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Careers are like carpets

If you’d been with me on one Saturday morning at our village shopping mall you would have found me with my two young sons sitting atop mounds of beautiful carpets.

Mirage, who owns the shop, is enthusiastic and utterly hospitable as always. He makes us feel at home here amidst the lovely smells of wool and dust. Now if Mirage depended on us for his livelihood, his shop would no longer be in business, so we were not here to buy a carpet.

“Hello Andrew! How beautiful are your boys! Hello George, hello Sam!”

Mirage is tall and lean with sharp features, a ready smile and perfectly groomed jet-black hair.  As he speaks, he has the gentleness of the Persian people. 

We are each perched on a mound of carpets so high our legs dangle off the size not touching the ground. Don’t you love feeling that roughness as you pull your hands against the grain and watch the colour change before smoothing it back again? And smell the earth and the dust of the desert as you do.

Our conversation, as always, shifts from life to carpets and back to life, then back to carpets. We don’t have or collect Persian rugs, other than a small one at the fireplace I bought with a long service award many years before. And we were not there to start our collection.

“You know Andrew, I have this very beautiful carpet” said Mirage

“It really is very unusual. It’s a Shiraz and I know you love those best. I don’t think I will sell this one easily, so you can have it at half price if you like it.”

We watch in anticipation as he pulls it out from the bottom of a pile of irregularly sized hand-woven rugs. It had what looked like two large sheep on it, lovely colours and then some people with swords. It needed some work, but we loved it. But the conversation was far from done.

 “There are many things in this carpet,’ he explained. “The people who weave these carpets put things in them that are around them. See, here is a bird. Here is a small deer. Sometimes they also weave their history into it. In the middle here are Persian Warriors. War was always a part of the history of Persia.”

“These carpets are also woven by many people in a family. You will see the patterns are a bit different in each corner which makes them unique and very personal.”

“The colours also change. See, the orange is darker there. Sometimes wool that has been dyed with a colour may run out as winter approaches. The family will then move to the south of Iran where it is warmer, near the city of Shiraz, the most ancient city in Iran. There they will go into the mountains and find pomegranate skins to create a similar colour, so it will not always be the same.”

“The sides are not straight because it is made by hand and not always a perfect shape. But it is beautiful in its own way and it will have energy in it. It will have the energy of all the people that worked on it. Sometimes that is the prayer of a mother who needs clothing for her children and that energy will attract people to it.”

We collected our carpet a few days later after it had been cleaned. That evening my son Sam invited us to a picnic on our new carpet. The room was filled with candles to create a magic cave of energy and over the next few months, before it went to its home in our offices, it became a favourite gathering place.

It now has pride of place in our offices in Cape Town. It attracts more compliments than any other item we have and creates energy; the energy of the people that made it. The wonderful colour and art reflect the time it took to weave. The different patterns reflect the history of its creation. And some of the colours reflect a change in seasons.

I don’t believe we ever weave our careers alone, our weaving family will be many wonderful people along our path who have encouraged, chided and supported us.

Every bit of our education and experience and creativity are now integral parts of the beauty of the career carpets we weave.

Careers paths are no longer linear. We will each make a unique contribution to a very changing workplace. And we will change. We too may have to go into the hills to find pomegranate skins when the weather changes.

Perhaps it’s time to take stock of what you have already woven. Perhaps it’s time to appreciate what you have learned and achieved; time to stop, look back to see how far you’ve come.

Some carpets are woven over a few months, others over many years, so this is not a quick fix.

Whenever you are faced with a new decision – “do I or don’t I do this?” – ask yourself: “How does this help me weave my carpet? What could I learn from this? What exposure will it give me? What people would it connect me with? What will I learn to do that I will need on my way?”

And when you are getting discouraged or feeling lost, don’t ignore or forget what you have already achieved.

How do you jump?

I received a phone call one day that started like this: “Hoe spring jy?” (How do you jump?)

“Where do you want to jump to?” I enquired cautiously, wondering whether the caller, who introduced himself as Johan, had the right number.

“Well, I heard the way to make a career change is to find the courage to jump. They said you’re the right guy to speak to.”

