Most of us are familiar with the above picture.

It delivers the encouraging message that success is a messy affair full of stops, false starts, and wrong turns – only appearing as a straight line afterwards. We tend to smooth out all the squiggles in post(-production).

Since North Americans frequently view career success as a prerequisite to life success, the picture is often referred to in the context of work. We reassure each other that a successful career is also a messy affair, and rightfully so. However, I was not terribly consoled. I always felt that the picture was missing something, but wasn’t quite sure what. Until recently.

Last week, Arthur Brooks published an article titled “4 Rules for Identifying Your Life’s Work“. In Rule 3, he agreed that a career doesn’t have to be a straight line. However, Brooks meant it in a slightly different way, introducing a concept pioneered by Michael Driver and Kenneth Brousseau (PDF). You see, careers have types, too. Driver and Brousseau arrived at the four career types by looking at the motivations that drove career choices and frequency of industry changes:

Linear Careers

We are most familiar with the linear career. People following a linear career path are motivated by “upward movement on an externally defined ladder”, i.e. promotion. They might change companies or even industries, but only if necessary for promotion. Successful linear types are described as “rising stars”. CEO is the top prize.

Jamie Dimon the Linear

Expert Careers

While promotions motivate the linear, mastery over the course of a lifetime is the calling of an expert. Naturally, experts never change industries. A perfect example is Jiro Ono, a master sushi craftsman. He became a qualified sushi chef in 1951 and that’s what he’s been doing ever since.

Jiro the Expert

Spiral Careers

For the spiral, personal growth and self-development are the predominant motivators. Unlike experts, mastery does not motivate the spiral. Instead, 80% is good enough. Because of this, industry changes are common, frequently at the five to ten year mark. I suspect this is because five to ten years is how long it takes to achieve 80% understanding of a field.

The spiral’s bias for growth leads him or her to choose new industries that build on previously acquired skills and abilities.

Arthur Brooks the Spiral

Transitory Careers

New experiences and near-term economic incentives are the predominant motivators of the transitory. Like the spiral, the transitory is likely to make job and industry changes. However, those changes happen more frequently and seem to be “all over the place”. Transitory types are the people who “work to live”. Examples include software developers that hop from contract to contract and traveling emergency room doctors. Think of them as mercenaries for hire.

Before becoming the renowned author of the Redwall series, Brian Jacques’ career was either a spiral or transitory one, depending on the motivation behind and timing of industry changes.

Brian Jacques the Transitory

General Observations

Since most people follow the linear or expert career track, spiral and transitory careers are not well understood. Just as a reader is inclined to see listeners as bad readers, linear and expert careerists tend to view the latter two as failed versions of themselves. Neither the spiral nor the transitory stick with a job or industry long enough to successfully climb the ladder or achieve mastery. More tragically, a spiral or transitory career type that views him or herself from a traditional linear or expert lens will feel like a failure too.

That’s what the picture was missing. Although the upward trajectory illustrated in both frames is not explicitly a career ladder or industry mastery, such is implied by a society that isn’t aware of other career possibilities.