Pathways: The Meandering Nature of Modern Careers

My teenaged daughter knows what she wants to be “when she grows up.”  Of course she does.  Who didn’t know know at that age that they wanted to be a professional baseball player, a firefighter, a doctor, a lawyer, a therapist, or a business owner?  We all had a vision of what life would hold.  And for some of us (not me, mind you), that vision played itself out exactly as planned.  For many more, however, the pathway was much for winding, more rugged, and less developed than we had envisioned.  And either way was perfectly fine.

As we talked over dinner last night, I was struck with the simultaneous ignorance and passionate determination with which she described the career path in front of her.  Even has a high school freshman, she knows where she’s heading, which is more than many adults can say ten years into the workforce.

Of course, she knows her pathway, and of course, many adults do not.  After all, as grown ups, we’ve experienced the real world.  We know that plans change.  Things didn’t always work out exactly as we’ve thought they would.  The path turned.  It branched out.  Sometimes, it just plain ended and we were forced to jump to another path entirely.

What I was struck by during our conversation, however, was the dual need to both support her current dreams and aspirations while simultaneously emphasizing that should she change her mind, that is okay, too.  That’s a fine line to toe, whether we’re counseling an adult client or our own children.

A decade ago, I worked as faculty at a private New England high school.  There, we developed a program aimed at emphasizing the likely shifts students would make as they eventually figured out a career direction right for them.  We called it Pathways, and we intentionally selected alumni who had distinguished themselves professionally in a variety of fields.  But that wasn’t the only requirement for receiving an invitation to come talk to the students about their successes.  No, they had to have distinguished themselves in one discipline after having dramatically shifted direction (either from their initial collegiate course of study or early career directions).  Cardiac surgeons with early backgrounds with Wall Street firms.  Organic farmers who’d spent their twenties in law school.  High school teachers who’d traded corner offices for chalkboards, and television executives who had first studied biochemistry as Harvard pre-med undergraduates.

They say that Millenials will have between 8 and 11 major career changes in their working lives.  To an extent, the career trajectory with one company, the lifelong career with Big Blue is a thing of the past.  Whether current high schoolers or actively successful mid-career professionals, the idea that we are all merely on meandering pathways is an important one.  The moment we begin to feel stuck in a career rut with no possibility of personal reinvention, I believe, we’ve lost our professional mojo.

Putting myself back in my daughter’s shoes, I remember vividly that sense of knowing precisely where my career would take me.  After college, I would spend time as an airborne Ranger in the Army before enrolling in a leading law school to prepare me for a thirty-year career as a high-powered attorney.  That’s simply what I was going to do.  I knew it, and nothing was going to dissuade or distract me from that eventuality.

Oh, bits and pieces came to fruition, it’s true.  I did spend a decade in the military, not as a Ranger, but the life of an infantry scout was pretty close, and then to fly on Navy reconnaissance planes seemed infinitely more exciting as my twenties unfolded.  And along the way, I did return to graduate school, but not law school.  Nope, a degree in public administration, then a stop in business school, followed by a doctorate education in psychology led me to more than a decade working with business executives, public safety leaders, and graduate students as a professor became my pathway.

Could I have predicted this is where I’d end up?  Absolutely not!  In fact, I’m still not sure what I’ll be when I “grow up.”  But it’ll be interesting to find out where my pathway leads……

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