It took me years to embrace that my career path wouldn’t be linear or predictable.
Last week, I was invited to speak to junior high students at my daughter’s school on Career Day.
As you can see from the sign, I obviously still struggle to communicate what it is I actually do – and people have a hard time understanding it.
After sharing my non-linear career path six times in a row, I realized just what a struggle career planning can be for creative, multi-passionate people, or “multipotentialites” as Emilie Wapnick calls us in her popular TED Talk, Why some of us don’t have one true calling.
Emilie clarifies a concept we often don’t talk about on career days around the country: Some of us are specialists. Others of us (who are still totally normal) are not.
I was kicked out of high school. Several times.
I was a straight A “gifted” student up until I failed that tricky transition from junior high to high school. Then I got so disoriented in the midst of a fantastic identity crisis (from letterman jacket-wearing football girlfriend to stage crew to blue-haired punk) that I completely opted out.
After “sluffing” to excess, I was asked to leave and attend an alternative high school. I never made it to class there either. Then I tried another high school in another district, and after an initial A for effort, also burned out.
I finally got connected into a different alternative high school program where I attended and earned dual credit in college classes at the local community college. I actually ended up graduating early, an accomplishment that carried with it a small scholarship.
It’s amazing to look back at what “failure” looked like in my life.
A desperate landlord let this underage girl rent a teeny tiny apartment close to campus and I thrived in my new autonomy.
I finished my first master’s degree in social work when I was still 21 and started working in addiction treatment.
True to form, I immediately began ignoring proper decorum and boundaries of my newbie role on the treatment team and questioned everything that didn’t make sense.
There’s always a lot that doesn’t make sense in established organizations, especially in addiction treatment; a symptom of, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Fortunately, my nagging questions and grand ideas aligned with a shift in senior leadership bent on bringing this nearly 40-year-old organization into the modern day.
After bugging the CEO to learn grant writing several times in my first year, I found myself with a newly created position and office in the administrative building. Less than a year after that, I moved up to the Chief Operating Officer role.
I was now the boss of the boss of my first boss, and a bit of a fish out of water.
I loved the COO role, especially underneath a progressive CEO who recognized my ability to envision and then rapidly implement projects that drastically moved the needle.
For a creative obsessed with spreadsheets, turning crazy big ideas that would benefit thousands of lives into reality was my own personal McDonald’s play place.
I went back to school and completed my MBA and fell in love with business operations.
After several years at the “top” of the career ladder, I hit the wall that many of us experience: the realization that I’d been defining career success based on salary and bonuses and titles…and that this isn’t actually the key to happiness.
I no longer had the tolerance to work 60+ hours a week, attend boring meetings, or submit vacation requests six months in advance.
I had come, conquered, and found my career to be wanting.
I left my job without a plan and spent a solid thirty days sitting in my bonus-funded hot tub questioning the past five years of my life, career paths, and what success really looks like.
During that same month, I was contacted by one of the largest companies in the world. I jumped through a series of four interviews with the local and national leadership, and I will forever remember getting the call with the offer around 4 PM while I was waiting to pick up my daughter from school.
This timing was not lost on me.
I was NEVER able to drop off or pick up my daughter from school in my prior job.
The offer should have been a dream. The baseline salary was way more than the job I had just left with a bonus structure that could buy three hot tubs at a time, plus loads of upward mobility given the sheer size of the company…
…and loads of bureaucracy, pointless meetings, office drama and politics.
I turned the job, and the entire notion of a job, down, surprising even myself.
I spent the next year obsessed with finding a way to make my own money with the freedom of being my own boss.
I volunteered for a local author, a startup angel investment network, and a variety of other ventures that interested me. I returned to old hobbies. Played with my kids.
I felt more successful than ever, and yet made less than $5,000 that first year.
I loved the COO role, and that’s what I ended up gravitating back to, just with entrepreneurs who couldn’t afford a full-time COO. I became their Virtual COO.
I replaced my prior salary by the second anniversary of leaving employment.
Being in operations requires many hats and a lot of adaptation. As a college student who never wanted to graduate, I reveled in the unpredictable array of learning opportunities that I now consider greater compensation than the checks that come in the mail:
- Book launches
- Functional medicine and nutrition
- Disaster preparedness
- Healthcare accreditation…and so much more.
I am now approaching my fifth anniversary as my own boss.
Last year, I launched two new projects, and finally embraced the fact that I will have a variety of projects and businesses over the course of my career. And that it’s okay to not have a cookie cutter answer to spout off when someone asks that question that I loathe, “What do you do?”
Therapist / Virtual COO / Writer /…
I was so obsessed with whether I was being scattered and uncommitted, or if I should follow these new pursuits, I interviewed three of my role models.
Here’s the thing that I discovered when I stood back and looked at my career…and my life:
It was as if there was a grand design the entire time, a constellation of stars that only formed the bigger picture after the fact.
I never made a mistake.
Every experience, every choice, every life experience has directly led to the opportunities that are now in front of me.
I use my therapy background with my clients all the time.
I am harkening back to those therapy roots more directly with the resiliency project I launched last year and with the book that is in the works.
Which of course is being made possible because of the experience and connections I made while working on several book launches over the years.
Every social media, web development, and online marketing skill I’ve learned while getting paid? I get to apply to my own business ventures to further my results.
After editing ebooks and course modules on nutrition and functional medicine for a brilliant doctor, I was able to control my hypothyroidism through diet alone.
After my Type 1 diabetes diagnosis last year, that same client immediately connected me to the best naturopathic doctor in the country who may have literally saved my life.
What if I hadn’t taken that big career risk?
I think about the five years that have passed and everything I would have missed out on if I had stayed on the more logical career path.
Those experiences have dramatically shaped my life. And more importantly, since I left, I’ve never missed a soccer game, a spontaneous road trip, or a school pick-up because of my job. My priorities align with my time, because I am in charge of the schedule.
I like how my stars have aligned, and I plan to continue to follow the new points of light that glimmer in the distance to see where they take me.
I hope a few of those kids in that classroom, or at least my own kids, can get to that point sooner, where they embrace the unpredictable and fantastic road ahead and stop trying to find the most socially acceptable answer to, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”