Career Topography – An Exercise

Mapping your own career is a tried and true way of getting a bearing on your position in your career track as it stands right now.

Performance Reviews are part and parcel to team administration, but what is all the fuss about, and how are they supposed to work?

How are you standing compared to where you’d like to be, or your eventual career goal?This is great when you know exactly what you want from your professional life. But what if you’re not sure?

This is a little exercise that can take up a bit of an afternoon, but it’s a lot of fun and greatly visualizes your career path from your early education to your latest exploits. It’s based around two fixed points that you already know: your starting education (high school for example) and your current position.

Flow Like A River, Sting Like A Rock

Rule number one is that a river flows from high to low, so start by marking one “edge” of a piece of paper with a line representing the sea. This is where your career flows towards, and is the “direction” of your lines.

There are three basic kinds of “objects” you will put on the map, which influences how your river runs. They are Waterfalls (abrupt changes in your career, representing a break from the previous flow), Rapids (which represent a promotion from a previous position, whether a new position that is a direct upgrade, or an upgrade in seniority) and Lakes (which represent a potential career option you had, but which eventually did not progress).

If a lake exists, it can either mean the end of a branch of that river, which means you branch off the “dead” end from your career path, or it can spawn a new river at a later time (for example if you go back to that career option at a later date, meaning that your current career becomes a dead end).


Here is my current “career river” I drew for myself. As you can see my studies prepared me for “middle management in a Japanese-style company” but I never actually continued along that track. Instead, after a period of unemployment I joined Fujitsu as a customer service representative. This is a new track, since it’s very different from what I was aiming towards.

I received a promotion when I became a Second Line, but from there I found no clear career options. Team Leadership might have been an option here, looking back, but that is nicely represented by the Lake and dead end at Middle Management.

Instead I was scouted for the company’s Solution Group and asked to help streamline the Proposal process for Presales. This eventually became the Proposal Specialist role after the merger in 2010.

You can see that after that there was a crossroads of sorts, where I had a choice to make between continuing on along the informed route of becoming an Engagement Manager (a clear upgrade, so a Rapid) or heading Capability Development (a change in career, so a Waterfall).

And that is where I am at now. It’s a simple, but clear representation of what my career has gone through, showing what I can do and what skills lay in my past and how they’ve affected the flow of the roles I took.


Modifying The Career River

There are quite a few modifications you can make to this exercise based on specific events in your professional life that you want to detail. For example, you could vary the width of the line based on how successful you felt you were in that particular track.

Similarly, you could add the skills to each of your jobs or roles, and mark those that are in use across multiple roles you have and had, which would give you a pretty good indicator what you’d be investing your future education into.

Another option to take is to also make a “career river” for your manager or close colleagues, and overlay them to see if there are connection points or lacunas which you could take advantage of in your current position.

Reading The Map

The next phase is to draw some basic conclusions from what you’re seeing. Is your career a straight flow or a meandering, wild rapid?

If you feel dissatisfied with your career and had few Waterfalls, perhaps you might need to shake up your career expectations and push the envelope. If you had a lot of Waterfalls and Lakes instead, that dissatisfaction might be tempered by staying the course and calming down the changes you make.

Try and see if you can consider for yourself what you’d like to see as your endpoint, your “career retirement position” and add it to the map, near the sea. That’s your goal. What would you need to change in your flow to reach it? How many years do you have available to reach that place?

If you feel stuck in your career and don’t have a clear idea where to go, doing this might give you a heading to sail for, and inspire you to explore skills you used earlier in your career, or double-back on abandoned career options that previously did not work out for you.


The Career River is a small but meaningful exercise that gives you a new perspective of your career so far, and might inform possibilities in the future. Used in an exploratory fashion, it is meant to inspire and give hope for the future.



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