Don't freak out - your career is a journey

A career - just like life - is a journey, and there's no telling what will happen when a door opens or closes.

I help a lot of young people who are trying to navigate their careers. Nephews, nieces, cousins, children of friends, and friends of my own children have all reached out for advice and guidance as they try to navigate their way.

A common misconception that pops up with young people is the notion that career paths are linear: That somehow one needs to make the right move in order to advance properly down their preferred path.

So the questions start to sound familiar: "Will it hurt my career if I take a job in a smaller market?" "Should I hold out for a better title?" "Do I need to spend at least two years in this job before I make my next move?" "Is it OK if I take three months to travel before I start looking for my next job?"

I’m not a soothsayer, but I have been around the block. And my advice isn’t usually what they want to hear. But here’s what I tell them: In the long run, a career – just like life – is a journey, and there’s no telling what will happen when a door opens or closes. So try not to freak out. And try to worry less about whether it’s the "right" move, and pay more attention to how it feels.

What I want them to understand is that most of us – even the hugely successful – have traversed an unpredictable, circuitous path filled with leaps forward, back, and sideways.

And it’s precisely this twisted journey that has made us who we are today.

I recently had dinner with a brand manager for a big financial services company, and he shared his own weird career path. He graduated from college with a degree in fine arts and dreamed of being a creative director, but no jobs were available. So he applied for an opening in an unrelated profession: As a policeman.

He spent four years as the most artistically talented beat cop in a tough neighborhood in Texas. He received a crash course in dealing with difficult people, and got a fascinating look at life’s seamy side.

Ultimately, however, he decided that a policeman’s life was not for him and re-entered the creative world with a deep sense of self-confidence, and a new perspective on life. And he flourished.

Another friend is the cofounder of a successful advertising agency. He graduated high school with no ambition and no plan and found himself drafted and headed for Vietnam. However, when assignment day arrived, someone in the personnel department noted that my friend had graphic design skills and designated him to be an illustrator in an office near the Pentagon. Thus, his career in advertising was born.

I wanted to be a journalist so I pursued a degree in journalism, wrote for my college newspaper, and set my sights on being a cub reporter. There was just one problem – I needed an internship between my junior and senior year of college that gave credit and paid money, otherwise I couldn’t afford to stay in New York for the summer. And the only internship available was at a PR agency.

I got the role, loved it, and was offered a job when I graduated. My career was launched, but not because of any clever planning on my part. Instead, life led me down an unexpected path, which I really grew to love.

So my advice is a little like Yogi Berra’s, the New York Yankees legend, who famously said: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." 

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com

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