A Career Path is not Always Straight

Embracing My Atypical Journey

Allow me if you may, to invite you into my head for a while. Please excuse the mess, I spend a lot of time in here. Yes, I am one of those people who you will call, and I may not answer because I am, thinking. Weird, right? Believe it or not, for some reason I think about all kinds of things.

I ponder on the meaning of life. I wonder why when an individual enters a crowded room, they are more inclined to fidget on their cell phone as they wait for company. I wonder if owning a house or building one is an indicator of success. Can’t I just pay rent till I am 80? Does that mean I have failed on some level? Heck, I think about why friendships end, why people drift apart, and sometimes I wonder if like a break up of a romantic relationship, a talk and closure are important. I can’t for the life of me understand why some people squeeze the toothpaste tube from the middle. Where did they grow up? Okay, you get it. I am in my head a lot, so excuse the mess, and stick with me.

I have been thinking a lot about people who work in the same field for a decade or more and appear to have a clear career progression in comparison to those who in the same amount of time, have worked in 3 fields filling different roles. Who is better? Is either one better? I know some mothers would have a preference on which one I married if they were male, I digress. One could argue that there is a preference for one over the other, and why is that the case? Now, I narrowed down my thought process to these two individuals because what I know is not constructive is to dwell on what people’s preferences are. As much as we can influence them to a degree, we can’t control them entirely so why lose sleep over which individual people would prefer to begin with.

Think with me for a bit about the one that has in a decade or more plugged into different roles, sometimes in one field or maybe two, many times more. A part of me is tempted to ask what your perception of this individual is, but I will not, at least not today. This movement that appears nomadic could be for many reasons. Opportunity, need, skills possessed at the time, interest, or sometimes a hand that one has been dealt at that point in their life. As much as we would all love to have a nice clear drive through life, it is not always the case. This year has shown us what kind of curveballs life can throw so I will not labor to explain how unpredictable life can be. Plus, unless you are a trust-fund-baby or run the economy, its fluctuation, and trends, sometimes we have had to make compromises and deviate from our desired progression.

So perhaps you are on an a typical journey. You possess passion, competency, and interest in more than one field. Maybe most of your peers are like the other individual. Their life seems clear and straightforward, and that makes you feel like you are confused, and in fact, that you must pick a clearer path before it is too late and stay in that lane. Some people may even have the audacity to suggest that you have to play catch up, dive into one field, buckle up, and do your time like you would a jail sentence.

That doesn’t sound inspiring at all, I know. Why is it that atypical has a negative connotation? It beats me. In David Epstein’s book Range, he explores the contrast between the generalist and the specialist and suggests in one of the chapters that “…breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. That is, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example.” One could suggest that because of my confirmation bias, my interpretation of this would be that there is value in breadth that could potentially trump depth, and perhaps an atypical journey allows breadth. I believe that there are areas in which that is the case. Also, perhaps a part of me wants to make sense of that atypical journey at the same time and there is no harm in that either. That said, I will say that depth definitely has its place.

I hope that I have not lost you with all the twists and turns in this mess that is my head. I have been pondering on this atypical career journey because I can relate all too well with the frustrations that come along the way people may inaccurately interpret choices made. I appreciate the perspective I possess as a result of having a variety of vantage points and empathise with how challenging it can be when surrounded by people who have typical journeys. After mulling over this, I decided to get out of my head because one can only think for so long before they have to get back into the physical realm and do something.

Familiarise With The Stranger — YOU

Appreciating something that you are not familiar with is a tall order. When you are a stranger to yourself, you cannot have an appreciation for your journey. Instead, what will be louder in your head will be people’s perceptions of it. As a result, people will decide your narrative. It would be unfortunate for someone who does not know you to tell you about you. It would be even worse to allow their perception to influence how you present yourself to others. Instead, take a step back, and get to know yourself. Familiarise yourself with the stranger — You. As cliche as this sounds, we need to invest as much effort in understanding ourselves as we do in getting to know others. Dare I say, maybe more.

What do you like? What do you dislike? What do you do easily? What do you enjoy? What do people come to you for? What do you do easily but don’t enjoy? Now that last one there was an eye-opener for me a couple of years back. There are things we do effortlessly well and people have us on speed dial for, but we don’t particularly enjoy them and don’t want to spend time doing them. That is also important to know.

