The challenge of hiking in Scotland, which I discovered in the Highlands with absolutely no one else around, is that the weather can change in a flash. One moment you’re the master of solo travel, the next you’re clinging to the side of a mountain in the pouring rain wondering what happened to the path and your phone reception, and if anyone will ever find your body.
But, as I said, the weather is capricious. In an hour you’ll be wringing out your clothes and drying your passport in the sun. And, once the clouds lift, it becomes clear where the path had been.
I decided on that stormy mountain, contemplating the end of my rather short life, that there was some meaning to it. In hiking and in careers, our paths always seem much more obvious in retrospect than at the start.
My career story is much easier to tell at dinner parties than on job applications. I worked in refugee camps and in office buildings. I’ve nannyed, tidied up books, cleaned restrooms, and interviewed CEOs. I have degrees in French cuisine and journalism (one of which asks me a lot more questions than the other).
I could never seem to find this singular beaten path. But, if I could start over, would I try to get to where I am – working as a journalist – without any of the twists and turns in the middle? No.
Budding journalists ask me if a master’s degree in journalism is worth it. Since I used my entire financial future to get one, I’ll say it was. But the skills I use the most in my job aren’t the ones I learned in the classroom, but in a kitchen.
If you want to learn how to stay calm and work effectively under a line of fire from stressed editors, getting yelled at by French chefs in a chaotic dinner rush that your veloute isn’t reducing quickly enough is great practice.
There is no sole meunière recovery for revisions once it is on a table. If you can stay cool – even enjoy – the intensity of juggling scorching pans in scorching heat on a tight deadline, ensuring every item is perfectly seasoned and ready at the same time, you might like to write news.
People, especially young women, I found, were fighting not to get where they were going in the blink of an eye. As a culture, we fetishize success and youth, prodigies coming out of elementary school fully and financially secure.
But I’ve also found that people who take a little time to “become” end up with a wider skill set, more diverse perspectives, and a stronger belief that they can handle anything thrown at them. As a friend, now in private equity, told me: once you’ve spent months operating in the heat of a convection oven in a commercial laundry warehouse at minimum wage, labor issues no longer seem like very big problems at all.
A friend went from working in art galleries in New York to running hospitals in Virginia. Navigating the difficult demands of wealthier clients, she says, has been invaluable in developing the emotional intelligence needed to support patients – whether wealthy or on state assistance – who are often scared. , and seek to ensure that their needs are also met .
A leading radio producer in financial journalism started out as a professional dancer for a decade. Dance informs her everyday work, she says, because radio is a medium where rhythm, rhythm and structure are paramount. And having another passion outside of her day job, she says, gives her a healthy perspective — an understanding “that it’s not life or death.”
Another, a former band roadie, found experience in a job where “nobody’s done until everyone’s done” was an asset in the world of early-stage tech startups. , where collaboration and teamwork are paramount.
Since the diversity of experiences gives employees a broader framework to approach challenges, employers should consider different personal and professional backgrounds as a business imperative.
There are strong arguments for developing specializations, being able to work in depth and create impact. There are people who will fight to the death against generalists and against the idea of “wasting” time doing anything other than pursuing a specific career.
However, fundamentally, I think this notion is wrong.
Barring bad luck in the Scottish mountains, life is long. Life is also cumulative, and no experience is unimportant.
“Your learning curve in your 20s predicts your earnings curve in your 30s and beyond,” says Meg Jay, associate professor at the University of Virginia and author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of It Now. But there’s a difference between looking for diverse experiences in your career and avoiding your career, adds Jay. “Learning . . . about work, about love, and about yourself, is going to pay off in all sorts of ways.
Sometimes experience can just tell you that you never want to try that again. For me, it was crucial. Doing a desk job that I hated in my early years after college showed me what I really wanted to do, as I woke up every day panicking that it would never happen.
Part of the problem with career planning is the words we use to describe our backgrounds. If you are a doctor or a mountaineer, there may be a “path” visible. But, for everyone else, the path is really just where our feet have been.
Instead of a path, choose a place on your own personal horizon to aim for – but know that you can change it whenever you want. As long as you are moving, you are moving in the right direction.
My CV is not linear, but it always points to the same thing: I wanted to write. I wanted my life to be made up of stories. Behind everything I did, however random or poorly paid, was the hope that it would bring me closer to that goal.
Or, at least, make a good story.