For me, it all began at 16 with selling shoes at the now defunct Kinney Shoes. For a young, quiet girl who studied hard and took life pretty seriously, venturing out into the adult world of employment and customer interaction was a huge step.
By day I wore a blue plaid skirt, pressed white shirt and knee socks at my all-girls Catholic high school, which had about 600 students. When I wasn’t learning the terms “LIFO” and “FIFO,” measuring shoe sizes and earning minimum wage plus commission at Kinney, (“These super durable socks will complement these Timberland-like hiking boots perfectly!”) I was studying or taking dance classes.
While my first job was pretty typical of a high schooler, looking back that first foray in to the work world was important. It launched my long, meandering path of 20+ jobs, multiple careers of varying success, two graduate degrees, three certifications and one advanced education certificate.
In actuality, my experiences could not have prepared me better for my work now, as a career change specialist who’s helped hundreds of others find and thrive in work they love. If I’d had more guidance, a goal in mind from the start, or support from someone like the current me, I probably would not have had the incredible diversity of professions. But, I likely would have ended up where I am now a whollllllle lot sooner.
Looking back at our career paths and life choices can be tremendously instructive as we look ahead …
Now, there’s no point peering back to speculate on that point, but looking back at our career paths and life choices can be tremendously instructive as we look ahead. It can help us find our real calling and the specifics we need in place in order to maximize our joy and success.
Ya Gotta Start Somewhere
We begin this exploration as I did recalling my shoe store gig, by reviewing our past jobs and considering:
- why we chose them;
- what we learned;
- what we liked and disliked about them;
- the skills we used, strengthened and most enjoyed;
- the organizational cultures and behaviors;
- how we were managed;
- what we could have done better; and
- our biggest takeaways.
For example, the biggest lesson of the shoe store job? Ya gotta start somewhere. And I learned about time management, communicating with people of all ages, the connection between effort and money, and the concept of organizational culture. I learned too that I was a big fan of footwear; of feet no so much. 🙂
After that came the near-daily donning of the brown polyester get-up and visor that was the Pizza Hut server look of the day. I still remember spilling an entire tray of plastic glasses and a pitcher full of 7Up on a kind family who tipped me anyway, and the inability to get the restaurant smell out of my uniform, no matter how many times I washed it.
My lessons learned there? Waiting tables was hard work; people can be very nice or unreasonably demanding; having fun coworkers made the whole experience a lot more enjoyable; and figuring out what I really wanted to do with my life better happen soon because restaurant work was not something I was cut out for long term.
My Corporate Moment
But even after four years of college and a major in history as a default, I still had no good ideas. After graduating I moved back home, to New Jersey, where my parents had moved while I was in college and where I knew no one (though I was excited 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees Bon Jovi lived there). Light misery set in.
I got a job as a hostess and a second job in a bookstore. After 6 months I landed my first real post-graduate job, at AT&T-International. I was 21 and much younger than everyone else there, and the guy in the cube next to me NEVER said hello or in any other way acknowledged my existence. I was able to use my college Spanish, translating memos and travel documents to and from English and Spanish, but other than a few kind older folks, the only acquaintance I had was the hairnetted boy who worked in the cafeteria.
Lessons learned? This corporate job paid well, which I liked, but I had no coworker relationships to speak of and my work largely was isolated. I did learn a great deal about international business, organizations, teamwork, goals and corporate operations, and had I stuck with it longer, I’d likely be swirling in wealth today. However, I realized yet again I had to find out what I was really good at and liked doing. So I ended up at Indiana University-Bloomington in graduate school.
Note: If you are the kind of person who knew from the start you were meant to be a specific type of professional (teacher, accountant, etc.), well, you probably can’t relate to my journey, though then again you’re probably not reading about it now either!
A Little Bit Closer Now
In grad school, I took my time earning a Master’s degree in Journalism, specializing in Public Relations (and I was excited John Mellencamp lived here). I (somehow) was granted a scholarship that paid for tuition and an assistantship, and I worked four other jobs to gain experience with the multiple aspects of PR. After I could no longer drag out the comfort of grad school any longer, I secured a writing job at a PR firm.
This particular work experience had a lot of the elements I was seeking: challenging projects; a balance of solo projects and teamwork; really fun coworkers; creative problem solving; and a lively workplace culture.
