By Adam Jusko, ProudMoney.com, adam@proudmoney.com

Work is work. But a career is not just a job. And if you think of your job as “just a job,” you probably won’t have much of a career. Not to get all mystical about it, but if your long-term goal is to make more money, thinking of the work you’re doing today as part of a “career” is going to take you much further than if you think of it only as a job.

Careers Grow

The key to having a career is growth. Growth in skills, definitely. Growth in responsibility, probably. When you have a career, your co-workers will expect more from you over time. A new hire will be expected not only to “learn the ropes” in terms of how a company operates, but also to increase his or her skills to provide greater value than when s/he first came on board. In most companies or industries, a career will entail a series of positions that escalate in terms of skills required, responsibility given, and pay received.

No CEO got to the top unless he/she continually improved his/her skills and took on more and more responsibility. This is true even if your company’s CEO started the company from scratch and appointed herself CEO before she had any employees. You can’t found and/or lead a successful company unless you’ve somehow built up the skills necessary to be in charge.

That doesn’t mean you have to be “in charge” in order to have a career. And it doesn’t mean a career is always a steady climb up the ladder at one particular company. A career may involve many different companies in the same industry. It may involve companies in different industries, but positions with a similar skill set. For example, you might work in operations with several different companies in the airline industry, or you might be a marketing professional who works in all different industries but has a wide-ranging knowledge of techniques that apply no matter where you go.

Any work you pursue that allows you to deepen your skills over time so that they can be used for a higher level of accomplishment is part of creating a career.

Jobs Plateau

If you are doing the exact same thing today that you were doing five years ago in terms of work, you probably have a job.

I don’t mean if you work at the same company. I mean if you are doing the same set of tasks without expanding your knowledge to include new, related tasks, or somehow moving to a position of more responsibility within that company. You may be making more money, you may even be making good money, but if you’re not growing in some way, it’s still “just a job.”

And jobs plateau. You stop learning new skills when you always do the same thing, so your value to a company will always have a ceiling. Not only will this hurt your lifetime earning power, but it can also put you in danger of losing your job when someone comes along with your same skills who is younger and cheaper. You may be very good at what you do. You may even have gotten much better at the job over the years. But if the difference between your skills and someone else’s are small because the job is not overly complicated, the cheaper employee will eventually win the day.

Are You Building A Career?

Most of us begin our work life with “just a job.” We’re happy to be employed and to have more money than we had when we were kids. Our first paychecks are our first tastes of real freedom, of earning a living based on our own efforts.

But the novelty of being a working adult wears off quickly. Once you start to master that first real adult job, it’s time to start thinking more critically about where you see yourself going.

Some people get lucky, drifting from job to job over many years until they suddenly connect the dots and turn their experiences into a unique career that wouldn’t have been possible without those experiences. (Often that means starting their own company to incorporate their unique set of skills.) Most people who excel in their careers, though, do so because they’ve put some real thought into each step. Even if they’re not sure of the endpoint, they know when they’ve started to stagnate, or when the environment in their current company suggests they’re not on a fast track for promotion.

If you’re only seeing your work as a job, you’ll probably never leave unless you get pushed out. (Or you’ll quit whenever things get hard and get another “just job.”) You’ll be surprised to see that many of your peers have passed you by in terms of responsibility, job perks, and pay. You may feel that those peers weren’t as smart as you are — but there they are.

More than ever, it pays to be proactive in thinking about the path you’re on. Continue building your skills and keeping your eyes open for opportunity, even if you’re not sure where you want to go or what exactly you’re looking for. Some of the most amazing careers happened because those individuals kept building their skills, kept impressing those around them, and kept letting it be known that they were interested in doing more and being more than a simple job title could fully capture.