The Many Paths To a Great Career

On my desk at work I have a piece of art that features a quotation from Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I have carried this “desk flair” with me to every job that I have held for the past 10 years. The excerpt goes as follows:

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don’t much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

I bought this framed excerpt when I started my first post-college job and felt anxious about not knowing which career path I should be headed down. Having chosen a career and dutifully journeyed down this path, I frequently observe this same guilt and worry in the words, behaviors and expressions of my younger friends as well as colleagues. It seems to be a rite of passage for young workers to panic at the immense possibilities that lay before them. Fear and guilt are at the forefront of their emotions as a result of not knowing what career path to pursue.

At my greatest point of distress, I sought advice from the college counselor of the high school that I attended. The spitfire that she is, she pointed out that the only people who finished college knowing exactly what they wanted to do were people doing what their parents had always told them to do. Of course, her comment should be taken with a grain of salt; clearly, some people do figure out their calling early in life and without the coercion of adults. However, snarky as it was, her comment was reassuring and helped to assuage the guiltiness that I was feeling during that time. Also, it encouraged me to focus my energies on figuring out my life.

Now that I am older and (I can only hope) wiser, I have outlined why indecision and uncertainty early in your career is actually a good thing.

1. When you’re young, you have a limited understanding of what you are truly good at.

In school, you typically have a sense of the subjects that you excel at and the ones that you struggle with. That being said, I believe that an internalized opinion of your strong suits is often based on other people’s positive reinforcement. In other words, you are more likely to believe that you are good at something because someone else has confirmed it and this may drive you to pursue challenges in categories of validated success.

As you progress through your career and as you are tasked with new challenges, never before undertaken (that you may not have accepted if you’d held a more rigid perception of your strengths), you will get a more comprehensive sense of the spectrum of your talents. This will influence the career choices you make over time.

2. A wider range of jobs exists, and more than you realized.

In college, I studied Mass Communications because a career in journalism seemed the most obvious choice for someone with strong writing skills. In the end, I never fully pursued a job as a journalist—the possibility of being sent to a dangerous place on a reporting assignment frankly scared me—but I did manage to stumble upon a career in product marketing that I feel suits me very well.

The point is that it’s okay if you leave college without the absolute mindset of: “I am going to be a [insert profession title].” It’s impossible to know for sure that a specific profession is everything you dreamed it would be, or that there isn’t a more suitable career option for you. Instead, remind yourself: “These are the things I am good at and/or interest me. I’m going to look into roles that are a match to this skill set.” Moreover, be open to the careers that you encounter and the ones that crop up along the way that may run contrary to what you had originally envisioned for yourself.

3. Academic studies are not an exact proxy to working in real life.

Few members of the Simply Hired Marketing team actually studied marketing while in college. Team members’ majors include: Rhetoric, Sociology, Film, Media Studies and IT. Yet, over time, we were each able to make our way into our respective marketing roles.

This isn’t to say that you absolutely shouldn’t study a subject matter that aligns with your intended profession. Instead, remember that you are not restricted to pursuing a job in a specific field, and that strictly abiding by the narrow confines of your academic studies is often unnecessarily limiting.

Study what you are passionate about, build a strong set of core skills that you can apply to a number of professions, and make informed choices throughout the course of your career.

4. It’s fun to explore and it’s something you can do, no questions asked, when you are young.

Whenever I hear a young person complaining about their job, my instant response is always abrupt. If you don’t like the line of work that you’re in, find something more rewarding to do. At the beginning of your career path, you are not invested in a single occupation, so take advantage of the opportunity to explore.

This is also a good rule of thumb to keep in mind throughout your life; transitions later in your career, while more difficult, are not impossible and should be investigated if you think that they will make you happier.

While it’s disorienting and scary to lack a career foundation, be diligent in your exploration and aggressive in your curiosity. This strategy will enable you to find the best career path.