How do you think at your career?
If you think at it vertically, it means you see it as a (more or less) straight line. It’s a progression, you look at where you were yesterday and make expectations about where you will be tomorrow. Of course, there might be hiccups, that we perceive as overwhelmingly negative and that we do our best to avoid. But in general what you care about is advancing, going forward.
Traditionally, careers are built vertically. Since school, we are used to approach things in terms of levels (first grade, second grade, …; primary school, secondary school, high school, …), and at certain points we are given particularly difficult tasks (exams) that might get us promoted.
This system is partially based on the assumption that what you do will stay with you, and actually accumulate throughout the years. It’s the reason why people who stay with a company for ten years are more likely to get promoted or to have a higher salary, or people that have 20-30 years of experience are more valuable on the job market than new graduates.
The alternative is to think at career horizontally. In this case, rather than looking at where you were yesterday, you think about what you have learned, achieved, experienced. Where do your skills fit best in this particular time? What type of company could use your experience with this or that? What role would really allow to put the best you at the service of the community?
There is no straight line in this sense, rather a wide variety of opportunities. You might find yourself in a position you would have not considered, just because that’s what make sense right now. You might have to accept a lower salary, just because you understand that you are needed, here and now. You might have to make a long detour, just because you want to refine a certain skill or learn a new art. I’d go as far as say that if you approach your career horizontally, all these things would not even matter in the first place.
All this becomes particularly relevant when you are looking for a new job.
If you approach the search for a job with a vertical mindset, you are narrowing down the options quite a lot. Say you have been some sort of Marketing Manager in the past four years: you’ll most likely look for some a senior marketing leadership positions, possibly at larger companies, probably in the field you already have experience with (B2B, Saas, B2C, etc.).
If instead you look at the situation from a horizontal perspective, the Marketing Manager role loses its importance, and you could for example focus on the fact you have learned how to lead people to solve difficult problems, how to present in front of a wide audience, and how to work across departments to align vision and strategy. These are all skills that are applicable to many more positions, fields, companies, industries than a simple job title is.
I am not implying that one way is easier than the other. Certainly, most of the current job market is designed with verticality in mind, both on the demand and on the offer side. And for this very reason, people often struggle to find a different way: they hit their head on the wall, they get rejected, over and over again, they feel drained and demotivated, and eventually they give up.
The way you approach things changes the way you see things. And sometimes, all you need is some more opportunities.