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Job vs. Career

What’s the difference between a job and a career?

 

 Definition of Career: a term defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as

  • an individual’s “course or progress through life (or a distinct portion of life)”. It usually is considered to pertain to remunerative work.
  • a chosen pursuit; a profession or occupation “The general course or progression of one’s working life or one’s professional achievements”

Definition of Job: a term defined by the Oxford Dictionary as

  • a paid position of regular employment:
  • a task or piece of work, especially one that is paid.

Let’s take Bob. Bob works in a prominent retail store selling ski boots, skis and equipment for alpine sports.  He is 26 years old and loves skiing, snowboarding and being on the snow in any description. Bob is also an excellent drummer, who plays in three different bands. He practices up to four hours a day in his home rehearsal studio and has regular bookings to play gigs in town as well as contributing as a session musician on a variety of well known artists’ albums.

This year Bob had to choose between

  1. Playing a major music festival and some sideshows for a well known international act currently touring in Australia – this would take him away from his retail job for three weeks. He would be paid $3000 plus all expenses while he was away. However he would probably lose his job at the ski shop because his boss could not manage in the store without hiring someone to replace him;Or
  2. Turning down the tour and making $5000 in wages and sales commissions as the ski shop is currently going through its busiest period, and he is probably the top sales person in the store. However the decision would impact the likelihood of him being booked for future gigs and tours
  • How would you define Bob’s career?
  • What does Bob “do for a living”? In other words, what is his job?
  • What should Bob do given his current dilemma?

And then we have Frank. Frank studied accounting and business law in his undergraduate degree, and is a Certified Practicing Accountant (CPA). He has recently completed his MBA and is working as a business analyst for a large public company. The job is extremely well paid but he works long hours and does not see his children in the evening very often as they are usually in bed by the time he gets home. Frank is 37, his wife gave up her job as a marketing manager 5 years ago and now looks after their two children aged 3 and 5 years old.

Frank and his wife have recently been offered the opportunity to purchase and manage a small business in rural NSW. The business turns over a reliable income which would cover their costs of living, and they would be able to spend more time together as a family, but they would need to move to a regional location with fewer resources available with respect to quality housing, child care, schooling and healthcare. The business could easily double in size in the next 5 years and would be an attractive option for sale, which would provide the family with a solid base for the future. Frank’s wife is very keen to take advantage of the opportunity but Frank is worried about giving up his job and the uncertainty that a small business would represent in contrast to the opportunities for promotion and salary increases in his current job.

  • How would you define Frank’s career?
  • What does Frank “do for a living”? In other words, what is his job?
  • What should Frank do given his current dilemma?


These very typical and realistic examples highlight the important distinctions between someone’s job and their career. For me the stand out difference is that one is universally defined, and one is only defined by the individual. A job, whether it be a shop assistant, musician, analyst or small business manager is clear. It has defined boundaries, a purpose that it clear and really it leaves little to interpretation in most cases.

Your career however, is really your “story” when it comes to the world of work. It is harder to define and therefore harder to imagine. Sometimes it feels like being an author, stuck in the middle of writing a book, and suffering from “writer’s block” unable to visualise or plan for the ending.

We hear people saying things like “when I look back over my career” much more frequently than “when I look at my career in the future”.  And that’s fair enough, because we really don’t know how to predict the future. So it is understandable that in the absence of a clear vision we revert to what we can safely predict for the shorter term – which is a focus on the job. It’s more comfortable to focus on the here and now and forget about the future.

As we know however, this shorter term focus makes us very vulnerable when it comes to change. Most of us don’t participate at a strategic level in the planning of our career, and then one day we are called into our manager’s office and told that “unfortunately we have had to make a few difficult decisions..” and I think you can guess the rest of the sentence. We leave the office in a bit of a daze saying “how did that happen?

Job security, for want of a better phrase, disappeared out of the workplace about 30 years ago. Back in my father’s day when he worked for a major bank in the early 80’s, there was a fair degree of certainty that if he kept his head down and didn’t complain too much that he would hit retirement with his house paid off and a reasonable retirement income to live on for the rest of his life. That just is not going to be promised to anyone these days.

Two positives arise out of this:

1)      The first positive is that you are now your only security (which is plenty, believe me). Your ability to do the following presents as a fairly secure strategy:

  • assess the current state and what that means to you personally
  • anticipate future trends and what that might mean to you personally
  • invest in your personal and professional development
  • achieve your professional objectives
  • maintain a good level of self esteem
  • while engaging in meaningful, productive work (which makes a difference to you and others).

2)      The second positive arising out of the lack of job security is that you now have an abundance of choice. There is no longer any justifiable reason to work in a job you don’t like, for someone you don’t respect, doing work that you aren’t connected to. There’s no payoff.

It seems somewhat paradoxical that focusing on some future thing we can’t really predict the accuracy of (your career) provides you with more security than simply focusing on the job – present, here and now, and predictable. However it is well documented that goal setting provides us with momentum and motivational “fuel” to move in a planned, deliberate direction, rather than in a reactive way.

Your career is a book you are in the process of writing, and you won’t know what happens until the end. But like any great author, it is possible (and very important) to imagine, to visualise what it might look like. If you change the story there is no problem with that – it is also sensible and pragmatic to do so if the landscape changes. But it is YOUR story – nobody else’s. So the choice is yours.

Planning your career can be a very rewarding and enjoyable experience. It fills you with a sense of purpose and meaning, and makes you feel as though you are part of something bigger than yourself. It also provides you with a perspective on your job – which might reveal that you are in exactly the right place, right now. It also might highlight that a change is necessary.

Sometimes it helps to talk to someone about planning your career, and you need to choose that person carefully. A recruiter will only talk to you about a job – they are not really interested in your career outside of what they can generate from you in fees. Which is OK – they have a job to do as well. So perhaps it is better to talk to someone who will be open to hearing, guiding and encouraging you to develop your story further – whatever the ending might be.

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