Your career. A marathon, not a sprint…?


Career Insights Series

By Patrick Tambor

Tambor speaker

Has anyone ever told you to think of your career as a marathon?  It’s certainly been part of the business vernacular for some time; just Google the phrase and you’ll see articles and posts attributed to a number of well-respected sources, from consultants to bloggers to university publications. There are some valuable lessons to be found in the analogy – pace yourself, plan for the long haul, wear the right shoes – but marathons can be a real slog. Aside from a few elite runners, participants often look terrible as they cross the finish line; pounding it out for 26 miles, celebrating, possibly collapsing, as this singular goal is achieved.

Kudos to all those who can pull it off, but I don’t like it as a way to describe a career. What about careers as a series of sprints?  Each with its own story, challenge, competition, and outcome. You win or lose, set or don’t set your personal best time – and then you get the chance to do it again. Yes, you run like hell when the gun sounds, but between sprints there will be time to rest, recover, train, or even step away from the track altogether. That feels more like life to me.

Your career is not one, long run to a known destination; it is many, with multiple starts, stops, finishes, and breaks. And since there are many, sprints come in various forms, in big and small moments – a meeting, a presentation, an interview, a chance encounter in the elevator with the CEO. Therefore it is important to know when you are in a sprint, as it may come without warning. Have you been asked to share your insights? Articulate a point of view?  Write an email to the big boss? Whatever the opportunity, if you choose to run, go all out – it’s one sprint in a lifetime of them. If you decide not to run, or don’t get to, know that there will be other chances.

Sprint versus marathon is a shift in mind-set, but one that fits how work is increasingly performed today in organizations like IBM – project-based, agile, with teams forming and breaking up as required to get the job done – and in the emerging ‘gig’ economy, where individuals take on periodic assignments in freelance mode. When you look back on a career of sprints, it may seem like a single stretch of activity, and it helps the mind (and often, one’s job search) to apply a certain amount of retroactive logic to it all.  But I recommend taking on each one as if none occurred before it and none will happen again. Then rest, get ready, and do it again.


The Career Insights series consists of articles offering advice on entering the world of work, the more unconventional paths you may take and how you can work to achieve your goals. Stay tuned to receive deeper insights into the dynamic nature of the world of work.

Patrick Tambor is Transformation, Talent & Learning Leader with IBM. You can find him on  linkedin

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