Move Up in Your Career by Letting Go

By Angela Vega – April 1, 2018
illustration by Edgar Vega

We think about one direction for our careers: up. We aspire for fancier titles, salary increases, and an office with a view. This is often done by acquiring skills, knowledge, and experience along the way, but the way forward may no longer be up the ladder.

The corporate ladder is an antiquated way to describe career progression. A career does not have evenly defined rungs, a steady base, and handrails. Careers are more like mountaineering—climbing through unknown areas, sometimes going down to go up, and carrying only the things you need most. As the views get increasingly beautiful towards the top, the air gets thin and a bit harder to breathe. In your career, it is time to think less of what you have to gain and more about what you have to let go to move up. Here are eight things to let go of that will help you get to the top. 

1. Let go of your job description.

That perfect bulleted list that outlines your responsibilities when interviewing is as useful as a snorkel in the desert. Turning away new challenges that come your way because they don’t fit in that list will hurt your chances to grow. The job description is a starting point; your career is what follows.

Make a list of your current job responsibilities and compare it to your job description. How much of it aligns perfectly? If it is vastly different, it might be time to negotiate a title change. If it aligns perfectly, then maybe you need to reach out of your comfort zone and take on some new projects. 

2. Let go of the traditional career path.

You are in charge of your career path, and that could mean changing industries, making a lateral move, or taking a pay cut for more hands-on experience. No one cares about your career as much as you do, so have a plan, but know it will not be a straight line to the top.

What is your career plan? Do a gap analysis on the skills you would like to learn, and look for the need or project at your company to exercise those skills. If there are no needs at your company, look to your community or a volunteer organization. 

3. Let go of your story.

Time’s Person of the Year in 2006 was “You.” There is an opportunity to tell your story every day though social media with trending hashtags and curated photos. Your story helped get you a job, build your accomplishments, and gain valuable experience. However, as you advance you have to let go of “I” and focus on the “we.” The word “we” promotes a team player mentality and recognition that you did not get to where you are on your own. Your story only develops because others have contributed. 

Remove the word “I” from any team email or call and use the word “we.” From recommendations to failures, the word “we” it brings it back to the collective team. Lastly, knowledge is acquired through sensory input—listening, reading, and watching. Develop your story through others by listening and learning who they are and what they do. 

4. Let go of being an idea machine.

If you start and end a meeting with a brainstorm, you are stalling your career. To paraphrase Bill Gates, ideas are commodities; what is unique is the execution. If you can bring a team’s idea to fruition and deliver real results, this will turn you career into gold. Ideas are not meant to be owned but created.

Be the person in the room that asks what comes next and helps delegate tasks. It may not seem as exciting as a brainstorm, but moving things forward towards execution will be appreciated by all—especially by your superiors. 

5. Let go of the hard skills.

There are hard skills, teachable abilities, and soft skills (subjective aptitude). Technology pushes us to learn new hard skills like a programming language. However, your focus should be on soft skills. Managing distinct personalities, navigating cut-throat politics, or mastering agile communication is far from being “soft,” but it is necessary if you want to master your career.

The next time an opportunity for personal development appears, focus on your “soft” skills. This can include presenting to a large room of people, volunteering as a project manager for another team, or specializing in five-minute favors. 

6. Let go of apologizing.

Women, I am looking at you. A 2010 study found that women apologize more often than men, most likely due to a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior. The words “I am sorry” take up valuable airtime and are used to qualify the statements 
that follow. 

Save apologies for when they are necessary. If there is a situation to diffuse, thank that person instead for their patience or understanding. 

7. Let go of being “right.”

Being “right” feels so good, but it can damage your career. Having a burning desire to be “right” means you might also be a bad listener and have a limited perspective. We are all invested in our point of view, which can often block other possibilities and put unnecessary stress on co-worker relationships. 

Instead of being right, be receptive. Allow for an open dialogue about the topic in question and assimilate their understanding into your currently held belief. Empathy listening is a technique that can help you manage and avoid disruptive behaviors and create trust. 

8. Let go of your comfort zone.

According to author and performance psychologist Simon Marshall, your comfort zone is like an emotional cast for a leg that’s not broken. That cast will only slow you down as you try to hobble your way up the career mountain. Aim for the stretch zone where you feel challenged and motivated, but be sure to find a sponsor or mentor to show you the ropes. 

Leaving your comfort zone means embracing ambiguity. In this case, ambiguity means not having all the facts but having a general direction. Find a project with good management and direction that needs help with ideation and execution. 

We all want a magnificent view at the top of career mountain. We all take different paths, some with trail markings and others off the beaten footpath. Just remember to take only what you need, share what you have and let go of anything that holds you back.


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