Is a Project-Based Career for You?

This post is by Lindsey Long, a Los Angeles-based writer specializing in business, science, and technology. She is a proponent of entrepreneurship, Great Danes, and Oxford commas. Follow her @lindseylong.

The path to success used to be as follows: Find something you like and excel in, acquire the appropriate degrees or certifications, secure an entry-level job at a solid company, and work your way to the top. Indeed, some people just seem born to follow a certain career path: the little girl who uses a stethoscope on the family dog becomes a veterinarian, the kid who runs the most profitable lemonade stand in the neighborhood gets an MBA and becomes a CEO.

These stories have become the exception rather than the rule. More workers are choosing multiple careers than ever before, especially younger people. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that members of the youngest working generation are much more likely than older generations to say they expect to switch careers in their lifetimes. In fact, the majority of 18 to 29 year olds surveyed had already switched careers at least once. Entrepreneurship rates in the U.S. are at an all-time high and there is a similar surge in freelance workers. Put all these factors together and you’ve got a major shift in the way careers develop.

So why are you still trying to figure out what you want to be? Perhaps, you don’t have to choose. One alternative is a project-based career path, which means this: You consider everything you do to be a “project,” rather than a rung on the ladder. You take on jobs you are interested in and passionate about. You create your own projects, which could be in the form of traditional job positions, freelance gigs, or startup activities. Maybe these projects last a few months, maybe a few years. Each activity is self-contained rather than a career stepping stone.

While this type of path usually doesn’t lead straight to the C-suite, more and more workers are finding this type of journey fulfilling. Here’s why:

You get to learn new things.

A 2012 MTV survey found that 89% of young workers agree that “it’s important to be constantly learning at my job.” What better way to ensure lifelong learning than by switching it up every so often?

You can create your ideal work-life balance.

Flexibility is more important than ever, with 59% of workers saying they would consider non-traditional options like consulting or contracting to maintain a better work-life balance, according to a 2013 Mom Corps survey.

You have a chance to be everything you want to be.

The digital generation has been exposed to so many different things, they often have lengthy bucket lists. A project-based career allows workers to add to their life experience banks and achieve mini-goals rather than working for long-term positions or titles.

Those interested in traditional careers—doctor, lawyer, teacher, accountant—can still follow tried-and-true paths to success and stability. But the truth is that a smaller proportion of careers follow straight paths than ever before, and this trend isn’t likely to slow anytime soon. Many workers can find success and personal contentment by following a project-based path.

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  • R Smith

    Agreed. Tough, nimble-minded career approach is everything. This climate will almost certainly create some complexity when the dust settles. Either people won’t be specialized enough – a wealth of fringe experts, or we will find ourselves with a surprisingly versatile workforce. I tell my prospective employees this all the time – we place high value on the ability to not only operate, but excel across a broad spectrum with regards to progressing their careers.

  • Katherine

    Very insightful article! This project-based career model is well-suited for Millenials. They value flexibility. They value work-life balance. They have already had to be resourceful with their careers after entering the workforce recession. Looking forward to reading more!