career paths

Career Paths Aren’t Straight and They Don’t Always Go Uphill. Here’s Why.

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When most people are first starting out in their careers, they picture their career paths as straight, and on the climb uphill to the top of their fields. When they’re in the middle to end of their careers, they look back and see twists, turns, steep drop-offs, and even loops backwards before going forwards again.

It reminds me of the hiking trails near my home.

I know on one of the paths, if I go left, I’ll have to go up a very steep hill for a short period of time, and then have a rather steady decline the rest of the hike. But if I go right on the trail loop, I’ll have a steady incline for most of the hike, with a big drop at the end.

I usually choose the first route with a steep incline so I can get it over with fairly early, and while I have fresh energy.

Unlike a trail with a map at the trailhead, we don’t always know what our career paths will look like. For most people, it’s not a predictable steady or straight climb up only one hill.

I’ve seen this in my own career, my friends’ careers, and my clients’ careers. And it’s something I had to explain to my college students I used to work with.

College majors don’t always determine career paths

I remember my college students would come to the career center and say, “I’m not sure what to major in. My decision will make or break my career!”

I’d tell them, “Don’t worry. Your decision on your major is not always major.”

For about 80 to 85 percent of the people in the workforce, this is true. Their choice of college major wasn’t their end-all-be-all decision in life. Most people end up in career paths only somewhat related to, or completely different from, what they majored in.

I’d tell my students, “What you start out doing likely won’t be what you end up doing.”

A perfect example

My best friend of almost 35 years is a perfect example of this. She went to nursing school and became a wonderful and caring nurse.

By the time she was 26, she was the director of a nursing home, supervising a large number of nurses. She admits this big of a role came too soon for her in her career.

She later left the nursing field to become a pharmaceutical sales rep.

After many years as a sales rep, she was laid off and decided to go back into nursing.

But being the caring nurse she is, who goes above and beyond for her patients, she burned out only a few years after her return. Now, she’s back in pharmaceutical sales, which fits her schedule better at this point in her personal life.

My own example

I myself even thought my career path would look a certain way. My plan was to go into college career services as a career adviser, then work my way up to a director of a college career center, and stay in higher education until I retired.

While I’ve always done career advising, my path has been unpredictable, with some unexpected but really cool off-shoots and re-routes.

My first year in higher education, I wore a lot of hats at a small private college, including academic advisor, instructor, and orientation coordinator. After only my first year there, I achieved my goal and became the director of the career center.

For four years I built up this school’s career center, which had previously been stagnant for a long time.

Then, I wanted to make a change to a slightly larger, public university. With this move came the lesser title of assistant director, but with a pay raise.

I enjoyed being assistant director because I no longer had to deal with the pressures that come with being a director. And after four years in this role, Nashville came calling.

Career path to Music City

In 2006, I came to Nashville for the CMA Fest with a friend. And like most people who visit Music City, I fell in love with it.

I could tell it was on the cusp of something big, and felt I needed to get here and buy some real estate before it exploded. I’m so glad I did, especially knowing now what I know about Nashville’s current real estate market.

To move here and remain in my career field, I had to make a lateral move in job title for a role at Vanderbilt, but still got another pay raise. Having the same title instead of moving up didn’t matter to me. I was excited to be in Nashville and to continue advising students on their careers, without the pressure of being a director.

I figured I’d stay at Vanderbilt for most of my career, and perhaps move up in its career center. But I was okay if it didn’t happen this way. During this time, I learned that titles never really mattered much to me. And to those who it did matter, I saw what it did to them.

But after less than two years in the career center at Vanderbilt, my career took a major shift, which I’ve previously written about. I did something I always thought would be cool but never dreamed I’d actually do it. I started my own business!

The career paths of entrepreneurship and side hustles

At the time, the business was an off-shoot to my career, doing something rather different but using the same skills.

However, while doing something so different, I still found myself providing career and job search coaching to several people. It was during the economic crisis of 2008, when many people were laid off and needed help finding work. So I continued to provide career coaching on the side, while pursuing a business doing something different.

At the same time, I also was asked to fill in at Belmont University’s career center on a part-time basis. This meant another drop in job title in higher education. It didn’t matter to me though. I got to pick my hours and keep doing career coaching, while also running my business.

A few years later, I left this part-time job and shifted the focus of my business back to solely doing career coaching full-time, specifically focusing on clients in career transition. It was ideal because I was doing what I was originally called to do. But this time, I got to do it on my own terms, and in a new and refreshing way. And, since I owned the business, I could give myself whatever title I wanted!

Career paths can lead to interesting places

I say all this to show that, your career path can’t be planned out ahead of time.

There will be unexpected hills and valleys. You may have a steep drop when you lose a job you always thought would be secure.

Then later, you may find yourself on the rise, or on a new route all together. This new route could lead you in a whole other direction, or loop you back around to your original calling.

Understand this:  your career decisions aren’t always do or die. They are more often stepping stones on a path perhaps leading you some place you never dreamed.

When those unexpected times come, or you find yourself stuck in your next decision of where to go next, seek guidance.

I’m happy to help (click here)! Especially as someone who’s worked in a traditional job, had side hustles, and started her own business. It’s given me a rather unique perspective and opportunity to be able to help and encourage people like you.

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