The list of career choices I've made has been long and tenuous, at best. I wanted to be an astronaut--until I saw the footage of the Challenger explosion from the 80s. I was prepped to be a nurse--until my dad told me I'd have to change diapers. I wanted to be a fashion designer, because I liked to draw.
Okay, some of my decisions have been questionable. I was also five years old.
But the fickle mindset of a child never completely goes away, and I'm convinced as we get older that the questions grow about what a job is, what a career should be, and how we arrive at the ever-elusive happiness that the self-help pundits claim exists. And what I've learned, through many trials and errors, is that a happy career doesn't have to be a linear one.
Let me recap. I graduated high school in the middle of the pack. Better than about 70% of my class, but nothing to write home about. I was certain that I'd go to college and I'd blow my history out of the water. I'd be one of the exceptions to the rule that high school performance dictates college performance.
Here's the catch: I went to college in the same hometown I grew up in. It was 13th grade when 500 of 575 in my graduating class went to the same school I did for university. I had no reason to grow...and off I continued on my completely average path, until junior year when I broke out of my shell and suddenly realized how much potential I was wasting.
From there on, it was all about a stellar GPA, efforts at extracurriculars, trying to be the best. It was like Hermione Granger was born circa age 20. I also need to clarify something else: until then, I had wanted to be a doctor. Yes, mediocre me had wanted to become a doctor--a profession requiring 6-8 years of school, a damn near perfect GPA, an upper 90th-percentile MCAT score, and a flawless resume. Did you laugh? Yeah, I do too.
But the beauty is in the adjustments. And I had caught onto the fact that my compassion was a superpower--as an RA, as a peer interventionist, as a friend...I consistently heard about my people skills. I wanted to use those talents and practice medicine in some form, so I decided upon becoming a nurse practitioner. I wanted to be a pediatric nurse practitioner or a women's health one, but I'd never even changed a diaper so I took on the challenge of working as a preschool teacher in an infant room, growing comfortable with young children, before I moved onto nursing school in an accelerated BSN/MSN program.
And I hated it. I hated nursing. I loved what I learned but it was absolutely not for me.
So I came home, bummed and letdown by the dream of hospital work. I went back to my job as a teacher, and thought about my next steps. Then, the mother of a child in my class (and professor at my alma mater) walked in, told me about how a program she worked in offered a full scholarship and a Master's, and mentioned I'd be good at it. I'd even get to work with babies and young children, my favorite age groups. I was in.
Six months (and writing a book) later, I was enrolled in an M.Ed program, prepping to become an early childhood special education teacher. Immediately afterward, I got a job at a local preschool while I worked on my book--a side dream. I was agented, published, and worked with one and two year-olds for a couple of years. And then I missed healthcare. A lot. All the talk about babies and moms made me want to learn more about maternal health.
Back to school I went...this time, for a Master's in Public Health. I interned in human resources at a healthcare leadership organization. I worked on a reproductive health access organization's staff as a communications intern. Then I graduated, with a thesis completed on preventing maternal deaths in childbirth through the use of an interdisciplinary approach including obstetric kits. And I landed a job...at one of the best medical school/research institution/hospital combinations in the world...as a Communications Project Manager.
Wannabe doctor. Nurse Practitioner-In-Training. Early Childhood Teacher. Human Resources Intern. Communications Intern. Author. Communications Project Manager for Research.
The dots connect now. Not a single one of those positions or achievements could have been achieved without the others. Even on days where I think, "I wasted time," and I race against my own clock, I can't take back any of those experiences without negating the rest. And there has been a thread of commonality between all those pathways--health, writing, people. And that's EXACTLY what I do now. I write about the research conducted at the inspiring university/medical school I work at, and lend a human touch to the people in the labs. I take their stories and put them out in various forms, allowing their tales to be told to different audiences. Sometimes I write like a scientist. Other times, I write like a columnist.
It is my perfect job. And I couldn't have done it if I hadn't received two undergraduate degrees in sciences, been a teacher, received a master's in education, received another in public health, written a book, and interned at two very different non-profits related to health.
Some people have their purpose ingrained in them since they were born and they KNOW they are meant to work in a certain job--and that's amazing. Hats off, because I admire that drive. But for the many people who aren't so sure, or who have explored and feel behind...don't. Don't doubt your pathway. And a jagged, messy, non-linear method to success is effective, and sometimes more so because of all the assets you gain along the way.
The key is to find the common thread between your experiences. Maybe you traveled the world, tried twelve jobs in various sectors and loved all of them, and still haven't narrowed it down--that's not a weakness. Perhaps you're a natural explorer and need to change your scene often. The thread doesn't have to be something narrow, like a school subject...it can be a general vibe. Make it work for you and do it. Being able to curate a career is a benefit of today's age and there are jobs that don't even exist yet, waiting for people like us.
Success has many forms; very rarely are they linear. I hardly know anyone who hasn't taken a year for research or to work, or who hasn't questioned their career before continuing to their next step. It's easy in the world of instagram and Facebook--the highlight reels to end all highlight reels--to look around and think everyone has their shit together and they're moving at the speed of light toward their dream...what those mediums don't tell you is that the dream shifts, and people adjust. Where you started isn't always where you'll end up.
And sometimes, you're much better for it.