Trying to plot your career path can be confusing and frustrating. As a leadership coach, I’ve done a lot of work with professionals at many levels who need help making their next career move. I’ve worked with entrepreneurs who have successfully exited their business to college graduates looking for their first job after school and everything in between. With each of these varying tracks, the next move is different.
What is helpful in all of these types of situations is understanding where you are in your professional journey. While the details of each journey are different, successful careers develop over several key phases. In each phase, the goals and criteria change. Here are the eight that I use to assess someone’s current situation and help them map out their next steps.
1. Becoming self-sufficient.
The first phase of anyone’s career is to learn to be self-sufficient. For many folks this is the first lesson learned after going off to college. It’s about learning how to run your life, get yourself to class, keep yourself fed, and balance work and fun in a reasonable way. Being good at managing yourself is a key first step to your career.
2. Acquiring core skills.
Regardless of your final career path, you need a base set of skills according to your general domain. If you’re going into computer science you’ll need basics around informational systems, programing, hardware and software, and micro electronics. While you do need to make some choices at this phase, it should be broad and based on your passion and where you see general professional opportunities.
3. Exploring possible interests.
Once you’ve acquired core skills through college, university, or another type of training, you’re ready to enter the workforce. The goal in the phase is to explore. And while I don’t recommend job hopping, you might need to be in three to four different jobs before you are ready for the next phase.
4. Choosing a focus.
This phase is all about zeroing in on a niche. Finding the area where you want to become an expert in is the most important decision you can make in your career. With good awareness of your interests and skills, and a broad set of experiences in different areas of your chosen domain, you’re ready to double down on a narrow focus.
5. Mastering a niche.
Once you have your niche, you need to master it. Experts say it take 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach mastery. For most people that will take 8-12 years of dedicated focus. However, if you’ve chosen a path that you have both the passion and the skills for, you’ll be able to push through, and maybe even have a little fun.
6. Monetizing your value.
If you’ve selected and developed your niche successfully, you’ll be in a position to reap the reward. This phase of your career is all about monetizing the value you’ve created. For some, this will be a very nice salary and a full-time job, for others it might be a high billing rate as a consultant, and for others it might be starting company that generates cash or equity.
7. Giving back to your industry.
Once you’ve been able to financially secure your future, the goal becomes to give back to the communities and institutions that have helped you along the way. And this isn’t just about money. Give your personal time, access to your network, and share your insights and knowledge with the next generation.
8. Leaving your legacy.
The final stage to a successful career is to leave a legacy. This isn’t about a big donation to put your name on a hospital wing, it’s about impacting the world long after you’ve gone. A legacy is driven by a person’s core values and sense of purpose. It might be creating a scholarship, it might be starting a conference, or it might be building a school. The goal is to create something that will develop its own momentum.
A lucky few people will go through these phases sequentially and smoothly. The rest of us will find that our professional journeys can come with a few twists and turns, and maybe even some backing up to regroup. The point is not to be perfect, but rather to keep the bigger picture in mind.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.