Write It In Reverse.

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The class of 2017 is going to graduate in a few weeks. They’re going to be ambitious, and they’re going to be ready to go from 0 to 60 in their careers. (I know I expected to hit the ground running.) But careers don’t move quite that fast.

When I talk to recent grads and explain the first decade of my journalism career, it makes a lot of sense:

  • In 2008, I covered the Olympics for a big paper and did a ton of blogging.
  • In 2009, I graduated and started working on the digital side at a TV station.
  • In 2010, I quit my job to build Stry.us and write about the five-year anniversary of Katrina.
  • In 2011, I got the fellowship at Mizzou to keep growing Stry.us.
  • In 2012, I launched a bunch of new projects, created my first newsletters, and grew the Stry.us team.
  • In 2013, I used that experience launching newsletters to start a career at BuzzFeed as their first newsletter guy.
  • In 2014, we grew newsletters, built out a marketing strategy, and started growing the team.
  • In 2015 and 2016, we launched a ton of new projects, kept hiring, and really figured out the marketing side of things.

And looking back, there’s a very clear path! There’s the big arc: I’m a guy who launches digital projects and grows teams. There’s the common thread through every year: Being able to use my writing skills, whether it’s for telling stories, writing newsletters, or creating good marketing copy.

But I’ll tell you this: In real time, my career didn’t make sense at all. I had no idea where all of this was taking me, and definitely never expected to land here at BuzzFeed. That I’ve gotten here is a wonderful, happy accident.

I’ll quote you Joe Walsh, the guitarist for the Eagles, who — quite surprisingly, I should say! — explains this phenomenon well:

“You know, there’s a philosopher who says, ‘As you live your life, it appears to be anarchy and chaos, and random events, nonrelated events, smashing into each other and causing this situation or that situation, and then, this happens, and it’s overwhelming, and it just looks like what in the world is going on. And later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel. But at the time, it don’t.’”

And he’s right! In real time, it’s chaos. It’s only in looking back that it makes sense.

So here’s my advice to the class of 2017: Think about writing your career in reverse. Visualize where you want to be in five years, and ask yourself:

What would I need to do in year 4 to be able to make the leap to that dream role in year 5?

Would would I need to do in year 3 to get to year 4?

What about in year 2?

And ultimately: What do I need to do in that first year after graduation to get started on that path?

I had no plan, so I stumbled around and accidentally ended up here. (I’ve said it before: I’m lucky to be lucky.)  But maybe you can work smarter: Start with the dream role, and then reverse engineer a potential career path to get to that dream. Create the mile markers you’ll use to measure success. And don’t get frustrated when you career veers in a different direction — things never go as planned!

No, you’re probably not going to get that dream job as a reporter at the big daily paper or website just yet — but maybe you can in five years. Instead, start planning out the path, and then get working to take that first step on your 5-year plan.

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That photo of stairs — the path upwards, I suppose — comes via Jamie Saw and was first published on Unsplash.