What Does it Really Mean to “Get Ahead”?

contractFor a long time, a successful career was signified by receiving a shiny gold watch to commemorate your 30 or 40 years of loyal service to a single company. Getting ahead meant dedication, dependability, loyalty, putting your head down, getting your work done and following the rules.

For Baby Boomers, getting ahead took on a much different look. Think about the movies Wall Street or Baby Boom: power suit, power tie, power briefcase… huge shoulder pads. How very 1980s! It was all about influence, wealth and leverage. Everyone was eager to get ahead and more than a few people sacrificed their personal relationships.

Those who came of age in the 1990s embraced the idea of getting ahead by being their own boss. In fact, 87 percent of Gen X said they wanted their own business. This wave of entrepreneurs coupled with this “thing” called the Internet paved the way for Yahoo, Google and AOL. All of a sudden, people were clamoring for office space, patents, domain addresses and IPOs. Young people everywhere wanted to retire as millionaires before turning 40, 30…even 20-years-old!

That brings us to today where the rules are being rewritten yet again, and people are making more career changes in their 20’s than other generations experienced in a lifetime. I actually met someone last week whose son had 20 different jobs before he turned 30! These days, getting ahead involves much more than just slowly creeping up the corporate ladder or clawing your way to the top at any expense. In the age of instant makeovers, YouTube and reality shows, anyone can have a voice, be discovered, land a television show or get paid for doing just about anything people want to see. Success isn’t one-size-fits-all – it’s totally customizable.

I read a blog by Ryan Healy of Employee Evolution, which focuses on Millennials at work, and he said, “I don’t know anyone who will walk in the door of GE on their first day and think, ‘I’m going to do anything and everything I can for this company because they really care about me!’ This is because loyalty is a two-way street. The company must earn your loyalty and you must earn theirs.” He couldn’t be more accurate.

The notion of “getting ahead” will undoubtedly continue to morph but as generations and paradigms collide in the workplace, it’s important to know a little history. Even if you are determined to change all the rules and do things your way, your path will be more smooth and successful if you remember to show respect to the people who have been there and done that for a lot longer. Have your big ideas, shake things up, and place yourself in environments that embrace your ideas and strengths, but also make sure those opportunities and people can mentor you and help you see the world in a way that only experience can teach you. All the while, keep in mind that hard work, loyalty, integrity and passion will never get old.