08/06/2012 01:17 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

Pole Vaulting: From The Olympics To Your Own Career

Watching the sport of pole vaulting in the Olympics always takes my breath away. Using a flexible pole made of fiberglass (a far cry from the first bamboo and aluminum versions), athletes hurl themselves over an insanely high bar. These athletes have been training and steadily advancing with good, better, and best coaches who teach them technique, and with it, courage. In this discipline, they soar to almost three times their own height. It takes the combination of skills from rigorous daily practice, the strength and flexibility of the pole, and the self-confidence that comes from working with coaches to be able to compete and win.

I sense the same elation when I see a smart, educated, talented person turn to someone wiser and more experienced, often a mentor, to elevate them in their careering process and serve as both the pole and the coach. They lift you by giving you access to resources and strategies --introductions, new ideas, and alliances that would otherwise be out of your own reach.

Strong parallels, this pole vaulting and careering. Just as you wouldn't attempt competing in a challenging sport right away without practice and coaching, so too, in careering, you need to be technically skilled and mentally secure before taking a big leap. Like athletes practice to raise the bar, you start to build your social muscle, beginning with smaller weights in the early stages of your career. Learning to do the assigned work the best way you possibly can, you have to simultaneously develop the skill of building relationships and shift away from an old-school system of obedience and dependence in order to combine necessary technical competence with essential nontechnical social skills.

Start engaging with those you have access to. Develop the art of schmoozing -- small talk that can turn to big talk. Train yourself to make the most of every possible interaction you have -- social gatherings and parties, waiting in line in your office cafeteria, on planes and trains during business and pleasure trips. Continuing to expand your list of contacts determines the strength of your pole, in turn, allowing you to reach new heights.

When you meet people whose careers you admire, make yourself inquire more about them and then compliment them. Before you ask for what you want from them, learn to develop a relationship by showing genuine interest, asking them about their own experience, and asking what you can do to help them. You then earn the right for access to their worlds of contacts and advice. People can serve as metaphorical poles to help you soar higher in your career: top professionals in your own field, more experienced colleagues, and seasoned career coaches. For women especially, learning to get over the hurdle of being too modest is critical -- and can be rehearsed -- when you talk about your talents and strengths and see where you want to go next.

So what do you want? The most profound question next to "Who am I?" is "What do I want?" Both of these questions become clear only through experimentation. There's no way to know beforehand. So our options are limited by our inexperience and the external work forced on us. Too often we make crucial life decisions before we're able to evaluate our own experience and make our own judgments. We sabotage our own ambitions by failing to foster relationships with mentors and coaches to help us realize our best selves.

Even though you'd like to, you can't just ask someone to get you a better job; you have to show that you can both compete and contribute. Sometimes if you're writing a paper or proposal, you need to ask an expert for feedback on its quality and where it might be shared or submitted. Sometimes if you are ambitious, you need to learn from those who have done so how you can identify next steps: line management, further education or training, or accepting a position that your employer needs to have filled even if it doesn't seem to lead directly to your goal. You often have to assess where you are in your career and with competent advisers, you'll do better.

There is always risk. In pole vaulting, it's the danger of getting hurt, along with losing. In careering, it's fear of failure, the lack of self-confidence strong enough to make you think you're deserving of advancement. Both examples pose a twin struggle: first, the physical readiness or knowledge of the technique that comes only through training and practice, and second, the on-going development of courage to be able to carry on successfully. William James wrote that "only by risking our persons from one hour to the next that we live at all." How will you use your next hour?

Make your luck happen!