When Life Leads Your Career Down an Unintended Path…

The Career Path

How do you cope with the unexpected detours of life? We’ve all had them in varying degrees. They can frustrate us in our quest to control our journey or become a surprising source of adventure along the way. I think it’s all about perspective.

In this article, I hope to provide some encouragement, a wink of humor, and possibly some helpful insight for anyone who has also experienced a few unexpected twists, turns, and speed bumps along your own journey.

Finding the blessing in the unexpected. Even though I’m sometimes embarrassed by my non-traditional career path that seems to be a rather humorous example of, “I planned and God laughed”, I’m actually thankful for the rather unusual journey that has unfolded. (One look at my LinkedIn profile and you’ll understand that it isn’t one that fits inside a nice and neat little box!)

Believe me, I have had my moments of fighting some of the detours that seemed destined to sabotage my once-meticulously formulated plans. However, I’ve found that the more intentional I am on finding the blessings and the things for which I can give thanks even in the midst of disappointments, tragedies, threats, and less-than-perfect circumstances, the more joyful, satisfied, effective, and fulfilled I become.

One of my mentors is known for saying, “If it is meant to be, it is up to me.” Well, I can appreciate his perspective but if it had been up to me, my path would have been far more predictable, likely far less exhilarating, certainly less terrifying, and far more boring. I can guarantee you that my pre-planned path wouldn’t have been nearly as filled with the valuable experiences and immensely meaningful relationships that have proven to be more precious to me than coffers overflowing with money.

Is “stability” a destination? Having started my career as a graphic designer and quickly advancing through the creative ranks to management positions in the advertising world, “stability” was never considered to be an option. Accounts were won and we scrambled to add talent. Accounts were lost and talent was promptly shown the door. It was a fact of life that was tough for my dad – an educator who had only worked for two school systems his entire career – to witness, much less understand.

When my young family and I had experienced much of the tumultuous ad agency world, I had an opportunity to take a marketing management role within a Fortune 100 company – a large, national bank. My dad was relieved because after seeing me weather the effects of agencies going out of business or unable to pay their employees after losing huge accounts, he couldn’t think of anything more stable than a bank.

He was shocked to hear my report from the first day of new employee orientation where about 80 middle managers including myself were given a message by an HR representative that went something like this: “The days of retiring from the same employer with a gold pocket watch after years of service are pretty much a thing of the past. We have identified skills and experience that you currently possess that we presently need. There are no guarantees that we’ll need those same skills in the future so while you are here, we suggest you add to your ‘tool box’ of experience and keep yourself relevant for the time when you are no longer needed here or choose to find a different opportunity with another company.” That was an eye-opener. Welcome to Corporate America.

Trail marker #1: Loyalty from a company to an employee is a largely a thing of the past. While I believe we are to be good stewards and demonstrate loyalty to our employers, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment if we think that businesses are going to reciprocate to the same degree. The sooner that we understand that there are no guarantees, the sooner we can embrace the need to keep growing and appreciate the blessings of today.

Is “True North” relative? The movie star from the 1940’s, Irene Dunne once said, “If we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything.” I’ve experienced first-hand the devastation resulting from trusted leaders who ultimately descended down a dangerous road covered with the black ice of situational ethics. As I’ve witnessed, oftentimes these “falls from grace” were generally decent people who ultimately bought the lie that “True North” was relative. The wreckage caused by “ends-justifies-the-means” mentality embraced by once-admired leaders isn’t pretty and isn’t limited to just the perpetrator. Many times, their families, partners, co-workers, and even their businesses have paid unimaginable penalties.

I believe that once we are immovable in what we value most deeply, we can be flexible in the things that are less important. When I was in the ad agency business, an element of my “True North” was found in a simple litmus test: If I couldn’t openly discuss or recommend my clients’ product or service in the presence of my young children, I refused to advertise it.

Shortly after I had discovered and confronted a business partner’s financial impropriety that left me devastated, a very lucrative job opportunity came knocking while I was trying to figure out what to do next. I needed to find another good job rather quickly given the situation my partner had created and my need to provide for my family. Even though this new opportunity was a great position with fun people and great pay in a desirable area of the country, I elected to say “pass” and walk away. As painful as it was to turn it down, it was an easy choice. Why? One of their primary clients manufactured products known to cause unhealthy addictions that clearly violated my litmus test. Ultimately, I took a role that didn’t offer many of my “ideal” criteria but I was able to be flexible in the less-important things knowing that my core values weren’t compromised.

Trail marker #2. Know your own “True North” or you’ll eventually get lost. Knowing what you refuse to compromise and being resolute in guarding these values regardless of the cost can save you, those you love most, and those you are leading from unnecessary heartache. It may be a less traveled and more difficult trail but at least you can sleep well at night. It might even take you to some very cool, unexpected destinations.

So, how do we get there from here? Have you also asked yourself that question when career detours suddenly appear? At one point in my journey, I found myself contemplating my career path that looked more like a random series of cruel pranks than the carefully plotted course I envisioned. In the midst of this introspection, I started asking myself some probing questions that ultimately helped me more clearly articulate my purpose. These same questions have also helped me find the blessings in the unintended paths that weren’t found on my original roadmap.

Here are a few key questions that I force myself to answer on an annual basis that I hope may resonate with you…

Beyond financial rewards, what is my motivation? I found that some questions found in Rick Warren’s best-selling book, “Purpose-Driven Life” helped me clarify this. His “Life’s Five Greatest Questions” contained in the book are:

  1. What do I want to be the center of my life?
  2. What do I want to be the character of my life?
  3. What do I want to be the contribution of my life?
  4. What do I want to be the communication of my life?
  5. What do I want to be the community of my life?

If I could have any role, what would it look like? In other words, what are the areas or situations in which you thrive?

If I should avoid any role, what would it look like? In your experience, what are the areas or situations in which you wither?

These can be tough questions that require some vulnerable introspection. However, I find that they help ground me and reorient my career compass so I can be more effective and confident as I strive to make a positive difference wherever the road may lead me.

Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you also have experienced some challenging twists and turns along your journey. Even though it doesn’t come natural to many of us, I believe we can discover hidden blessings even in the detours.

I planned. Yet, at times God has seemed to laugh. I’m ok with that. I’m learning to embrace it. While I remain committed to dreaming, planning, and defending the things that matter, I’m determined to be flexible in the things that don’t. I’m also willing to laugh along with Him when His plans take me down an unintended path. After all, He might have something far better than you or I could have ever imagined.

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