I remember standing in front of a room full of successful senior academics, Professors, Readers and an occasional Senior Lecturer who had somehow managed to find their way in.

I asked for a show of hands: “How many of you always knew that this – this type of job, this type of role – was where you were going to end up?” and before the words were barely off my lips, hands shot into the air in front of me.

The myth of successful career management is that progression towards this successful goal is largely linear.

Yes, there are challenges, mountains to climb even and unexpected twists in the road. But the worthy, successful professional, keeps their eyes single-mindedly on the goal and forges ahead.

The thing is, that, on that day, only 10% of the people in the room raised their hands in front of the group.

There was a tangible puzzlement in the pause that followed before someone broke the silence, asking their colleagues “Didn’t you always know?”.

The first brave soul – a full professor of many years standing – hesitantly explained “Well, no. I knew what I wanted but then…” and revealed a story of how real life happened and interrupted her earlier dreams.

She was joined by others telling of treading water because of not being able to get a fixed-term contract renewed, taking career breaks for having children or following partners as they moved around the country. One person shared of taking time to recover from burnout, others of accepting a role with less challenge for a year or two while caring for frail parents.

I seems from my subjective experience, that the 10% of people who experienced the challenging but relatively linear career path set a cultural expectation that left the 90% of people in the room who meandered their way to success somehow feeling less worthy.

I’ve not done a global survey but I suspect that the people who juggle career goals with real life goals make up a majority of our workforce.

I know organisations and different professions do have their own paths and structures but it seems to me that we mostly provide resources and reward to support the firmly focussed 10% while allowing the 90% who muddle through the middle, to fear that it means they are failing.

At a personal level, the consequences of this can be crushing. At an organisational level, it feels like we are failing to protect an enormous pool of talent that we have invested in for the previous 10 years or more.

As a coach I know that sometimes, even reminding people that there will be a way through the messy middle is resource enough to change their perspective and enthusiasm.

As a consultant, I wonder what might happen if we provided structures and support to allow people to find their way to the next stage at their own pace. Can we normalise the messy middle?

The exact circumstances might be different for each of us but maybe most people experience some version of this juggling of important life goals with our professional career.

It doesn’t mean we don’t care about our careers, just that we can care about several things. Rather than abandoning our career goals we can learn from the journey.

Could we could support career breaks, holding open the option of rejoining the workforce in the future. Can we create pathways allowing people to re-skill or up-skill on their return and bring their experience with them, back into our organisations?

And what if we didn’t penalise people for needing or wanting to take a break? It seems that the popularity and success of 4-day-week initiatives shows that a singular focus on work is not the best way to motivate most people.

Perhaps having additional priorities in our lives means that we have more, not less, creativity to invest in solving the professional challenges ahead of us?

During my time of employment as an academic I didn’t see much of this in practice but I know it would have been welcome.

What do you think?

Are you part of the 10% or the 90%? Maybe you could reply to this email and fill-in my data gap!

If you are in one of those organisations, let me know, what does happen or what do you think could happen to help people navigate the messy middle and bring their wisdom through to the other side?

I’d love to hear your suggestions!