“What kind of jump did you have in mind?” I explored more confidently, now that I knew he was not standing on the ledge of a tall building.

“It’s time to do my own thing. I want my own business. I have had enough. But how do you know when it’s time?”

“You know Johan, it takes courage to jump. But you don’t just jump, you weave a carpet.”


Perhaps he now wondered whether he had the right number, so I quickly moved on.

I explored his new venture, his potential client base, where he would work from, what else he had in place and particularly who would buy from him if he was forced to open his business by the following week.

He had at least an 18-month preparation period before he could leave a good job and an income that supported him and his family.

In other words, he had some carpet weaving to do.

The art of carpet weaving

Carpet weaving is an alternative to merely waiting until one bright day you are brave enough to make a move – or take a leap. It sometimes takes weeks, other times months and often years to create a career that matters to you.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’ has popularised the concept of 10 000 hours. In other words, those who have achieved what may look very simple, have in fact invested at least 10 000 hours of hard work, persistence and dedication in order to succeed.

Each of the chapters of your work life will already have contributed in some way to your career carpet. But perhaps it’s time for you to weave your carpet more actively.

Carpet weaving includes formal and informal learning, building relationships, engaging in personal development, doing research, establishing a network and beginning to market what you do to people who may, at some stage, need someone like you. 

How carpet weaving can help you

  • Focus your studies
    It will help you focus your studies to support your future career, or simply keep at them when it’s getting tough. You’ve lost your line of sight and its unclear whether you are going anywhere.
  • Prepare your business
    It will help you prepare the ground for a business before you start out on your own.
  • Actively develop yourself for future roles
    It will help you develop yourself for future roles in the corporate workplace.
  • Actively research career and business options
    It will help you research possible career options before you commit to further development or cost.
  • Perspective and better decision-making
    It provides a vision so that, as you take on projects, you will be aware of how each contributes to your growth. It will help you make tough decisions when you have to ask, “Which of these alternatives best satisfies what is important to me and allows me to do my best work?”
  • Manage transition jobs
    It will help you get through some jobs you dislike, but which may be important for your career ahead.
  • Keep you focused
    It will help you stay focused as you are faced with attractive, but distracting sideshows.
  • Use money and other resources intelligently
    It will help you manage cash so that it supports, rather than sabotages your plans.
  • Kill the overwhelm
    It will help you manage what seems overwhelming, in manageable chunks.
  • Energy and motivation to keep going
    It will provide the impetus to finish that thesis or study project that you keep putting aside. It will also help to motivate you when the road feels lonely and it seems no one else understands your journey.

When you lose your way

Adrian visited me because he wanted to give up on his internship. He was bored, it was interfering with his social life and after many years of formal study felt he had had enough. He had been working part-time for a business that was providing assistance to people who could not afford the services they provided.

He was excited as he spoke about the business’s vision to expand and how much he wanted to be part of that.

We explored what the business did, its plans to grow, the support he was currently providing and would be able to provide in the future. After not much time at all he said “I can go now, thanks!”

He had reconnected with the vision he had of his own carpet. His studies were an important medallion in the bottom left hand corner. Finishing his internship was a no-brainer if he was going to be able to make the contribution that mattered to himself and the company.

A few years before I had met with a University where faculty members were concerned that post-grad business students were not finishing their degrees.

I have worked with business school students for many years and discovered that many smart, confident and ambitious students have a study plan but no clarity about their career once their studies are completed.

I started a with students one day by asking two questions. “Raise your hands if you are pursuing business studies as part of your own career transition”. Virtually all the hands went up in the room. “And raise your hands again if you are clear about what you will do when you finish your studies.” A smattering of hands went up in the back row.

Many students who start their studies with great enthusiasm, simply don’t have a compelling enough vision to carry them through the tough times and to finish their studies.

Corporate carpet weaving

If you are looking to advance your career in the corporate workplace, you will always be carpet weaving.

That may mean ongoing learning in your field of work, developing yourself personally and taking on new projects that allow you to develop and demonstrate what you can do. It will mean developing relationships with colleagues within the organisation, in different areas of the business and building productive relationships with leaders and decision-makers. It will mean doing research into roles you want to grow into or business areas you may want to be involved in at a later stage. It will always mean making a valuable contribution and good work that matters to you and serves the organisation.

