Managing Your Career When You Have More than One
Using the Present to Enact Your Future

Positive Professional Development Tool: Career Stepping Stones

Stepping Stones

In our ongoing career and professional development, there are times when it's helpful to look at our past. It may be that we're bored and contemplating a change. We may have been laid off and had change thrust upon us. Even as part of our ongoing reflective practice, mining our past experiences can give us great fodder for the future. 

One way to look at your past is to use a technique pioneered by Ira Progoff as part of his Intensive Journaling process called "Stepping Stones." This process allows you to create a sort of career timeline that can give you greater insight into current career dilemmas and possibilities for new directions. 

What Are Stepping Stones?

Stepping stones are "the significant points of movement along the road of an individual's life." A stepping stone is  an event, image, sensation, a thought, or milestone of your life that comes to mind when you review your life from the beginning to the present.

Stepping stones aren't tied to fixed periods of time. One stepping stone may last a few months and the next may last several years.  To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, here are my career stepping stones.

  1.  What Will I Be When I Grow Up?
  2. I'm going to be a lawyer
  3. College teaches me that I'd HATE being a lawyer.
  4. HR Manager 
  5. Kids make careers complicated
  6. Government work
  7. Turning my job into self-employment
  8. My Slash Career
  9. What's Next? 

Stepping Stone 4 lasted a couple of years, but Stepping Stone 7 was about 7 years; you can see that time isn't really how you define a stepping stone. It's more about a phase of life that hangs together naturally. 

Finding Your Stepping Stones

To find your Stepping Stones, follow this procedure:

  1. Find a quiet space where you'll have between 10-15 minutes to yourself.
  2. Sit back and breathe deeply for a few minutes, letting your mind play over your life and various career experiences. Keep in mind that sometimes your career isn't about working. Notice that in my example, there was that period of exploration that covered childhood and college, times before I was working but when I was still thinking about what I wanted to do when I grew up. I also had a period when I was home with my children, but I still consider it part of my overall career trajectory. 
  3. In a few words or phrases, capture the essence of a particular stepping stone by writing it down in a journal or career notebook. You may find these in chronological order or they may show up in chunks. When I did this, I actually started with my last stepping stone and then went back to the beginning to trace to the present. 

Don't spend a lot of time evaluating and thinking about this. Usually your stepping stones will appear relatively easily and should fall into place without a lot of critical analysis. 

Working with Your Stepping Stones

Once you have a list of your stepping stones, it's time to work with them. You can do this  in a few sessions or in one marathon session where you go through all of them. I've found that it's better to take them in chunks--maybe 2-3 at a time. 

To start the work, first read through your entire list, trying to keep a neutral frame of mind. Suspend judgment if you can help it. Look for patterns or themes. Is there something that ties together two or more of your stepping stones? How do you feel looking at your list? Do some of the items evoke particularly positive or negative reactions? I've found that it's helpful to write down these general observations and reactions before I move into working with individual stepping stones.  

Once you've looked at your overall list, you then want to turn your attention to individual stepping stones, describing them in greater detail. Some questions to consider: 

  • What was happening in your career at that point? How were you feeling about your career?
  • What else was going on in your life? 
  • How did your career and life fit together during that time?
  • What kinds of questions and issues were you dealing with then? 
  • Were there any roads not traveled? 
  • What relationships were important during this time? Were there bosses, colleagues and/or mentors who were particularly important? How did those relationships impact your career? 
  • What lessons did you learn during this period? What did this time of life teach you about yourself and what you did/didn't want in your career? 

A good way to begin your description is with the phrase "It was a time when. . . " This can be an excellent springboard into the memories and feelings of that period of your career. 

Using Your Stepping Stones

Once you've described your stepping stones in greater detail, there are many ways you can use the information. 

Usually particular patterns or themes will emerge that you can use in decision-making and growth. For example, you may notice that the more postiive, growth-filled points in your career coincided with the times when you had a mentor to guide you. Or you may notice that you tend to get bored and need a change after somewhat predictable periods of time. 

Something I noticed in my stepping stones is that every 3-4 years I need to find a new challenge--some new skill to master or some new area of research to immerse myself in. Recognizing this helped me to better understand that this is a theme for me, something I can anticipate and actively nurture. Some people have seen a pattern of foregoing career dreams in favor of the "practical" approach, while others have found that they repeatedly sacrificed their own career goals to help someone else. 

The process of detailing your stepping stones can remind you of long-buried bits of yourself--interests you used to have or skills you haven't used in years. Once revealed to you, these can become nuggets to build on for the future. 

Looking at your career life as a series of stepping stones can be a powerful way to mine your past for insight that you can use for your future. It can help you uncover long-lost career dreams as well as patterns of self-sabotage or "playing it small." 

The point of the stepping stone exercise is to help you place your current circumstances and career issues in a longer timeframe. You are where you are in part because of decisions and experiences from your past. Exploring your stepping stones can help you put your present into context and give you new ideas for moving forward.  

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