Why Career Mapping Might Be Your Job Game Changer

Taking the time to actually plan out all the steps of your career probably doesn’t sound particularly enticing. After all, who knows what could happen down the road, right? And while some people have a crystal clear picture in their minds of where they hope to be in the future career-wise, most actually aren’t too sure where they are headed or how they’re going to get there. Enter: career mapping.

What Is Career Mapping?

Career mapping involves putting together a plan of where you think your career will go in the years to come. Not only do you outline your goals in the near and far future, but you also mark down the steps you’ll need to take to get there—whether your dream is being the CEO of a huge company or creating your own one-woman tech startup.

Ahead, get step-by-step tips straight from career experts on how to create an effective personal career map, plus how to stick with it through life’s inevitable twists and turns.

Woman on a cell phone at a busy street corner
Christian Vierig/ Getty Images

Evaluate Your Current Situation

You can’t figure out where you’re going until you know where you are, so the first thing you should do is take stock. “Think of yourself as a project,” recommends Jeanne Patti, a career coach who advises clients on career mapping. “Conduct a discovery of yourself, and think of this as the most important collection of ‘data’ you will have in your career,” she recommends. Take some time to write down what you see as your best skills, traits, passions, and talents. Understand what excites you and makes you feel engaged. According to Patti, this should be your framework for all of the other steps you take to build your career map moving forward.

Flesh out Your Goals

The best thing about charting your own course? You get to make all of the decisions. “Your career map is completely up to you,” emphasizes Heather Monahan, a career expert, and best-selling author. The timing, scope, and end goal are totally customizable. It can also be helpful to both long- and short-term objectives when putting together your map, or even just focus on one or the other. “If you are clear that you want to own your own company by the time you are 35, then you need to create a map that will get you there. If you are clear that you want to advance into management in your current role, then you can start with a smaller map to get your first management position,” Monahan says.

Equally important is figuring out what your goals are not. “Take an assessment of your priorities and see if any fall in the category of habits,” Patti advises. “Habits are those things that you are doing because others (parents, teachers, bosses) have pointed you in that direction, not because you like them. Clear your list of these habits and instead focus on the things you are doing because you love to do them.”

Make Things Manageable

While having lofty goals is awesome, it’s also crucial to set attainable expectations, says Jaclyn Johnson, founder of Create & Cultivate. “Don’t necessarily shoot for the moon, but also don’t low-ball yourself,” she recommends. Creating a timeline that’s requiring too much of yourself too soon can be a recipe for disaster. And make sure your objectives are meaningful to you, not just those around you. “Milestones should be realistic and built around what success looks like for you personally, versus what success in society looks like.”

Be Flexible

One of the biggest issues people have with career mapping is that it can box people into specific roles and goals when it might be better for them to be more open-minded. What happens when you get an unexpected opportunity or life events get in the way of your map? “One of the most painful mistakes I see people making is having a defined vision for the future and trying to achieve it at all costs,” Patti explains. “This can be avoided by taking stock of all things ‘you’ and focusing on what truly engages you,” she says. In other words, if you find that following your map isn’t making you happy or you want to try out something different, don’t be afraid to check in with yourself and see where you can make some changes. Industries and technologies evolve over time, too, so it’s important to know that some of your long-term goals might get changed by circumstances outside of your control.

Include Personal Objectives

"You should absolutely integrate personal development into your plan, as achieving your personal goals will lead you to a greater level of success," says Lisa Skeete Tatum, co-founder, and CEO of Landit. That means that if you want to earn an advanced degree, get a specific professional certification, or even learn another language that might be useful for you in the future, it should go on the map. Lifestyle considerations should also be accounted for. For example, if you want to be able to eventually reach four weeks of vacation per year or even get to a point where you can make time to train for a marathon, put it in your plan! 

Keep It Visible

Your career map won’t help you much if you forget about it. Luckily, there are lots of ways to make sure you check in with your plan either daily, weekly, or monthly. “Setting reminders in your phone and computer will help to jog your memory when you are getting caught up in the day-to-day,” says Monahan. Everyone has a different method that’s most effective for them, but with some trial and error, you should be able to pinpoint what works for you. Whether it's getting creative with sticky note reminders to yourself or creating a vision board, there are endless options for keeping your map in mind. “I like to check in with myself right before bed,” Monahan adds. “Some people meditate, some journal, others reflect—but whatever you choose, it is necessary to check-in and make sure that the steps that you are taking each day are moving you where you want to go. No one can do that work for you.”

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