Right now, the corporate workplace is not in good shape. Disengagement, increased levels of anxiety and depression, fear of job loss and underutilisation are undermining productivity and career satisfaction.

When you are not carpet weaving, you can easily feel that what you are doing has no purpose, is not using your best skills and energy and you are simply wasting your time. Often doing the same thing with a new vision in mind changes everything.

Carpet weaving for entrepreneurs and small business owners

If you are considering a new venture that requires a leap of sorts, your carpet weaving may look different, but not exclusively so.

A carpet weaving list may look something like this:

  1. Research the industry or niche you have in mind
  2. Develop a clear business plan
  3. Develop branding, websites, business cards and a social media presence
  4. Find opportunities to test your ideas and get feedback on how other people experience them
  5. Build networks with potential customers
  6. Build relationships with people who can support you and who you can support
  7. Paint your office at home and get some furnishings without breaking the bank
  8. Reserve some cash so that while you are still establishing your business, every visit to the supermarket till is not a stressful experience.

A few years before I left my job in the corporate world, my wife bought me a second-hand metal flipchart for a small amount of cash. I still remember it being the very first step to my own consulting business.

Something as simple as one item can start the ball rolling. 

A Client once told that me that painting a room at home that would later become his office was a critical step and set the ball rolling for him. He now has a very successful media and television company. 

My friend Giosi bought a good hair-dressing chair on an auction. She stored and cared for it until she was able to open her own business.

On my fridge, I have a fridge magnet. It reads: ‘Start anywhere’.

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Weaving a lifestyle

Careers are more than your job. Careers are also about lifestyle; where you live, how you want your work and lifestyle to fit together.

Do you want to live in the country, or in the middle of a bustling city? Do you need to be close to good schools? What country do you want live and work in? Or perhaps live in one and work in the other? Do you want an office, or work with clients on a virtual basis? Do you want to work from home? Many more people do, but it comes with its own issues. The fridge, for example.

Weaving your carpet may mean moving from where you live, building a room to work from, investigating home schooling as an option or finding out what it would take to emigrate if that’s part of your plan.

Weaving your own career carpet

Here are some thoughts and suggestions for your own carpet weaving.

1. Recognise what you have already achieved

Recognise what you have already achieved in your life and your career. Each experience has prepared you in some way for what you want to achieve, even those that didn’t ‘blow your hair back’ at the time. Each event and decision has contributed in some way to where you are now, so take that experience with you.

2. Avoid impulsive leaps

As you increase your own vision, or realise it’s time for change, you don’t have to leap and hope it works out. You can begin to weave it in small bits, one medallion and one border at a time. You will still have to step off the edge once you are ready to fly, but impulsive leaping is not necessarily a requirement.

3. You don’t have to get it all right

You don’t have to get it right first time. You just have to start, sometimes anywhere.  As you do, you may notice that seemingly unrelated things often begin to move too.

4. Start anywhere

No matter where you are now, you may be only one decision away from creating a different career or the life you want. Perhaps the first decision is that you are no longer prepared to live with the status quo. Remember though, that that alone is not enough; you have to make a start.

5. Make sure it’s your carpet

If weaving your carpet creates only stress for you, perhaps you are weaving the wrong carpet. You need to keep checking that you are weaving your own carpet and not someone else’s. Perhaps you are doing the right thing in the wrong way; or being unrealistic about what you can achieve in this space of time. Perhaps you are comparing yourself to someone else; maybe you just keep putting it off – that can sometimes be the most stressful of all. There comes a time to do the work.

6. Get out of your head

The purpose of carpet weaving is to begin to take action in a way that supports what you want to achieve. So, if it doesn’t involve action, it’s not carpet weaving. A good conversation about carpet design, or perhaps the history and benefits of carpets, is not carpet weaving. That’s talking about taking action.

Carpet weaving involves many small steps in the same direction. Carpet weaving means giving up ‘I can’t’ and deciding what action I can take, no matter how insignificant that may seem at the time.

7. Be kind to yourself

If you get it wrong but discover you are still breathing, life has offered you another chance. You have the opportunity to learn from your last move and try again, this time smarter than before.

