Is your job a maze or a labyrinth?

Too many wrong turns can throw you off your career path. Make sure your current job is not hurting your progress!

woman standing in brown field while looking sideways
Photo by Burst on Unsplash

Labyrinths and mazes may look similar, but at their core they’re completely different.

A maze has many options, many points at which you can go left, right, or straight. This sounds like a good thing – who doesn’t like choices, right? But in mazes most of the choices are wrong turns.

A labyrinth twists and winds, but there is only ever one way to go: forward. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and you’ll eventually make it out.

There’s a useful metaphor here for the working world. There are many jobs out there that look great but hurt us in the long term.

Consider a job where you’re the only IT person. You get to learn a bit of everything: Exchange, Active Directory, you name it. You have to know it all because you’re the only one who maintains it. You also get to be in charge of all the projects since no one else is technical enough to lead them, nor do they know enough to override you. (Nice!) As the fix-it person, you might even command a lot of respect and be generally well liked.

Jobs like these feel great for your ego!

They also falsely convince you that you’re learning a ton. And truth be told, you will learn a lot up front. But, over time what is likely to end up happening is that your growth will be stunted.

If you’re the smartest person in the room (at least, in a technical sense,) then who are you learning from? Who are you picking up good habits from? Is anyone correcting you when you’re not following best practices, or is everyone satisfied as long as everything keeps working?

If you’re the only IT person, how will promotions work? What’s the point to promoting you if you’re still going to do exactly the same work as before? There’s no incentive on the part of management to promote you in such a case, since they’d have to pay you more while still getting the same amount of work from you. Do you randomly offer to pay more for a service while getting nothing else in return? (If so, please send me money!)

I’m not saying to pass up that first job offer – go ahead and take it to get your foot in the door. But if you land in a place where you’re only learning what you’re teaching yourself, you should aim to be out of there by the end of your first year. (Anything less than one year does look bad on the résumé, so do stay the full year.) Just don’t stay long enough to anchor in all the bad habits you’ll be teaching yourself.

You want to be at a job where you have a clear path for promotion. This is not just to get an empty title. You want to be able to pass off work to more junior team members as you take on greater responsibilities. You can’t do that if you’re the only techie at your job. At the same time, you want someone more senior (and technically smarter than you, hopefully,) to be delegating work down to you so they can focus on bigger projects.

That’s win-win for you: you’re not stuck doing the same thing forever, and you’re progressively inheriting more challenging work. As time goes by, you will become much more technically proficient and knowledgeable. This will also look good on your résumé: potential employers you interview with will see a clear career progression, which shows you’re growing. If your job title is the same for ten years, that communicates stagnation.

You may be tempted to stay in stagnant situations by a variety of things. At my first job, my official title was “Network Administrator” even though all I did was IT support. A trumped up title is a big lure for some people. Other places pay very well at the start – sometimes even better than average. That will quickly level off if you’re not offered frequent raises.

But the most devious of temptations to stay in a bad job is a light workload. Don’t be happy that you get to spend all your time on Reddit at work – the warning bells should be ringing. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you can use the time to study and learn on your own. While some very disciplined learners might be able to learn as much as someone in a good workplace, most people won’t be able to keep up. You will fall behind steadily.

Don’t let your career go off track for any of these reasons. Take a good look at each job you ever hold down: are you constantly moving forward or are you going deeper into the maze?  

With each post, I cover a new topic to help you get your start (or keep progressing) in your IT career with the ultimate goal of achieving financial independence. If it’s your first time visiting this blog, start here. Or, see all my posts about interview questions you should definitely be prepared for.