When I was working on my MFA at Emerson College, I looked at every person with a writing career the way some women in their 30s look at babies: Oh, look at that one! And, I want my own! I was in my 20s at the time, but I wasn’t dreaming about little feet or strollers or slow-spinning mobiles. I was pregnant with dreams of a Real Career. I was also plagued with fear and doubt: What if it doesn’t work out? What if I never have one?
One afternoon, Emerson hosted some of its grads on a panel in which they discussed their jobs and career path since earning their degrees. To me, they might as well have been celebrities or spirits — they had “crossed over” to the other side. How did they do it? I wondered. Will I know what to do when the time comes? But mainly, I wondered what it would look like, this career of mine. Would it be well-behaved and predictable or wild and unruly? Where would I go with it? Where would it take me?
It took me places that I never predicted, but before we jump in here, let’s get this straight: You don’t get the career you want overnight. Even if it’s a second or third career (and you will have a few different ones over your lifetime, even if there’s a throughline), it won’t leap forth from your womb fully formed. Careers gestate for months and years. You do give birth to it, but rather than one physically strenuous hours-long stretch, it happens in stages and phases.
You probably already know that sometimes the career you set out to have isn’t the one you end up wanting once you’re in it. Perhaps you discover a turn in the road and you take it. You may still be thinking of the things you may yet do, even if you feel intimidated by the steps required to get from here to there (something that has turned more than a few people away from law and medicine, for instance). As you progress in your career and your life, the choices you make become more about what you want to be doing day in and day out rather than who you think you should “be.”
So, how do you know if you’re making the right choices?
Don’t get too hung up on the “shoulds.” You could work exceedingly hard at building a career that you end up loathing (again, doctors are a great example: They go in to help people and spend a lot more time battling insurance). That is to say: You’ve got to let your career be an adolescent for a while and push boundaries, explore where your skills and talents are best applied, and it may be outside of a given field. For instance, all editors don’t have to work at magazines — there are so many other places for their careers to flourish. (And doctors can take a research-based job or work with patients through a group practice or hospital.)
I may have thought I’d be a writer, but I sure as hell never once thought I’d be copywriter at a wig company — yet that is exactly what I did for a few years after grad school. Because you’ve got to start somewhere. And I just wanted to start by writing, not answering phones somewhere where other people were writing. Did I care about wigs? No. But I eventually did. I had a lot of fun with it (and tried on more wigs than you can imagine). I even got to name some proprietary wig technology that they still use (not even kidding—it’s called “SofTouch,” and I was particularly proud of it).
What I learned at that job was how to contribute as a creative professional on a team of creatives, marketers, and merchandisers (and how not to), which served me well when I left there to be an associate editor at a women’s magazine — a jump I made that was somewhat out of the ordinary, which was also what made it so fun.
No one’s career path is a straight line, and mine certainly was not. And while, sure, I learned how to be a better editor when I worked at the magazine, I also discovered that I loved radio and TV and learned to develop content and branding in a way that I could not have anticipated, which served me well when I left to fly solo as a consultant years later. It all made sense when you looked backwards, as Steve Jobs pointed out in his famous Stanford commencement speech. It’s the only way the dots connect.
Decide how to deepen your learning and expertise in the career you want. (It may or may not be in a classroom.) Let me make one thing clear: You can’t “learn” a career in advance; with every job you ever have, you learn by doing it.
I know there’s all this talk about how Google says credentials and higher education aren’t that important because they teach young grads to rely on talent rather than embrace failure and, as a result, to procrastinate and become perfectionists. (Trust me, that’s something I know a thing or two about.) But since we’re not all going to work for Google, which has the resources to pluck out the rare geniuses who soar sans degree, I am a firm believer in investing in your education.
I realize not everyone has the resources to pursue expensive or post-graduate degrees. I was lucky enough to be able to do it, but as I’ve said to the Emerson students myself: You don’t need a masters in writing or publishing to get a job in either field. In fact, don’t expect anyone to be blown away by yours. Because while you were studying, they were all working. However, those years of refining my craft and deepening my own abilities made me better at what I do.
Another reason why it’s worth going back to school if you can swing it is if you’re making a career shift, in which case school does another critical thing: Plugs you into a network of people in your chosen field — and those connections are invaluable.
Bottom line: Go back to school if you really want to be there and want to learn those things, not just because of what you think a degree could “get” you. Some careers (like law, medicine, some kinds of teaching) require it; for other people, post-grad degrees are options for specializing or deepening your skill and competency, but options nonetheless.
I saw far too many people go back to school simply because they couldn’t think of anything else to do, or because they were afraid of being rejected in attempts to get work they wanted. School should get you more focused and better at what you want to be doing, as opposed to just hitting a career snooze button.
Remember that a career isn’t defined by what you do over and over again, but by how you evolve. You do not need to fret that any single mistake ‘ruins’ your career or you, like the parent who fears she’s scarred her child by being late to pick her up or letting an f-bomb slip at the dinner table. And I tell you this because the sooner you free yourself from that fear, the sooner you can learn a thing or two from it.
I thought that when I didn’t go and immediately get another job as an editor at another magazine after leaving my magazine job that I’d made a mistake, or was ‘giving up’ on something. But what I realized was that a career isn’t defined by doing one thing over and over forever. I knew I had to learn something new and move forward or I would get bored. I had already learned how to do that job; it was time for something else.
Worry less about how to manhandle and make your career, and more about deciding where you’re going next. Because while it’s tempting to look back and count your notches and see how much you’ve done in one area, the fact is, the most dynamic, impressive, and rewarding careers are the ones in which you can take a risk — to try something you don’t know, to not stay in the place you’re most comfortable, but build on it.
Every time I’ve taken a risk and done something that made me a little uneasy, I’ve learned something that changes my life in ways that checking the same box over and over again wouldn’t.
And remember: you aren’t your career. Trying to see your career as separate from you can be confusing, like trying to tell the dancer from the dance. Am I my career? Is my career me? Not quite. You might read Steve Jobs’ biography and anything he’s ever said publicly and know the arc of his career. But that doesn’t mean you know him.
Anyone with a career worth having has made decisions they regret, but they also have amazing connections and astonishing insights they never saw coming. This is how you discover what you’re made of, and what you can be.