You are Thinking of Your Career Trajectory Wrong

Most people think about their career trajectory as being like a bell-curve or that of a cannon ball fired from a cannon. Something like this:


For 99% of all successful people, this is completely the wrong way to think about it. For that other 1% (the Bill Gates & Mark Zuckerbergs of the world) it might work. For the rest of us, there’s a mental model that will help keep you sane, help you appreciate where you are today, and set you up for success on where you’re going next. I call it the space mission career trajectory model.

Instead of following a bell-curve, or ballistic trajectory, your career trajectory is actually much more like a series of interplanetary spacecraft missions.  Each phase of your career actually looks like the trajectory of an interplanetary mission like Apollo:

The Soviet Zond 5 was the first spacecraft to circle the Moon and return to land on Earth. Just as it took a huge amount energy to get Zond 5 off of Earth and into orbit, it takes the typical person many years and a hard work to get out of school to start a career. Once someone’s landed their first job it’s a lot like the Zond spacecraft (carrying some turtles!) coasting towards the Moon. A lot of work and excitement, but a lot of boring and repetitive stuff. Entering the Moon’s orbit and heading back to Earth will get you out of “coast mode” quickly and require more focused & determined energy. Hopefully in your case, all of the tortoises survived.

Your next career change may result in taking on more responsibility (e.g. being a lead or having responsibility for a large marketing budget). The Apollo 10 mission involved not only a transit between Earth and the Moon, but multiple spacecraft and live human beings.  Getting into orbit around the Moon, an already tricky proposition (thankfully made less stressful because of the experience you gained with the Zond 5 mission) is going to be even harder due to the extra mass. And responsibility.

Assume you pulled it off and even were successful landing on the Moon and doing a little dance (you shipped that cool product that no-one thought was possible ahead of schedule!). Now what? Getting off the Moon is slightly easier than leaving Earth because there’s less gravity and you’ve done it before. But it’s still a challenge. Maybe you’ll head back to Earth and back to the Moon several times.

Perhaps on one of those trips you decide to play a few rounds of golf on the Moon. That’s cool. You deserve it.


The Shot Seen ‘Round the World” by B.E. Johnson.

I said earlier that each phase of your career looks like the trajectory of a single mission. Your overall career is made up of a series of these missions linked together.

At some point you may get promoted or put into another role. Or you may decide to start a company. Preparing for that, dealing with the change, learning the new stuff requires energy and results in taking on a new mission. And the mission will be Jupiter. This is going to require a massive amount of energy. And a large team. And great discipline.

Earlier in your career you gained important experience and learned hard lessons (hopefully they were like Apollo 13 and not like Challenger). You are prepared. You’ll do fine, just as Cassini was fine as it passed by Venus in December of 1988 and fired thrusters perfectly to use Venus & the Sun’s gravity to escape the inner solar system.

Likely, after you slingshot around the Sun and head towards Jupiter you’ll have plenty of time to rest and reflect. By now you are maybe 10 or 20 years into your career. You are an executive, a manager of managers, or a founder and have incredible scope and influence. Are you happy?

Regardless, you might decide (or be put in a position where you have no choice) to take on a simpler, easier mission after you complete the trip to Jupiter. That is ok.

After being a Group Program Manager on the first version of Windows Media Center in 2002, I was exhausted. I needed a change. I was given the opportunity to take on a staff role, acting as the technology advisor to Bob Muglia (former President of Microsoft’s Server & Tools Business). I went from being a manager of managers with tons of broad responsibility to having no direct reports and no mission other than “do what it takes to make Bob successful”. In my model, this is like going from scope & complexity of the Cassini mission to a mission that launched the Hubble Space Telescope launch. An important mission. Close to home. Full of opportunities to learn. Lots of pressure, but not life threatening. That mission set me up for the next phase of my career (incubating and building Windows Home Server).

This highlights one of the most important points the “space mission career trajectory model” highlights:

Maybe after your Jupiter mission you get a job with less managerial responsibility, scope, or money. That is ok, because you should not measure your career in terms of a things like scope, money, or seniority on the Y-axis of a ballistics graph. Instead you should measure your career on the missions you undertook, the places they took you, and what you learned.

Hopefully you find this model useful. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it either way.

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  1. Gentry Riggen says:

    “A lot of work and excitement, but a lot of boring and repetitive stuff.” Right now I feel like this. First job and coasting to the moon. I want more.

    Very cool way to think about it!

  2. Paul Simons says:

    Great article. I’ve certainly taken what may appear to be a circuitous route to get to where I am now, but at each phase (mission) I had specific goals in mind. Defining your own needs in the Y-axis is critical, otherwise your missions will be unfocused.

  3. I like the analogy, and the reminder of the past love of astronomy I had. I see how change effects both focus and results here, but not losing the focus of the mission (“living alive that’s lived”) seems to be more pressing than marking the achievements you pick up along the way. I am young into my journey, this was quite helpful and encouraging to my heart.

  4. robtiffany says:

    Great stuff Charlie!

  5. Eric says:

    I’ve been working 20+ years, and this model describes my career very well. There have been start-ups and Fortune 500 companies, early-stage reasearch and late-stage commercialization, being a manager and being a hands-on contributor. It’s not been monotonic growth in one area, but cycles of new challenges and new experiences. Nice insight!

  6. NW Angel says:

    One of the most important lessons I have learned during my career is to make sure that I know where I am going and align my career trajectory with my personal goals even though there has rarely been a direct line from launch to landing most of the joy has come from the journey to get there.. Some of my most fulfilling mission have come from volunteering as it allows me to participate on boards at levels I might never achieve in my paid career and shown me how sometimes when I fly collaboratively it can often more fun than alone.

  7. Doug says:

    Right now I am coasting toward the Moon and it is boring :))

  8. Really Helpful

  9. I like the analogy, Charlie, but I suspect it will fall flat with people who don’t understand the metaphor you use– most folks in the technology sector will probably get it, and the diagrams certainly help a great deal.

  10. Very helpful – had a Challenger experience but learned from it and already am applying in my ‘Mission to Mars’ – thanks for sharing your insight.

  11. Matt says:

    I managed to get to low earth orbit, and I’m still stuck there. I simply want to know how to get on the boring moon trajectory.

  12. Ryan says:

    very helpful — thanks for posting

  13. Dirk Frazier says:

    What a great message – it’s the journey, not the destination. True throughout life. My colleagues introduced me to Kerbal Space Program. Now I see everything as nothing more than a MCC or a TLI. 🙂

  14. Samir says:

    This is an excellent analogy. Thanks for sharing !

  15. Jerry Safranek says:

    Remember to emphasize the successful completion of the mission as a valuable milestone. Thus the goal of the mission, regardless of the complexity or duration, is a successful completion. Measure your arc by that criterion and you will keep your focus on the here and now.

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