Your Career Path Is a Journey — Are You Navigating?

Miguel Vasquez recently shared an infographic about his career path. It reminded me that we are all in the process of writing the story of our careers. Pivotal moments, important mentors, and key decisions shape the story arc.

Yet many of us don’t explicitly consider that story as we live it. The nature of the planning profession — the idealism, the drama of politics, and the breadth of activities — means that there is no standard planning career. The "outsourcing" economy, specialization in planning, and changes in worker preferences are disrupting the traditional idea of an orderly career progression. In short, every planner’s career can be a page-turner.

This post is the first in a series called "A Guide for the Idealist," intended to help young planners launch and navigate their careers. The day-to-day challenges of professional practice often push out time for reflection. Practical matters, like salary, drive many career decisions. When you look back at the end of your career, however, it will form a story, whether it's made deliberately or through happenstance. Reflecting on your planning career while you are doing it will produce the best outcome. You will better match your passion and talents with the world’s needs.

There are many ways to consider your path, including getting feedback from supervisors and mentors, engaging in individual reflection (through journaling, for example), and creating a community of like-minded planners for discussions. Just like planning, career reflection considers vision and goals (the ends) and the strategies for achieving them (the means).

You can’t make a blueprint for your career, however, like an old-fashioned master plan. The work environment is too dynamic for that, and more importantly, your goals and perspectives change over time. Neither you nor the world will hold still for that kind of career planning. Instead, consider Lew Hopkins’ metaphor of planning as paddling a canoe in a moving stream — you don’t control current, but you do have a paddle. It is better to choose how you navigate the stream than let the current carry you where it will. Canoers assertively seek the smooth, deep water in the flow — and you should too.

Consider developing your own career infographic. Miguel’s infographic shows that not all his jobs were ideal, individual mentors were key, and professional development played a major role, leading to a satisfying job in health planning.

If you are looking for your first planning job, find the best fit you can, but by all means get started. If you are working in planning, reflect on your current job as way of considering future steps. Finally, take advantage of APA professional development activities. We planners should use planning tools for own careers as well as for our clients and constituents.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist," here. This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson’s book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: A smartphone displaying a compass app. Pixabay photo (public domain).


About the Author

Richard Willson, FAICP

Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.


September 23, 2016

By Richard Willson, FAICP