Despite all these positives, the downsides began shining through: a crabby supervisor I didn’t connect well with; a 9-5 routine; relatively low pay; and soon a change in my job as the company grew and my assignments became less stimulating.
I had a lot of likes and a fair amount of diverse talents, but I wasn’t stringing them all together and thinking ‘purposeful career path’ …
By now, I was starting to get a good sense of what was important to my thriving and what gave me dread. But I still wasn’t operating from a place of focus or purpose. I had a lot of likes and a fair amount of diverse talents, but I wasn’t stringing them all together and thinking “purposeful career path.”
After less than two years at that PR firm, I returned to grad school for a Master’s in Arts Administration. I knew I enjoyed grad school: no 9 to 5 structure; interesting people; a variety of projects, and this time I could build on my enjoyment and knowledge of PR and apply it to the arts (dance had been a big part of my early years after all).
My Whirlwind Years
For the sake of brevity, I’ll shortcut what followed. After taking my sweet time in grad school yet again, I launched my own marketing communications firm and co-authored, with my dad, a textbook used by 30,000 Kelley School of Business students; directed a fundraising campaign to build an animal shelter; and successfully managed a mayoral campaign.
Those experiences finally brought together so many of the elements I adored:
- my own work schedule;
- a huge variety of projects;
- loads of problem solving;
- tons of solo work balanced with interaction with all types of people;
- good money and
- meaningful work.
That’s a path I could have (should have?) stayed on, but I was lured by a new opportunity …
That’s a path I could have (should have?) stayed on, but I was lured by a new opportunity: our new mayor invited me to join his team as the City’s communications director, and three years after that he named me deputy mayor.
Now We’re Talkin’!
Those two jobs were tremendous in so many ways: a huge variety of coworkers, constituents and stakeholders; very challenging, diverse, impactful and important work; excellent money and excessive vacation.
The hours were long and bled well beyond the 9 to 5 structure, but my past experience had taught me I wasn’t a 9 to 5 kind of gal. I was never a great fit for the long-established public sector environment, but I was allowed to do an incredible variety of stimulating work, from reinventing the budgeting process to designing a big blue bridge. I stayed nearly 9 years then decided it was time for something new.
I started my own business again and decided to give teaching a try. I’d seen several department heads at the city teach a course at IU, so I thought, why not. Four years and 19 classes later, teaching remains a fun and rewarding complement to running my own career coaching and training practice.
I tell this protracted tale because this is the path that led to me to my aching desire to help others figure out how to find work that makes them happy and fulfilled. And to help them secure this work decades sooner than I discovered mine!
As I mentioned earlier, had I had the wherewithal to figure things out sooner, I would not have gained the tremendous education, on-the-jobs learning, and experience in corporate, nonprofits, entrepreneurship, small business, public sector and higher education that I’ve earned the roundabout way.
Taking stock of what worked well, what didn’t, what I enjoyed, what made me crazy and what gave me meaning was critical to my success …
Taking stock of what worked well, what didn’t, what I enjoyed, what made me crazy and what gave me meaning was critical to my success. It also instilled in me not only knowledge of all these fields and the ability to help people in so many different career stages and industries, but what it takes to find work that’s the right fit.
Looking back at it all, I can’t imagine a better way to use what I’ve experienced in my 20+ jobs than by helping others navigate their career change now. And should I decide to embark on another path in the future, I’ve got a darn clear road map for what will work best for me and how to get there.
Your Turn To Go Back In Time
So, how about you? Looking back at all your work experiences, what stands out in terms of likes, dislikes and lessons learned? What lessons will help you shape your next career move? This action of careful reflection is part of Discovery, the first of the seven steps in the Career Success System I created that has helped so many others discover, prepare for, land and thrive in work they love.
When I teach, coach and train on these topics, we spend time looking at past work through the lens I’ve just described. We also look at it in terms of the decisions you made and why; the specific, measurable successes you had in each role; the skills you gained that can be transferable to a new job or industry; and the value you added to each organization.
Together, all of this information is invaluable in helping you figure out what will excite you and give you meaning, and how to position your experience in a way that will help you secure this new type of work. It also helps you get clear on what you don’t want so that you can focus your job search or career change efforts on getting exactly where you want to be.