So in the long run, who is better off? Those who decide on a clear career path at an early age and then stick to it? Or those who take their time and follow a more roundabout route before finding the right career? Even though a straight-line path might seem easier, is the only route available in much of the world, and can work well for some people, for most in America a more circuitous journey is necessary and often yields careers that are just as or even more satisfying.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
That question is typically brought up when you’re quite young, maybe four or five years old. Maybe it will be part of an elementary school morning meeting or a middle school writing assignment or broached by a distant aunt or uncle you only see on holidays. It becomes a bit more real and urgent when you’re in secondary school and starting to consider colleges.
There are some, even at that tender age of 16 or 17, who have already arrived at a clear career goal. They’ll factor that in to the type of college they’ll attend and the courses they’ll take. They might even manage to stay on their chosen path throughout college and grad school and ultimately attain their goal of being a lawyer, doctor, engineer, business executive, teacher or professor. Many if not most 16- or 17-year olds, however, have only a vague sense or no sense at all of what kind of career to pursue. They become the liberal arts students who use their college experience to explore possibilities and to help them sort out options. Some of them, even upon graduating from college, may still need more time to keep “exploring.”
At McMillan Education, we’ve seen and worked with both successful straight-liners and successful roundabouters. Some were driven at an early age to become doctors and are now leaders in psychiatry, orthopedics, anesthesiology, urology and general internal medicine. Some always wanted to go into business and became Fortune 500 executives. Some committed to become architects, engineers and scientists before college and then made good on their dreams and enjoyed fulfilling careers in those fields.
On the other hand, there have been pre-meds who ended up as software developers; liberal arts majors who became commercial real estate executives; and education majors who became lawyers. There are also those like me who switch professions, even after becoming fully established and successful – more on that in a future blog. For now, here’s one of the main points of this blog: Although it may seem more trying to bounce around in different fields than it is to follow a straight and narrow path, many of us who take a “long and winding road” in our careers now cite our earlier experiences as invaluable in helping understand ourselves and others.
And here’s another essential takeaway from this blog – career success can be attained whether you take a straight-line path or a roundabout route. At some point, what counts is aligning with your self-identity. That means first figuring out who you are by understanding your strengths and weaknesses and likes and dislikes. It’s a process that takes longer for some than others. It can also be fluid given that your self-identity might change as you grow older and experience more. In any event, whether you’ve reached a point where you’re confident with your career choice, are still trying to pin it down or are looking at a possible switch, there are some pieces of advice we can offer from both successful straight liners and successful roundabouters alike.
First, take time to reflect regularly upon who you are and what you want to do with your life. But reflect with perspective, recognizing that there will be frustrations and “bad days,” even with the choices that overall you feel enthralled about. Regular reflection and maintaining perspective can be challenging, whether you’re contemplating possible careers, trying out one of those possibilities or have already earned professional status. Accordingly, you should also consider having someone else there to help you along. That person could be a role model you consciously try to emulate, a more direct mentor from whom you seek direct advice, or a professional consultant. In other words, although a journey to a successful career is always very personal, it generally takes not only meaningful personal reflection but also help from others who themselves have experienced success.