Career advice I wish I'd heard at 30: Not every career has a ladder

Photo by sophie & cie.

If I could relay one piece of advice to my younger professional self, it would be this: Not every career has a ladder. In fact, some of the best ones don’t.

Early on in life, we’re drilled with the idea of “the path”—the notion of a series of incremental steps you follow to achieve success in any field. You study hard in school, get accepted into the right program in university, apply for the right job and work your way up—a steady, predictable climb to the top.

A different aspiration

Only that wasn’t working for me. In my late 20s, I’d wandered off the path, and I wasn’t sure whether I’d made a serious mistake. I’d always thought of myself as a writer. I had studied English in university, then gone on to get a master’s degree in journalism. But as graduation approached, and my classmates were securing jobs at TV stations, newspapers and PR firms, I couldn’t bring myself to apply. I had a different aspiration—one that didn’t fit into a neatly defined career trajectory.

I wanted to be a freelance journalist: to choose my own assignments, to pursue stories I found compelling in as much depth as was required, and to work in other countries and amid other cultures. But there was no class in my master’s program on freelance journalism. There were no internships in freelancing. Suddenly, the path that had seemed so well-defined disappeared.

Becoming a freelance journalist

So, I tried to find my own way—blindly at first, but earnestly. I moved abroad. I hunted down interesting stories. I looked up editors’ email addresses and barraged them with ideas for articles. Not surprisingly, of the dozens—maybe hundreds—of pitches I sent out, not one was accepted. In fact, most proposals didn’t even receive a response.

But then, one did. One editor was willing to give me a shot. I took it.

Be willing to make your own opportunities

"In the absence of a career path, I’ve realized that one characteristic is absolutely essential: hustle."

I sold my first article almost a decade ago, and I’ve been a freelance writer ever since. The path certainly hasn’t been a direct or predictable one. There have been setbacks and dead ends. But I can say without hesitation that I’ve grown immeasurably as a writer and as a professional in that time. From a bird’s-eye view, I imagine that my career path would look not like a highway, cutting cleanly from point A to point B, but like a river—meandering at times, sometimes rushing, sometimes still, but always pulsing toward an end.

In the absence of a career path or career ladder, however, I’ve realized that one characteristic is absolutely essential: hustle. You have to be willing to make your own opportunities and create openings where no clear route forward exists. Being a decent writer isn't enough. To succeed at freelancing, you also have to develop a set of complementary skills. You have to become, in essence, an entrepreneur. Success depends in large part on promoting yourself and your ideas, meeting and networking with the right circle of people, sustaining a revenue stream, and putting out a viable business product.

About the author

Remy Scalza began his career as a journalist, contributing to the Washington Post, New York Times and Globe and Mail. He has earned national and international awards for feature stories on business, travel and technology.

After years of interviewing executives at leading companies, he recognized a need for writing and publishing services designed for thought leaders. He established C-Suite Content to provide guidance for high-profile business leaders interested in sharing their thoughts with a wider audience.

Over the years, Scalza has worked with some of Canada’s leading tech companies, helping executives craft and publish thought leadership content in Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune and other publications. He holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication.