By Roger E. Herman, Career Journal Correspondent

Hopscotch began in ancient Britain during the early Roman Empire. The original hopscotch courts were more than 100 feet long and used for military-training exercises. Roman foot-soldiers ran the course in full armor and field packs to improve their footwork, much the same way modern football players run through rows of truck tires today.

Roman children drew their own smaller courts in imitation of the soldiers, added a scoring system and the game of hopscotch spread throughout Europe. The game goes by different names in different countries, but the principles are the same. Players jump through a pattern painted or drawn on a surface. The objective of the game is to land on the right squares as one jumps from one end of the pattern to the other. Sometimes the player is required to land with one foot in one square, sometimes with one foot in one square and the other foot in another square.

Hopscotch is a fast-moving forward-motion game. Twister is another popular game, patented in the 1960s, with minimal forward movement. Players attempt to place specific body parts on colored circles marked on a mat. Some of the positions become impossible, knocking the player out of the game. In both Twister and hopscotch, falling down means you’re out of that round of play.

The Rules of the Game

The rules of games must be followed, right? Maybe not. Perhaps we each can make up our own rules. If we’re playing alone, it’s always easier to make up our own rules, to play the way we want to play. When we manage our careers, we are really engaging in a solo game. Our careers are totally independent of others, though we do consider family issues in the choices we make and the rules by which we play.

As I look at hopscotch, I see a pattern and a set of procedures that’s typically followed the same way by everyone who plays. The same rules usually apply in all countries. The process is universal. Or is it? Can we move more than one direction? The answer depends on whom you ask. Some creative hopscotch patterns are in different geometric shapes, requiring players to move in varying directions. Twister’s rules have been modified countless times by people seeking to break the traditional ways of playing the game.

Is it necessary to play the game by the rules? The answer depends on whom you ask. Longtime players may insist that the rules be followed because that’s what’s most comfortable for them. They’ve learned to follow the rules; that’s the way they are able to play the game with the highest level of success and/or security. Those new to the game, or who get bored with the status quo, are eager to change the rules so they can play the game their way.

Games and Career Management

So what does all this have to do with career choices? Is career management a game? In some ways, it is. Most importantly, today many professionals are ignoring the old rules and choosing to play the game their way. Some of these are young folks who, at their stage of life, believe they can make their own rules. Other players are more seasoned professionals who are tired of the way the game has been played because they lose too often. Recognizing that the odds aren’t in their favor with the way the rules are written and the way others play, they’re consciously altering conditions to try to level the playing field.

An increasing number of professionals are playing a sort of career hopscotch by their own rules. Instead of staying with one company or even following a traditional linear career path, these mavericks are hopping from one career path to another — from sales to accounting to management — and from retailing to manufacturing to transportation and logistics. They’re moving up the ladder in one organization, then hopping to a lesser position in another company…because the new position offers new and different challenges and opportunities. From the outside, this pattern could look like fear of success, but it’s actually the Frank Sinatra refrain: “I’ll do it my way.”

In the next few years, employers will shake their heads in amazement as some of their top performers leave to accept positions with lower compensation, less power and status that’s inferior to their current role. It isn’t just about the money; people want meaningful work, appreciative leaders, competent co-workers and life-work balance. Moving up the corporate ladder doesn’t necessarily assure achievement of any of these objectives.

You’ll have a greater chance of success if you steer your career in a direction that makes sense to you. You’ll be in control… and accountable. As in hopscotch, if you fall down, you lose your turn and start over. Exploring opportunities in a growing and shifting economy isn’t a problem. Like playing Twister, reaching out in new directions is part of the game.

— Mr. Herman is a work-force futurist based in Greensboro, N.C. He’s the author of “Impending Crisis: Too Many Jobs, Too Few People” (2002) and “How to Choose Your Next Employer” (2000), both published by Oakhill Press, and a weekly e-mail newsletter, Herman Trend Alert.