Tip of the Week: Try Searching Instead of Planning for Career Success


Instead of planning your career top down, you might find a bottom up search process more effective. Planning works for well-defined and well-understood situations — for example, following a well-trod career path such as medicine or law. Searching relies on trial and error and adjusting your actions based on what’s happening moment by moment. Searching can be more effective for new and uncertain contexts such as you find on the quickly changing web.

This week’s tip was inspired by an unusual source: journalist Virginia Postrel writing on aid provided to developing countries. She points to an Atlantic article by Sarah Chayes about U.S. funding agencies’ lack of interest in providing help with a small-scale development effort in Afghanistan.

Postrel says, “Aid agencies reward ‘planners,’ who work from the top down, while effective aid requires ‘searchers,’ who rely on trial and error and local knowledge.” In that case, the local knowledge includes understanding of current micro-level cultural and economic factors.

In the case of web work, you will also need to use local knowledge — knowledge of whatever field you want to succeed in as well as understanding of the financial constraints and opportunities you face. One great way to get that local knowledge is through action and experimentation.

To use a search strategy to move forward in your career, take small steps towards what you think you might like to do (and what might reward you financially), stopping and checking often to see if you’re getting the results you want. When you search, you’ll spend relatively more time acting and checking results and relatively less time setting goals and trying to predict an uncertain future.

Do you resonate with the idea of searching? Or are you more of a planner?



For those looking at trying to integrate creativity into their working life, I recommend Carol Lloyd’s “Creating a Life Worth Living.” I’ve been working through it for several chapters now and have learned a great deal about what I like and what I need from working. What I like most about it is that you actually have to do the work and it’s not the usual crap about satisfying your “inner child.”

Graham Douglas

Yes and you can train yourself to apply integrative thinking when negotiating the change from what you have to what you want in all circumstances. On my website I offer low-cost tools for doing this.


I’d say this is a good strategy for ‘career success’ in US. But a different strategy would be better in developing countries like India and China. Given the amount of competition in traditional careers(medicine, engineering, management etc.), a lot of planning is required once you have done your initial search for what field one wants to get into.


Thanks for the post. I would add that the top down approach invites a large amount of procrastination. You know: “I’m going to make a big move once I finally figure out what it is that I want to do.” That attitude kept me at a job for 7 years. I finally made a smaller change in my job (same company, different group), and that really helped me understand what I liked, what I didn’t like, what I wanted more of, etc.

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