There is no shortage of career analogies, but this one is my favorite. It’s a pragmatic and optimistic way of viewing a career journey, and if a better analogy exists, I have yet to hear it.
Unfortunately, this message isn’t my original thought, but I’ve always considered it a gift I get to share with others – In the same way that it was a gift to me.
I first heard it in my mid-20s, and I’ve since shared it dozens, if not hundreds, of times. It resonated perfectly when I first heard it and was much needed at that point in my career.
I’m sharing it now, hoping it will have an equally positive impact on any students and young professionals who apply self-imposed pressure to achieve career success quickly.
Parents, you may benefit from reading this, too.
This is an analogy comparing a professional career with that of a college football player.
First, consider a career timeline in decades by age – 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.
Now consider a college football player’s timeline in years – freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior.
Yes, a college football player. Bear with me.
So you’re a freshman in your 20s, a sophomore in your 30s, etc.
Freshman season – your 20s
A typical freshman football player is there to absorb. To learn the game at a new level and to figure out how and where they fit on the team. They need to build relationships and trust while establishing a reputation.
There are always outliers, but the bottom line is this: Nobody expects a freshman to be a star. In fact, approximately half of all players redshirt during their freshman year, which means they won’t step on the field in a game. Their job is to study, work hard in practice, and improve for the future.
You’re still early in your professional career if you’re in your 20s – even your late 20s. Focus on the future and do the things that will lead to success in the years to come. This career stage is less about immediate achievements and more about building a foundation for the future.
Sophomore season – your 30s
The expectations for sophomores increase, but it’s okay if they need more time to earn significant playing time. While many will become starters, it’s only year two of four – not even halfway through their time on the team. They should focus on improving daily while being prepared to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
The same goes for professionals in their 30s. They still have a long runway ahead, with plenty of time to find their place to shine. It isn’t to say they should sit back and wait – far from it – but the highest levels of success often take longer to materialize. Feeling impatient is fine as long as it is channeled into growth and development instead of frustration.
Junior season – your 40s
Juniors are upperclassmen who have had time to develop physically and emotionally. Their value to the team should be easy to define.
Not every player needs to be on the field to make a significant positive impact, but it’s time to be a star in whatever role they have on the team.
Professionals in their 40s should be making their mark, too, and if that’s not happening, there’s a reality that must be considered. You should be hitting your professional stride, and if you aren’t, it’s time to take a hard, honest look at your situation and make necessary changes.
You don’t have to be where you want to end up financially or professionally by the time you’re in your 40s, but you should be well on the path.
This is a good point to acknowledge that not all players will succeed with the team they are on, just as many career paths require a change in direction.
For players, perhaps the team’s system isn’t a good fit for their skill set, they’re unable to compete physically, or they simply decide they no longer like playing football.
A similar realization can happen during a professional journey. Anyone can end up on the wrong path, but nobody should feel compelled to stay on it.
A change is needed when the problem is unsolvable or career success and happiness will remain beyond reach.
Senior season – your 50s
We all know the success stories:
- Colonel Sanders started KFC at age 62
- Julia Child wrote her first cookbook at 50
- Joseph Campbell started his canned goods company at 52
And many legendary football players only became stars in their senior (or even fifth) year.
But this isn’t meant to be advice about beating the odds, which I wouldn’t recommend as a strategy for career success.
It’s about recognizing that a career time horizon is much longer than most young people can see. It’s about acknowledging that meaningful achievements are usually the byproduct of consistent effort over many years.
And it’s about accepting that you don’t need to have all the answers early.
The moral of the story? Play the long game. Work hard. Learn. Focus on being better tomorrow than you are today.
And, most importantly, always remember that it’s not about how fast you start – it’s how you finish the race that counts.