Choosing a Career Path | When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Career path

I’m on the hunt for that next career that ticks all the boxes for personal and professional fulfillment, and I’m sure I’m not alone. According to a 2017 Gallup Poll, only 30% of American workers love the jobs they have; the rest are either somewhat disengaged or downright miserable. My guess is that this group wonders about the roads that led them to their current gig and the roads not taken.

As the iconic Robert Frost poem or the Yogi Berra quote in this blog’s title suggest, one path is not necessarily better than another.

Since I’m at this midlife fork in the road, I thought about some of my career intersections. My resume would not be the same today if I’d chosen differently at these junctions. What’s more, I don’t believe I would be the same, “knowing how way leads on to way.” 

Catherine Palmer, Attorney at Law

I majored in business administration at college – the most popular choice behind teaching and engineering among my high school peers. I took the required courses in statistics, economics, and public speaking. I also took classes in art history, literature, and creative writing.

By the middle of my Sophomore year, I was taking more art classes than I was earning credits required for my degree. Yes, the first few semesters of business classes were helping me to determine what I did not want to do.

I explored different schools and majors, seriously considering a Junior College program for paralegal studies – going so far as to pay the application fee. That was shortly before I quit school altogether and followed a man to Alaska. 

I have no regrets about that choice, but I sometimes wonder what if I had taken the other path instead. Catherine Palmer, Attorney at Law? That has a ring to it. I want to think I’d be working for the ACLU and fighting the establishment in some way (yet still mom to my amazing kids).

“By Catherine Palmer”

I came to another pivotal intersection about four years later. We’d moved from Alaska to the metro D.C. area, and I worked part-time at what was the Potomac News in Woodbridge, Virginia. My job was to write and edit captions for photographs, wedding and birth announcements, and other small tidbits for the lifestyle section. Any spare time I had was spent in the file room, clipping and filing articles from the printed newspapers.

I loved being in the file room, surrounded by words, and was a slow file clerk as I read every article and dug into the archives in search of juicy stories. I imagined I had a byline, a weekly column, ala Erma Bombeck or the fictional Tom Braden (bonus points if you remember who that is!).

One day, the managing editor and a reporter were having an ad hoc meeting in the file room. They said hello and remarked that they were happy with my work. Then followed up with the dreaded “what do you want to do?” career question. They even suggested that I could take on some local reporting assignments for the paper, covering planning board meetings and the like. 

“Who me?!” I was surprised, happy, and scared, all at once. I want to do that! I’ve never done that! I can’t do that.

Caught off balance by this opportunity, I made a U-turn away from the path of junior journalist. I had a baby and a toddler at home; attending evening meetings and hitting deadlines was not possible. I don’t remember exactly if that was the reason I gave, but it seems likely.

I do wonder what if I had been ready for that potential lucky break. Then I remember that most of my career has been in front of a keyboard, writing an enormous variety of content, and now I do have my very own column in the form of this blog.

Catherine Palmer, CMO (Chief Marketing Officer)

I worked in marketing for many years and covered virtually all aspects of the role – brand strategy, campaigns, media relations, employee communications, events, product marketing, etc. What I love most about marketing is that there is so much variety to it. That can be the downside too, especially in dynamic environments, and after a few fast-paced decades, I was coming to a crossroads.  

About three years ago, as I prepared for my annual review, I thought hard about my development plan (the corporate form of asking, “what do you want to do?”). The organization was going through rapid change, and the environment was as turbulent as it was exciting – it was time to step up or be prepared to step off.

We had recently moved to live full-time in Vermont. I was now working remotely, the pull of a slower, simpler life growing stronger. I drafted a plan to scale back, become an individual contributor, and maybe work on a few special projects. 

But when I sat down for my review, suddenly the GPS in my head urged me to stay on the path and hit the gas. I surprised myself at that moment by asking for a larger role, rather than a smaller one. The reasons are complex, having something to do with golden handcuffs and my (incorrect) assumptions about success at the time. Suffice to say I thought I had something to prove to myself.

“I’m going to need help,” I remember asking, asserting that I was ready to take on more and help grow this business. I should have been raring to go, but I left that meeting wondering what the **ck just happened. I knew my heart wasn’t in it. 

Truth be told, as much as I believed I could do it, there wasn’t time for coaching and coddling in that frantic start-up culture, and frankly, I needed both. Over the next year, I struggled to complete critical goals, unable to build consensus with a rotating cast of stakeholders. My relationships and my reputation suffered. My tank was empty; I had to get off this road.

There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.

Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix

That last acceleration up the corporate hill crystallized for me that I was no longer on the right path and catalyzed this midlife reinvention.

This post isn’t a lament of what might have been if I’d picked a different career, took a chance, or tried harder. On the contrary, I look at the road behind me and am certain that I am where I need to be. While I can see the potential of one path over another — what might have been, I can also see what I might have lost — the experiences, the learning, the happy and the sad — that makes me who I am.

Now I am exploring many different paths — issues advocate, homesteader, volunteer, writer, creator, entrepreneur, and others still to be discovered. The more interests I pursue, the easier it is for me to identify what inspires me and what does not. This is precisely my intent for this protirement so that I can pursue my next endeavor with as much heart as it requires.

Pivotal Points

  1. Choosing a path can be as simple as following your heart.
  2. Missing a turn gives you the opportunity to see and do more, and still arrive at your destination.
  3. Accelerating gets you where you are going faster, even if that happens to be the next exit.

Published by Catherine H Palmer

I used to help big companies tell their stories, now it's time to tell my own. I blog about midlife reinvention and making a new life in rural Vermont. Follow me, I have no idea where I'm going.

One thought on “Choosing a Career Path | When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

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