Doug Zanger wrote a brilliant and inspiring post last week on the benefits of messy careers and how the most important pieces of your career foundation might be building at this very moment.
I am the queen of messy career paths. Or at least that’s what my parents say.
Jumping from a radio internship to writing for a magazine to in-house event planning to marketing and research for a higher education institution to editing and later doing marketing strategy for an online publication to social media and public relations strategy for a soccer team to digital strategy sprinkled with public relations for a nonprofit organization to social media strategy on the agency side to editing for a collaborative storytelling project and finally to digital strategy on the agency side doesn’t scream consistency or coherency to my parents.
Or maybe to most people.
But most people don’t fancy 89-word run-on sentences masquerading as proper paragraphs, either.
Like Doug, each one of these experiences has taught me lessons that I continue to discover all the time. Even today – six years later – I use some of the strategies for effective and efficient meetings I learnt in that radio internship. Sometimes I do things and wonder how I learnt them, and days later it dawns on me that I did it once upon a previous job, or my previous boss used to do it – or my previous boss used to do the exact opposite and it drove everyone nuts.
But more importantly, my entire career to date has been a series of experiments with controlled and uncontrolled variables.
Each job has allowed me to test a hypothesis.
To define what I like and dislike.
To identify what kind of environment I want to work in and what kind of people I want to work with.
To get to know myself.
It all started in college.
No, I wasn’t one of those kids who didn’t have the vaguest idea of what they wanted to do after graduation. I was one of those kids who couldn’t decide what, exactly, it was that I wanted to do. I had a very clear vision. Or, to be exact, four visions:
It was my freshman year and, as an ambitious foreign student, I decided that the most reasonable thing to do would be to try each one of these fields – and then by graduation I would have a plan.
I started with radio. Loved some days. Hated others.
I was very confused. How was such a love/hate relationship even possible? So I started journaling. And journaling helped me find out that I loved the chaos – but I also needed time away from it.
Next I tried writing for a magazine.
I had never fancied myself a writer, and yet somehow I stumbled upon the opportunity. Looking back, I can’t even believe I was hired; it was probably because of my funky foreign accent.
Although being a writer wasn’t even on my list of things to try, I think it had the greatest impact on helping me identify how much I truly enjoy both research and the creative process. But more importantly:
It made me question my assumptions of why I wanted to work for a nonprofit organization or for a radio station; why I wanted to be in public relations or in academia.
This was the beginning of my career strategy.
Yes, there is an entire strategy behind my messy career path.
It is called experimenting.
I identified all the assumptions related to work:
And – thanks to the advice of a great mentor – left enough room to stumble upon new things and give them a try.
Every job I took after that was an experiment.
I started every job with a clear hypothesis.
I focused my journaling, and instead of random daily ramblings, it became focused on four areas:
Although I didn’t journal every day, I made sure to reflect upon my experiences every quarter, analyze my entries and see if they proved or disproved my hypotheses. These quarterly reflections were also a source of new hypotheses based on the new possibilities I had discovered along the way.
Through my first marketing job, I was introduced to strategy and I fell in love with it. Later, I found out that what I loved about strategy was the problem solving and experimenting aspect of it.
Event planning and working in-house helped me realize that I need diversity – I need to work on more than one project at a time. Which led me to agency life. Which led me to the discovery that I need a little bit more intellectual freedom.
Working with interns showed me how much I enjoy teaching.
My work with nonprofit organizations led me to the insight that the traditional charity model fails when it is most-needed – and that is how I discovered social entrepreneurship.
Which leads me to today and my newest hypothesis:
Working in academia is the perfect match for me.
It combines my need for intellectual freedom and diversity of work with my passion for research, collaboration and teaching into one. Or at least that’s the hypothesis.
I will tell you how it goes in a few years.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make. I love agency life – well, for the most part. I am comfortable with where I am and what I am doing. Now I have to start from zero. And that is scarier than moving to a foreign country that I had never visited at the age of 18 and knowing no one.
However, I know it is a short-term discomfort on the way to long-term happiness.
I know this sounds nuts, and even scary.
How can you treat your life as an experiment?
What if one of the experiments fails?
But there is no such thing as a failed experiment. Every experiment – whether you like the data or not – is a learning experience. As they say:
Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.
The reality is that this approach is the safest – and probably the most interesting – path to a happier, more meaningful and satisfying career. It is the only way to learn who you are and what the best fit for you is.
If it wasn’t for each one of these experiments, I wouldn’t know half of the things that I now know about myself – and what I look for in a job, in an organization, in coworkers.
And if we use the experiment approach in our work for clients, why wouldn’t we use it in our work for ourselves?
Just get a notebook, jot down your hypotheses and keep track of the data.
Then be brave enough to accept what the data is telling you.