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The path less taken

Path in the WildernessWhen I heard we were going to do a session on non-linear career paths as part of the EPIP-YNPN Leadership Institute, I was super excited. I’m a pro at this; I’ve spent the last six-ish years having absolutely no idea where my career was going.

I graduated in 2009 with a double major in International Relations and Arabic and a concentration in Middle Eastern studies, so I had one very clear career option: becoming a spy. (Or, you know, going into international business, working as a translator, becoming a diplomat, etc.)

Unfortunately for me, none of those careers panned out, and it was the height of the recession. There were no jobs for recent college grads, so my career focus had to shift from dreams of shaken martinis to attempts at gaining job experience and building my resume.

My first job was as a temporary FedEx delivery person over the holidays. I found myself learning how to reverse-serpentine giant delivery trucks through a maze of cones and mastering how to gracefully answer the question “Wait…you’re a girl?” My career path had gone from being a spy to being an androgynous Christmas elf. Not something I wanted to devote my career to.

The pressure of not having a clearly defined career path caused me incredible anxiety. I spent many sleepless nights wondering where exactly I’d gone wrong. Why wasn’t a dream job materializing in my mind? At what point did I take the wrong job or, simply, not apply for the right one? Was I selling myself short? What was it, exactly, that I wanted to do with my life?

I muddled through a patchwork of internships and part-time jobs, but a career plan had yet to crystalize in my mind. All I knew was that I was desperate for employment and I wanted whatever I was doing to have a positive effect on my community. That is when I started tinkering with an idea that didn’t solidify for me until the Leadership Institute session a few weeks ago: Don’t focus on your career path. Think about your career purpose.

Most of us have been raised with some variation of “Do well in school and you’ll get a good job.” The focus of thinking beyond education has always been on a specific career. But what if you don’t know what that career path may be? Start by asking yourself some questions.

What is it that you want to accomplish? Is it helping your community? Is it achieving racial equity in your city? Is it starting a program to fill a gap where you see a need? Achieving success in any of the above goals isn’t limited to a single career path. You could take hundreds of jobs and still be working towards the same end.

It’s taken me over six years to accept that I don’t have one big dream job that I want to reach before I retire, at least not yet. Instead, I know I want to make my community a better place, and, looking back on my various professional experiences, that thread has always been there. It turns out, I have been successful at following a path; I just didn’t know what that path was when I started out.

So, to all those like me, know that you are not a failure because you don’t have one solid “five-year plan.” Some people have dream jobs, and some people just have dreams about the changes they want to see, the sort of life they want to live, and the bridges they want to build. Both of these types of thinking are good, and both are necessary. It takes all kinds of people to make things happen, so we should stop beating ourselves up if we don’t know exactly where our next job will take us.

What do you want to do? How do you want to grow? The important thing is to focus on doing that.

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