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There’s lots of chatter going on right now about the merits of following a traditional career trajectory vs. embracing a non-linear path. In fact, it’s more than just chatter! More and more professionals are opting to hop off the corporate ladder in favour of a more non-traditional career journey, with 2 out of 3 professionals* saying they would consider leaving their current role to take the path less travelled.

Maybe you’ve worked your way up the ranks, and now you want to try something new; maybe you’ve recently graduated and you’re having second thoughts about what you really want to do with that degree or maybe you’re stuck somewhere in the middle – either way, it’s worth learning more about what’s being called ‘the modern career journey’.

What’s the difference between a linear and non-linear career path?

Linear

You can think of a linear career as the suggested route, a clearly defined way to get from A to B. It’s what our parents and teachers had in mind when they asked us the age-old question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Taking this route involves successfully completing your education, securing an entry-level job in your field and then working diligently to steadily advance upwards, usually at the same company, but if not, at least within the same industry. In exchange for their years of dedication and perseverance, they’ll be rewarded with recognition, influence, financial stability and tenure.

Non-linear 

Your journey on a non-traditional career path may start with you heading off in one direction and, through a series of unexpected but not-altogether-unpleasant events, ending up somewhere else entirely.

If the ‘corporate ladder’ is most commonly associated with the linear path, the non-linear route has been compared to a jungle gym. Able to move up or down, back and forth, side to side and even diagonally, this route allows you to explore all the directions your career journey might take you – not just upwards.

The non-linear path is an attractive option for those who don’t want to lock themselves into one particular role or occupation, but instead, continue to explore their passions and broaden their skillsets through new experiences.

Sounds interesting, but what will employers think?

The number one concern people have about non-traditional career paths is how it’s going to look on their resume: are lateral moves taboo? Am I going to be seen as a ‘job-hopper’? Will my experience make employers wary of hiring me?

Before you start running through worst-case scenarios in your mind, let us stop you right there, because there’s good news: a progressive employer won’t mind your unconventional job history – in fact, they’ll probably be eager to learn more about it.

The key is to make sure you’re prepared to answer questions about your experience, highlight your transferable skills and explain why this particular opportunity is the right move for you and your career. Now, lace up your hiking boots, we’re heading into uncharted territory!

Navigating the uncharted terrain of a non-linear career path

Reflect on your past experience

Think about your job history and see if you can identify any themes. Even in the most seemingly unrelated roles, you should be able to find a common thread: it could be that wherever you go, you identify inefficiencies and streamline processes; perhaps you’re in your element when you’re teaching someone something new, or maybe you’ve got a knack for managing projects, big or small.

This allows you to look at your work experience as a whole, rather than a bunch of pieces that don’t quite fit together. It’s a great way to better understand your strengths, your passions and can help give you insight into where you want to go next.

Know the value in your transferable skills

The beauty of transferable skills is that, well, they’re transferable – meaning you can put your skillset to use in a ton of different roles and industries.

Think about it this way: from each unique job, you come away with a specific set of skills and knowledge. With each new role, you’re learning new information and expanding your abilities. The result? A resume that boasts a varied set of competencies and a wide range of experiences that can help you excel at your next role.

Look for learning opportunities everywhere

One of the biggest draws of a non-linear path is the chance to continue learning, at any stage of your career. Allow yourself to try new things, embrace new challenges and explore new ways to invest in your growth and self-development, both in the workplace and outside of it.

There are no shortage of online courses (many free of cost!), conferences and networking events (and, of course, blogs much like this one!) which you can use to expand your knowledge, strengthen your resume and satisfy your endless curiosity at the same time.

Build a strong professional network

Invest in cultivating a diverse network – you won’t be sorry! Networking is an incredible way to build your professional brand, expose yourself to different ideas, experiences and perspectives, and to establish connections that will come in handy more times than you can imagine during your career.

Who knows, you might connect with someone who’ll one day become your mentor or your future colleague – heck, they might even wind up helping you land your dream job.

Celebrate your wins

Share your professional accomplishments with your network on LinkedIn, go out with friends to celebrate landing a new role – you may not be standing at the top of the ladder, but that doesn’t mean your successes aren’t just as worth celebrating.

Embrace the unpredictability

If you’re going to choose a non-linear path, you better go ahead and get used to being outside your comfort zone. It can be uncomfortable, certainly, but do your best to embrace the twists and turns. Our best advice? Keep an open mind about new opportunities, and don’t shy away from something that will give you the opportunity to learn or grow – whether that be personally or professionally.

[Want a real-life example of a not-so-linear career path in action? Read Wendy Chiu’s story here.]

*Results of a LinkedIn poll conducted by Impact Recruitment in April 2022

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