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A Successful Career Path Doesn't Have to Be Linear

Your current career isn't a destination; it's simply the latest stop on an ongoing journey.

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The platonic ideal of a career used to look like this: Get a job after college, work your way up the company ladder for 40 years and retire in peace. But with each passing year, more and more Americans are flouting this tradition, pursuing alternative routes to success and fulfillment.

Right now, 65% of Americans are actively seeking new jobs. Some might be starting their career and questioning if they made the right choice. Others may be among the countless people motivated to change careers coming out of the pandemic. If you are one of this 65%, know that you are not alone. It is perfectly normal to re-assess your career and pivot as necessary — in fact, I recommend it. 

Related: 5 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Starting My Career

Twist and turns

The majority of careers are no longer a straight-line progression from Point A to Point B. Most successful people I know continually explore their options throughout their careers. The average American worker will change jobs 12 times in their career, and that number is likely to increase in the future — a whopping 91% of millennials expect to change jobs every three years. And though some might balk at those numbers, I have seen throughout my career how a flexible and open mindset is actually a crucial element to success. Your current career isn’t a destination; it’s simply the latest stop on an ongoing journey.

I began my career thinking I wanted to be a doctor. I studied biology and even got a job in healthcare after college. So, how did I end up in human resources? I followed my interests. My first job in healthcare happened to be in HR and support services at a group home. As I worked in this role, I realized that I enjoyed the people-facing side of healthcare much more than the science itself. I started to get more experience recruiting and managing people, and from there, the twists and turns that have made up my career began to unfurl.

If I had viewed healthcare as my final destination and stayed fixed on my idea of becoming a doctor, I never would have stumbled upon some of the opportunities I now feel so grateful to have had. Furthermore, I never would have had the chance to do work that genuinely excites me.

Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone’s path will inherently be meandering. Some might start their careers wanting to become doctors and do just that. However, it is important to stay open to new possibilities and seize every opportunity you can — even if those opportunities don’t come packaged in the box you thought your career might fit into.

Related: How To Pinpoint Where To Make Career Moves and Changes

Keep your feet on the path and your eyes on the horizon

As you progress through your career, you should keep your eyes open for new opportunities that may lead to more rewarding work in a field you did not expect. What is essential to your success is that you feel passionate about your work, not whether or not your career follows a clearly mapped route.

If I had stayed in healthcare instead of following my interests in human resources, I might not have gotten very far. I don’t know if I would have risen to the top if I wasn’t as excited about my work as I am today. However, when I recognized and pursued work that did excite me, I became fearless about diving into new opportunities. I didn’t always know what was around the corner, but I was eager to find out. I’ve never had all of the answers — no one ever does — but it didn’t matter. I was confident I could figure anything out, because I was motivated to succeed in this field I love.

It is not bad to start your career with a plan or an end goal in mind, but stay open to the possibility that the goalposts may move or shift. Pay attention to what is lighting the fire beneath you. Is it the path you originally set out on? Or are you finding yourself more engaged in another lane that could be worth pursuing? You never know where you might end up.

Related: Traditional Career Planning Is Dead. Here's the New Path to Financial Security.

Learn to accept success

Be mindful of Imposter Syndrome and the adverse effects it can have on your career if you let it. False feelings of inferiority or inadequacy can block you from seeing all of the possibilities open to you. You might not take a chance on a new job that interests you because you’ve never worked in the field before, or you could decide not to put yourself forward for a promotion because you don’t think you’re ready for it. In order to succeed, you have to quiet the voice in your head telling you that you’re not worthy of, or prepared for, new opportunities. A little self-doubt can be a good thing, but always remember: You deserve to be where you are or you wouldn’t be there.

When I was 28, I was given the responsibility to run all of the Americas for human resources at a start-up. I suddenly had an entire team of people looking to me for direction, and I had no idea what I was doing. I was terrified, but I told myself failure was not an option. I would have to figure it out and learn along the way — and I did. If I had thought “I’m only 28. This isn’t the typical career trajectory. I’m not ready,” I would have stalled my growth and missed out on an exciting period of my career.

During this time, I was also lucky enough to have allies and champions within my company who helped me grow and become the leader I needed to be. We cannot succeed alone; none of us have all the answers, regardless of how far along we are in our careers. It does not mean you are an imposter or a “fraud” if you ask for help. Rather, it is a sign of confidence when you are able to admit your weaknesses. Do not let Imposter Syndrome hold you back from chasing after your goals. With the right allies, you will always have people waiting in the wings, ready to champion your successes and reinforce your defenses.

Related: Why Having 2 Wildly Divergent Careers Makes Me More Fulfilled

It is your career

Your career does not have to follow the traditional trajectory of the past or even the trajectory you initially planned for. Everyone’s journey to success will look different, filled with twists and turns we never saw coming — but those surprises are also the very things that make life interesting.

Pay attention to what lights you up, stay open to new possibilities and bring your trusted allies along for the ride. It is your career, and thus it is yours to create. Don’t be afraid to do with it what you will.

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