When people speak about getting to know who you are, I find that sometimes it is explained in a manner that suggests that you should go to some exotic spot, maybe Bali. Disconnect from social media, become vegan, stop drinking coffee, and just sit on a mountain top daily. As idyllic as that sounds, I think it is simple. Take time each day, about 10 minutes, and unpack all the events that occurred. What did you enjoy and what did you not? Scribble these things down on paper and go to bed. Do this over a period of time — three months is ideal. If you keep at it, a pattern will emerge. This is something you don’t need to read a book for or do an online course to accomplish. You only require one quiet moment each day. Once you recognise patterns, you can find more opportunities to do those things that you enjoy, which leads to happier days. You can also get an understanding of what meaningful work looks like for you. When you are looking at responsibilities for a potential role, you will know what to look out for.

The scary part is people with atypical journeys find that sometimes the things that they enjoy are not all in one field or role. What may happen is that this person may have blocks of time on their journey in different fields. It is not the worst thing in the world. However, becoming more aware can allow this person to streamline their journey better because then they can look for roles that allow them to check more boxes. That way, they grow in one field and cultivate some depth because there is a place for it; if that is the route they desire. However, if you are happy to have in 20 years spent chunks of 5 years in different fields, created an impact, done meaningful work, and enjoyed it, from where I am standing, if that aligns with your definition of success, that is great.

Appreciate and Embrace

I genuinely believe that a bulk of the frustration comes from comparison. That old adage saying that it is the thief of joy is accurate. The comparison has you dwelling on the fact that many people around you “appear” to have had a clearer trajectory. You start to feel like moving around may be a sign that you got something wrong along the way or are lost. If you are anything like me, you may even try to address this by staying in your lane and hydrating or like suggested in 1Thessalonians 4:10, to literally mind your own business. I minimise my social media consumption, however, unwanted updates still find me in my lane, drinking my water, and so I have learned to appreciate instead of compare.

I have changed my perspective because when you can’t control something, you can always control how you see it. I can’t change my journey until this point, but I can change how I perceive it. I can be deliberate about understanding the value it adds so I can appreciate it. I can take time to own my next steps, be deliberate, and use what I define as success to make my decisions as I move forward. During the pandemic, half of us have decided to look at it as an opportunity for some “eat, pray, love” retreat in our homes, and yet there is so much about this spell that is challenging. This is evidence of how powerful the mind is. So appreciate the uniqueness of your journey and the ways in which you are better for it. Even if it does not resemble that of many or what is termed as ideal, embrace it because it is yours.

Try and make sense of two things; your unique selling point and the underlying themes of things you learned through examining different seasons of your journey. What core skills and competencies have you exhibited strongly in the different roles and fields you have worked in? How have you demonstrated them? Being able to clearly show that, despite your journey appearing unclear, is golden. That would be valuable in making a case for yourself especially when you are at the mercy of someone that is closed-minded or having a hard time making sense of a journey that is not ideal in their opinion and seems undesirable or unfamiliar. Once you have a deep understanding of who you are, you will be able to advocate for yourself with confidence. Before you run around acquiring depth in industry knowledge, how about some on you first.

Bloom where you are planted

I always wonder, when do we “arrive”? When do you get to that point where you go, “Hey mama, I made it!”. Is that point tied to a certain amount of income, a level in an organisation, or perhaps a role in a certain kind of organisation? Do you know what that looks like for you? I know what this looks like for me. Do you know what it looks like for you?

Learning this for yourself is such an exhausting process. First, you have to understand why you chase what you chase and if it is what you want to chase or if it is what you were told to chase? Then, when you know what you want, you can start to pursue it and define for yourself what “arriving” is. I know, I feel dizzy too just thinking through all of that.

When I thought about this notion of “arriving”, I realised that it may take a while, and in fact, we could remain on a journey all through life just changing stations. I may in fact live in a constant state of transition. With that rationale, it is key to have a mindset that allows me to bloom where I am planted. Instead of focusing on where I want to be eventually, how about, I find a way to live with the duality. On one end, how can I bring my best self to where I am now, and on the other, how can I prepare for where I want to go. I acknowledge that it is extremely difficult to keep these two things in your mind daily but it is important because sometimes, we don’t like where we are, however, doing well there will contribute to where we are trying to go. Also, who wants to be angry all the time, not me. So be deliberate about making it work even if you trick yourself and fake it till you enjoy it. This will go a long way. If you are going to have an atypical journey, it would carry weight if, at every station you are, you do so well, they never forget you were there. After all, when you get to that place where an open-minded person finally gives you a shot, and you have done a good job understanding who you are and advocating for yourself, a call will have to be made to seal the deal. If you were blooming wherever you were planted in each season, we know that that the story will have a happy ending.

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