Career Path… or Career Adventure?

As I prepared to leave graduate school years ago, I put a lot of time and energy into mapping out my career. I identified the industry in which I wanted to work (telecommunications) – an area characterized by tumultuous change and growth, both of which spelled o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y for me. I decided to look for positions in sales and marketing, first with a larger company, and then at a start-up. And I envisioned movement up the ladder as my career progressed.

career adventureNot surprisingly, career planning factored into every job interview. Prospective employers asked about where I’d see myself in 5-10 years. They expected me to have a destination in mind when embarking on my professional journey. They wanted to know how the current position fit into that plan and assess the likelihood that the company and I shared long-term interests.

In the ensuing years, I remained conscious of how each position helped me progress toward my long-term goal. I occasionally took assignments for which I was ill-suited in order to gain valuable experience that would confer “street creds” and serve me in the future. I changed companies when I felt that I’d stalled out so I could keep moving forward. And I worried about how my resume was shaping up and whether or not I was keeping pace with my peers.

Then life got in the way. Doors that I expected to open remained resolutely closed. My two-career household made shifts in geography that took me away from my professional “sweet spot.” Family responsibilities impinged on my capacity to be a hard-charging workaholic. I adjusted time and again. And then the big jolt hit. I realized that the destination toward which I’d been moving all these years wasn’t a place that I wanted to go. I couldn’t see myself living there, and I didn’t want to make the personal sacrifices necessary to ensure my arrival.

I remember feeling as though I was the only person in the world to find myself in this predicament. I didn’t like the idea of getting off the path, but I didn’t want to stay on it either. I decided to take some time off to think about what I really wanted to do and consider my options. I treated myself like a project and gave myself a series of tasks to help me course-correct and set off toward a new destination. Simple, right?

Not so much…

After years of focused energy on my chosen path, I’d done a fine job of shutting down the part of me that could tap into my inner source of joy and gratification. I didn’t know what it was or even where to look for it. And, as a lifelong overachiever, I was decidedly uncomfortable foregoing the steady diet of personal accomplishments.

Venturing forth into my social circles, I was asked regularly, “What are you doing these days?” I felt as though I should have something impressive to say in response. If I wasn’t charging up the corporate ladder, I should at least be making some substantive contribution to my community or the world at large. It seemed indulgent to take time out to invest in myself.

Long story short, I didn’t “find myself” by sitting on a lily pad and contemplating my future. I found it by doing. By experimenting. I took on a variety of consulting assignments in the for-profit and non-profit communities. I got a second Master’s degree and pursued ministry in the church and hospital settings. I served as an Encore Fellow with the Oregon Community Foundation. I participated actively in two social venture partnerships. I volunteered. I got back into the performing arts. I paid attention to what “worked” (and what didn’t) and kept that in mind when seeking new opportunities.

There are plenty of social circles in which “experimenting” is a euphemism for “floundering.” A career shift is OK so long as you pick a road and take off on the next journey. Moreover, gender stereotypes conjure up the image of a woman who can’t make up her own mind. For quite some time, that kind of feedback felt shaming. It had the effect of shutting down the voice of the inner self who longed for joy and gratification. It was something I needed to overcome.

Have I found my ultimate destination? Not really. But I’m not looking for it either. In fact, I no longer embrace the notion of a “career path.” It’s too restrictive and prone to headlong pursuits of goals that may or may not make sense downstream. I prefer to think of my journey as a “career adventure.” I seek work that I find interesting, enlightening, meaningful, and energizing. I want to collaborate with folks whose contributions and companionship put a spring in my step. And I want my professional endeavors to play nicely with my personal and lifestyle goals.

I don’t regret any of the experiences that brought me to this point. I learned a lot from them and found most of my professional gigs rewarding. Through careful financial planning, I’ve given myself the flexibility to pursue things that “light me up.” I don’t worry a whole lot about whether any of my choices will move me toward the illusive “next step.” And I’m not afraid to make mistakes. After all, it’s an adventure!

If only I could come up with a great “sound bite” to describe it…