TEDxCMU Speech

Career in the Age of the App

Hi Everyone - thanks so much for having me - it’s an honor to be here.



(Ladder slide) Raise your hand if you’re familiar with the career ladder as a metaphor for managing your career. Okay great - just about all of you.

Now I want you to think about whether that model has ever made you feel like...

(Frustrated slide) This. If it has ever caused you stress.

If it has ever made you feel like you have to achieve at an ungodly pace. It starts in high school -- if not sooner. We feel pressure to get a perfect GPA, have exactly the right mix of extracurriculars, ace our placement exams...all so that we can go to the RIGHT school, choose the RIGHT major, and graduate with the RIGHT job already all lined up. Once we do land a great job, we feel pressure to climb up the ladder -- to advance higher, farther, faster. It’s either up -- or oblivion. {How many of you have ever felt insecure or bad about yourself because you are comparing yourself to your peers? How many of you have ever felt bored or unhappy, like there was more out there for you, but you didn’t know how to find it?}


(Ladder slide) Our current career models are out-dated. People are no longer staying at jobs for 30 years, working their way up the corporate ladder with the safety of a pension plan waiting at the end. Today I’m going to give you a new framework for managing your career -- one that puts the power and creative control in your hands.


Let me tell you a little about myself. I know this cycle all too well. I’ve been an overachiever my whole life -- which has been a blessing and a curse. When I was ten years old I started a family newspaper operation out of my living room. In high-school I played sports, ran clubs, and became the Editor-in-Chief of my high school newspaper. I got in to UCLA, got straight A’s, and took a leave of absence to help start a company with one of my political science professors at the start of my junior year. I went back to finish school in three years with honors and a double-major, then found my way to Google, where I quickly got promoted and became a manager by the time I was 24 years old.

(Dog slide) By 25 I was completely and utterly exhausted. Burnt-out, miserable and depressed. I was so focused on getting to the next rung of the ladder, that I hadn’t stopped to think about the costs -- and about whether or not that next step was what I really wanted. About whether or not it was worth it.

(Quote slide) I once heard this quote from a stress-management course and it has stuck with me ever since:

“Is the life you’re living worth the price you’re paying for it?

(Disneyland slide) Here I was, with the “perfect” job, getting quickly promoted, at Google - the Disneyland of companies as perceived by many of my friends. And yet, I was still massively unhappy. I felt horrible admitting that. I felt like something was wrong with me. But the facts remained -- the work I was doing was no longer a fit, and the pace I had been operating at was completely unsustainable.

At first I felt spoiled and absurd for feeling this way, particularly “in this economy,” when so many others were without jobs altogether. But pretty soon, red flags started popping up. I became an emotional wreck. I was tired and stressed. Much to my humiliation, I cried more times than I would like to admit. At work. In meetings. Each time became the new lowest moment in my career.

I knew that something needed to change after the fifth, sixth and seventh red flag smacked me in the face. As I wrote in my journal at the time, I felt depleted of all energy, and a “a dreadful hum of anxiety permeated the background of my day-to-day activities.”

That’s when I realized, my career model was broken.


The idea of a career ladder is extremely fixed and linear. We feel pressure to pick the right ladder, then do everything we can to move up - with hardly any room to move outward. The rungs of the ladder require careful, measured action. One misstep and it can feel like we’ve fallen off for good.

Until recently I had been using a different model. Carol Bartz, the CEO of Yahoo, believes you should manage your career like a pyramid, not a ladder. This model encourages building a strong foundation and moving laterally through a variety of jobs and experiences. However, it still points to an apex at the top - a fixed destination where you’ve “arrived.” I don’t believe that’s ever really the case. Even CEOs -- people at the top of their game -- still want to grow, develop and challenge themselves.

It’s time for a new model for managing our careers.

We are now in the age of the app. Many of you have smart phones -- imagine that your phone represents your career.  Your education and your upbringing is your basic operating system -- it may or may not be exactly what you want. But rather than feeling like it has to be perfect (the ladder), think about downloading all of the various apps (skills, experiences and interests) that will help you round out your current state - in a way that creates a unique career path for YOU. A career path in which anything is possible.


There are three principles to managing your career in the age of the app.  

Seth’s Story:

In fact, it’s inherent to the process of a big dream that you WON’T know how to get there. That you’ll be slightly terrified to take the next steps. That your inner critics and fears will come rushing in. Those are all good things!! They are all signs that you are on exactly the right track. Our fears are what let us know that the opportunity is big enough.

I’ll share a personal example of how this has manifested for me. Even while working at Google, I knew that there was more out there for me. Through a coaching session I realized that my mission was to inspire people to live happier and more fulfilled lives through practical tools and tips. I started a blog in 2007, then had the idea to write a book in 2008. But after finishing the first draft, the Word file sat unopened in my computer for months because I didn’t know what to do with it - I was terrified. Paralyzed by the fear of rejection and putting my ideas out there. For those five months, I felt like I was watching my dream die on the vine.

One day, in a “universe smacks me upside the head moment” I went to a speaker’s association meeting and met the author of the book, How to Write a Book Proposal. He gave me his copy, which pushed me to move past my fears and insecurities, write the proposal, and pitch it to literary agents. I found a literary agent, and after 27 rejections, got signed by Running Press to publish my book, which came out just last week.

By managing your career according to the app model, YOU are taking control. You are not waiting for a job to make you happy. You are aggressively pursuing and exploring your own happiness -- on your own terms.


Now -- this model is not without it’s flaws. I want to leave you with three pieces of advice as you move forward:


I want to leave you today with the confidence to create a career that is unique to YOU. {follow your own compass} You are the creative director of your life -- you get to customize and adjust as you go along. No more racing up someone else’s ladder. Don’t wait for a job or another person to make you happy. You can either accept your phone as it is given to you, or you can install apps that make you happier and more productive. Every experience adds value, every seed has great potential to sprout, and every great achievement starts with a baby step.

Take matters into your own hands and start today. Even if you don’t know how. Start somewhere.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “You don’t have to see the whole staircase -- you just have to take the first step.”



Jenny Blake is an author, blogger, life coach and sought-after speaker. She has been featured on Forbes.com, US News & World Report, CNN.com and was recognized by Suze Orman as a leader among Gen Y. Jenny has spoken at Google, Best Buy, Carnegie Melon (TEDxCMU) and Columbia University -- always with rave reviews.

Jenny has worked at Google for over five years in training, coaching & career development. Prior to Google and halfway through her junior year at UCLA, Jenny took a leave of absence to help launch a political polling start-up company with her college professor and mentor. She returned to finish at UCLA in the spring of 2005. The experience of leaving school before her friends inspired her to start a blog, LifeAfterCollege.org, which she has now translated into a book. Life After College: The Complete Guide to Getting What You Want is a portable life coach for 20-somethings, filled with tips, quotes and coaching exercises to help people focus on the BIG picture of their lives…not just the details.