When it Comes to Your Career, Are You a Pancake or a Tree?
In one of my previous roles, I used to organize monthly guest lectures for my university students from various active professionals in their target industries.
I was working with creative media students, so we focused on showcasing the breadth of different opportunities and potential career paths that exist in industries like animation, music, film, design, and games development.
One of the professionals I bought in to do a talk was primarily a graphic designer, but she handed out a piece of advice that was incredibly relevant. Not only for my students, entering an often shakey field of work built on the gig economy, but for anyone trying to grow within the modern world of careers.
She posed her advice as a question:
When it comes to your career, are you going to be a pancake or a tree?
My students laughed. A pancake? A tree? What the hell was this about? The designers and animators in the room were quick to quip that they wanted to be neither; they wanted to be creatives.
Our guest speaker took it all in her stride and went on to explain the difference between the two – and it was a real lightbulb moment for me in how we can think about our careers, skills, and abilities.
The Pancake Careerist
The more technical term for this might be a specialist. These are people who pick a niche within their chosen field and then cover it with ever-increasing expertise.
They spread themselves out evenly — like a pancake — over their chosen niche, and that’s where they stay, growing as a professional in one, maybe two, core areas.
The Tree Careerist
You might also refer to this as a generalist, but I felt it was a bit more specific.
A tree is someone who has one core pillar — a trunk — of skills and expertise. Feeding off from this pillar are a few branches that are linked to their core expertise but utilize their skills in different ways.
This creates varying income streams for the individual and means they can market themselves across different industries when they need to.
Growing as a tree
After listening to that talk, I realized I had definitely been a pancake for most of my professional career. I focused on building my experience and knowledge only within the area of careers education, and I only sought roles that aligned with this.
The truth? I was getting fidgety. I’ve written about this a number of times, about how I loved my job and industry, but I didn’t always feel like it loved me back. I struggled to feel fulfilled professionally in the ways I needed more as I grew older.
At the time, I was already doing some writing on the side and thinking about different ways I could grow as a professional, but I always got stuck back into the things that were more closely related to my professional role within careers education.
That talk actually became the catalyst that helped to begin exploring and growing more branches on the tree I’d made for myself.
I’ve never looked back.
The great thing about growing a career tree is that you get to decide what works for you. You can begin to develop a branch, change your mind, decide it’s not right for you, and change direction. And it doesn’t matter because you’ve got your core trunk of skills that you can keep relying on and coming back to, no matter what.
Turning my career pancake into a career tree helped me realize that spending more time on the other things I was becoming increasingly interested in as a professional didn’t remove all the hard work I’d already done. It would always be there, and I could always come back to it whenever I needed to.
So, are you a pancake or a tree?
It’s important to note that neither one nor the other is better or worse, but it’s a great question to reflect on.
Knowing how you want to grow as a professional can help you set the pace for your immediate and future career path, as well as determine the types of goals, aims, and values you should be setting for yourself.
Having a pancake career can be beneficial, as you’ll always know what you’re doing and where you’re heading. I find that professional fields — like medicine or law — are suited to pancake-style careers. There are set structures for the qualifications, accreditations, and steps forward that you can follow and keep growing as a professional.
Tree careers may be more suited to those pursuing freelance or gig economy-type roles, where you may need to have a few extra branches out in the foray to keep growing. For now, a tree career is suiting me well as I continue to explore the things I’m interested in and how I can make them work for me as a professional.
Each has its pros and cons and deciding which pathway will work better for you as you grow your career can help assist with a range of career planning and how you approach professional development overall.
So, ask yourself, are you a pancake or a tree? And, more importantly, which one would you like to be?