You don’t need a bolt of lightning or to win the Lotto to start your carpet. Start just where you are with what you have. Arthur Ashe said “Start from where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” There is always something you can do, so do that.

8. Evaluate the opinions of others

Other people may have opinions about the carpet you are weaving. ‘Wrong shape’, ‘wrong colour’, ‘will never sell’. Hear them, take advice, process feedback, but don’t ignore your own heart and intuition. It’s your carpet, not theirs.

9. Make carpet weaving your new hobby

Carpet weaving needs to become part of your daily routine, or it may get lost in daily tasks and low priorities that may be urgent, but less important. You may also become so focused on helping others that your own dream gets lost. What you focus on grows, so if it matters to you, give it your attention so that it does indeed grow.

10. Failure is tough, but it’s not fatal

There is no finish line for success and failing is not fatal. The key is having the courage to keep going.  Keep working on that thing that matters to you. Learn and grow as you go. Remember that failure is not the falling down; it’s the not getting up again.

11. Treat ‘tough’ as your partner

Just because it’s tough, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Some parts of your carpet may be hard to weave; that too has its purpose. Henry Ford said, “Remember that an aeroplane takes off against the wind not with it.” Some resistance may be part of the journey, that’s not a sign that it’s not right.

12. Be patient and do the work

You don’t have to be an instant success. Those who look effortlessly successful have often been weaving persistently for many months and years. Elizabeth Gilbert spent years writing and receiving rejections before her book, Eat, Pray, Love became a bestseller and a movie. Her second book didn’t work, but she simply went back to what she did best and wrote some more.

Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter said that “Timing, perseverance and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.”

13. Start the journey

Carpet weaving is a journey. Your ability to travel far and stay on the train will test your intent.

Nelson Mandela spent his entire life, including 27 years in prison, weaving his carpet. His humility, vision and perseverance changed millions of people’s lives and he has become an icon around the world. 

14. Notice what stays with you

If your dream stays with you and you simply can’t let it go, that is passion. If you are having what Gerard Hughes calls “a hardening of the oughteries”, you may be weaving some else’s carpet. Get back to your own.  Steve Jobs said, “If you are working on something that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.” If you are weaving by obligation, get back to working out what you really want.

15. Exchange speed for persistence

Many people are going nowhere fast. It doesn’t matter how slow you go, as long as you don’t stop. Remember the hare and the tortoise? It’s not always the fast and nimble who make it to the end. Those who start out with a spring in their step aren’t always those who finish the race. Where you are now does not determine where you will end up; that’s just where you are now.

16. Give up waiting for things to happen

Carpet weaving means that you have to give up waiting for things to happen and start to make things happen. You will need to develop the proactivity to lead yourself towards those things that matter to you. Carpet weaving requires daily action. You will not change your life until you change what you do. If you want new outcomes, start doing new things.

17. Be prepared for confusion

Sometimes as you weave your carpet, it can get a bit confusing. You may lose your way and be frustrated that the path ahead is not clear. The writer, Joseph Campbell said, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.” Sometimes the path gets a little blurred and you need some help seeing it from a distance. Be patient with yourself. If it was easy, everyone would be clear about the path ahead.

18. Give up relying on positive feedback

Don’t be dependent on positive feedback and ongoing encouragement from others to keep going. Some recognition once in a while may be nice, but it’s not essential. Sometimes you may be the only one to encourage yourself, create your own energy and pat yourself on the back when you have achieved an important part of your dream.

19. Embrace the skew edges

Carpet weaving is rarely a straight line; even the edges may not be straight. You will probably have seen the diagram of ‘how people think success looks’ (depicted by an almost straight arrow pointing North) and ‘what success really looks like’ (the same arrow with a myriad of convolutions that untangle themselves before heading North). Even if it feels a bit chaotic at times, if you are focused in the right direction, you are sure to work it out.  

20. If it’s not alright, it is not yet the end…

You may remember the famous line in the movie, The Best Marigold Hotel.

Amid a rather shambolic hotel, the owner with a big smile says:

“Everything will be all right in the end. So, if it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”


©Andrew Bramley, Career Warriors 2019. All Rights Reserved

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