m not quite sure what you meant. Are you saying that everyone has a specific “destiny” that’s laid out before them that’s not for their choosing?

  9. Scott says:

    To MJ:

    Why not use your “working with your hands” talent to supplement your income rather than replace it. Be a weekend furniture builder and sell at art/craft shows. You get to keep your security (and 401k!), add bricks to your career wall, work with your hands, make extra money, travel to craft shows and meet people. Cool!

  10. Joe L. says:

    I like this post Trent. I saw almost the same pattern in my life. I am also an IT professional, part of me loves IT and another part of me loves to inspire people (speaking and writing). Somehow I see this as a somewhat contradicting since one is technical while the other is far from technical. I find meaning in both fields though, meaning both of them makes me feel satisfied. Right now I am developing both and try to manage both areas of my life.

  11. career says:

    Nice blog. Great to see your site. It’s really very informative and useful for the people who want to built their career bright…Please checkout this for more info….Thank you.

  12. I’m in the same boat as you were at one time. I had a liberal arts degree in philosophy, and a reasonably good education.

    Now I’m a teacher, and I have skills as a writer, a presenter, a philosopher, a computer guy, and more… but I’m thinking I need to change the place where I work, or even change job paths, and I’m not sure where to go. Thanks for some good thoughts about how to go about finding a new job, both in this post and in others.

  13. Lenore says:

    “All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.” Sorry, couldn’t resist after watching a Pink Floyd documentary.

  14. sefcug says:

    Good post.

    I particularly like:

    “Membership in reputable organizations Groups of like-minded people are not only resume fodder, but are also great places to build strong relationships that can only help you later in life.”

    That is why I originally got involved with computer user groups, and now I edit two user group newsletters, and am President of one of them.

    Writing occasional articles, and sometimes giving a presentation, has helped me expand my knowledge.

    I have no problems with giving presentations to the smaller group, but am still a little uncomfortable doing the same with the larger group. I assume that just like most things, I will become more comfortable with experience.

  15. Beverly D says:

    As I near retirement, I can look back and see the brick wall I created and how it has been exactly the right wall for me. I started my career as an RN, working in ICU. I loved the technology, the cutting edge, working with people on the cusp of life. I resisted all efforts to push me towards a management position and stayed at the bedside. Later I worked as a case manager and learned about insurance rules, and how they affect patient care. I went to graduate school to become a nurse practitioner for the care of the elderly. Now I work as an NP in hospice, where Medicare rules govern payment, and all of my work with death and dying in the ICU has come full circle. Instead of trying to extend life at all costs, I try to help people have either quality of life or peaceful death. Everything I ever learned is useful to me now. If I had had any idea of this 40 years ago I would have been amazed.

  16. Russ Smith says:

    What a great article Trent. Great analogy of using bricks, it’s such a great way to think about it. Truly inspiring, thank you!

  17. Sierra says:

    This is a great post. I loved the visual demonstration about how all these things are connected.

    I’ve always been clear that I’m building a particular skill set – writing, teaching, counseling – but I’ve had many, many different jobs that let me express those skills in different ways.

  18. Helix says:

    Trent, I’ve got to say this is hands down my favorite post you’ve ever written (and I’ve read every single one on this site). Nothing has spoken to me more, and it has reassured me that even though I’ve spent the last 8 years in “jobs” rather than working towards my desired career, some of the bricks I’ve built will help me when it my current wall (hopefully) becomes a career.

    Fantastic. Thanks!

  19. Cindy says:

    Reminds me of a story I heard James Autry, formerly of Meredith tell. Two masons were working side by side. One was whistling, laughing and smiling. The second was putting on mortar, placing the brick and had no expression on his face. When asked what they were doing the second one replied, “I’m laying bricks.” The first one replied, “I’m building a cathedral.”

  20. Jim says:

    Excellent post, Trent. Yet another IT Professional chiming in on this topic. Regarding your mention of wanting to go to graduate school, I would encourage you to go that route. I have the luxury of working IT in higher education, which means free tuition. I consider myself to be intelligent, but I was either bored or disinterested in high school and in my undergraduate days. When I began grad school, it was like going through the looking glass and it showed me that undergraduate work has simply become an extension of high school. My faculty and peers challenged me to apply critical thought and to improve my ability to express myself through written and oral communication. My coursework is done and I have passed comprehensive exams. All that is left is my graduate research, which I am taking a quick break from to read your posts. From what I can tell you have the skills to move on from here. I can only see a benefit for you. It has certainly changed me for the better.

  21. Rajeev Singh says:

    Superb post..great way of driving home the point of dedication and thoughful planning in career management.

  22. jana says:

    i like this. i am constantly on the lookout to find new directions in life and work (i am the type od person who needs new challenges to stay interested although i am calmer now when i am in my 30s).

    i have a main job and then a side job, and keep myself amused by one-off jobs for various companies. now got an offer to do something completely new )which was flattering since the person asking knew it was not my usual thng but thought it would do that very well), and as i was pondering over it, i have stumbled upon this.

    the analogy was very well chosen, tried to apply it to my own situation now and it turned out really interesting PLUS reinforced my belief i can do it as it is actually connected to my other areas of work. thanks!

  23. CF says:

    I liked this post a lot!

    I also have a life sciences degree, and after having worked for 2 years, I am returning to do a brief comp sci degree. Very nervous!

    But I also am interested in writing, and it makes me happy to see that from a similar situation, you’ve become successful. Thanks for sharing.

  24. CashAholic says:

    Well written post with interesting analogies. All new college grads should read this to see how skills and experience interconnect.

  25. Yuva says:

    Nice post! This could be an easy impetus for all who want to build and hone skills to fabricate their career. Also people need not be a copycat of others, if they can bring out their inherent talent and work on it, they will be mightily successful.

  26. Nice analogy– just remember to wear a hardhat for the unexpected . . .

    I think flexibility is key– there are countless ways of building walls and not being stopped by a wall: Over, under, around, and through to name but a few.

  27. R. J. Kern says:

    Trent, Great post. I’ve re-read the article three times and will certainly be jotting down important points in my “life-notes” notebook I’ve kept for several years. I double-majored in art & geography and went on to get my MA in geography…. and have followed along that career path for the last 8 years in the mapping IT world. While I enjoy it, I realize it has provided wonderful opportunities for stability, travel, and personal time to pursuit my photography. Your article made me realize my two brick walls have allowed me to create a solid bridge… one that I enjoy bouncing & playing on. The balance has been rewarding.

  28. mich says:

    Great Post Trent!
    Can you please tell us what software you used to creat those bricks? I’m looking forward to create my wall.

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