I’ve never been a big proponent of too much planning when it comes to a career. While I’ve always been a person of many interests, I’ve never been blessed with the grand foresight as to how channel those interests into a coherent and linear professional career. I’ve made a lot of career choices that to others (i.e., my dad) seem incredibly random: studying abroad in France as an English major, an internship at a small newspaper, a year in China with no experience with the country or language, an internship at the French Embassy… “You’re all over the place!” my dad would say in frustration. “Where are you going with this?”
The truth was I didn’t know—and five years into my career, as things have settled down a bit and leveled out some and seeem to be heading down a less random path, I still don’t really know. And I’m okay with that. Looking back I’m actually quite glad I didn’t have a plan coming out of college and that I allowed myself the space to see what would happen. If I’d gotten caught up in the rush to “figure things out,” I fear that I might have ended up in a job where I knew I didn’t want to be. Instead I was able to explore those interests I didn’t know how to channel and, through experience and poking around and seeing what was out there, allow them to be channeled for me.
But I suppose this is misleading in some ways. Even though I ended up in the job and career I’m in today by “following my gut,” “by a series of fortuitous accidents,” by whatever other cliches we might use here, the fact remains that it all didn’t just happen with no effort on my part. I still had to, at many points, make decisions about what I wanted to do and what opportunities I wanted to pursue, and then go out and doggedly pursue them. As much of a fan as I am of whimsy and the philosophy of letting the chips, to some extent, fall as they may, I’ve got too much of my dad’s practicality in me not to realize that at certain points, it’s up to me to make things happen for myself.
I’ve been thinking about this tension between letting things happen and making things happen a lot lately. A good friend of mine is struggling to break into an international career. She is first and foremost dealing with the deflating paradox that many young people trying to break into these fields face: in order to land the job, you need experience, but in order to get that experience, you need to land the job.
But beyond that, she is also fighting with that tension between exploring and obtaining. She’s not entirely sure what kind of career she wants to have. Like me, she has many interests and passions but is unclear how to channel them. In this she recognizes that giving herself time to explore some of those interests in a professional setting would be advantageous.
Yet she doesn’t necessarily have the luxury of exploration, as the practicality of life (i.e., the need to pay rent) dictates she get a job now. And this is where things get tangled up. Even though one of the jobs she’s interviewed for is really intriguing to her and something she thinks she really could do as a career, she still second-guesses herself because of her lack of experience: “What if I just think that’s what I want to do, but once I start doing it, I realize I actually hate it?”
Then she begins to doubt that any organization, especially the one she thinks she’d really like to work at, would even want someone like her, someone looking to gain experience but without much at the moment: “If I put myself out there, what else can I do? I’m a chance that no one is taking.”
It’s entirely true that the job she thinks she wants might be one she ends up not liking once she starts doing it. But to that, I state the obvious: you’ll never know unless you try. If it’s a job in a field you’re passionate about (which she clearly is), then it probably won’t be that far off the mark. And even if it isn’t exactly what you’d hoped for, the experience and time spent in that job won’t be time wasted, as she fears. It will be a building block to the next step in her career, even if that next step is to a completely different field. As long as the position and experience is something you think you’re going to enjoy and will provide you with new professional experiences and teach you new professional skills and allow you to emerge a better, more well-rounded professional, I tell her, then it will be a worthwhile experience, no matter where it ends up leading you next.
“I guess so,” she responds, “but I don’t have any experience and I need someone to give me that opportunity. I have no control over their final decision.” To this I am led to think: here is one of those times when whimsy and seeing what happens and letting that fortuitous accident take place isn’t enough—this is when you need to make things happen for yourself. If you really think this organization or this job could be what you love to do, then go after it with everything you’ve got. If you’ve landed an interview, it’s not enough to just show up. Convince them that they should take a chance on you. Convince them that they should “give” you this opportunity. And if you can’t convince that one organization, which is very possible, then go after the next one and the next one until the right opportunity sticks.
No one can or should know exactly what they are going to do for their entire career, and we should all allow ourselves the space to grow, to explore, and to continually see what’s out there. At many points during our careers, I think we’ll find that things emerge and happen as a result of fortuitous accidents, of being in the right place at the right time. But when career opportunities do emerge that are worth pursuing and present themselves to us, I think it’s on us to take action and to make ourselves the chance that someone wants to take.