How I went from no career clarity to an executive position advising Fortune 500 C-suite members in under 10 years.
Right out of college, I was the most confused person you’d have ever met. I was interested in too many things and had zero formal career guidance. As a first-generation college graduate, I was torn between following my risky dreams or ensuring financial stability for my family. Hence began my journey into career experimentation of trying to merge both.
Two traditional pieces of career advice that I didn’t nail early on
Advice 1: Having a five-year and ten-year plan
Almost 99% of college career counseling advice manuals would tell us to “figure out your 5-year and 10-year plan as you walk into any interview”. At the time, I thought I didn’t have one. Though in retrospect, I realize that I did have some sort of inspiration or driving force. But I had no idea what a 5-year or 10-year manifestation of this inspiration would look like.
Advice 2: Picking my niche
I didn’t have a niche. I consider myself a lifelong learner and I have a wide range of interests. It is true that someone who picked the traditional sense of a niche has been shown to have a higher chance of success due to the 10,000-hour phenomenon. I am not against picking niches. However, I also give similar consideration to others who haven't identified or decided on their niche. Especially in this era of rapid growth. A new graduate with these inclinations is considered a “Jack of many trades and Master of none”. Give it a decade, the same person will be called in for multi-specialty cross sectional perspectives :)
Steps you can take to fool-proof your future success when you do not have career clarity
It is okay to not have career clarity, but it is important to be aware of your career inclinations, desires, passions, strengths, and weaknesses. When I persisted for clarity early on, I found myself in a never-ending loop of self-doubt, self-beratement, and confusion. One day, bored from berating myself that my career ideas seem unrealistic, I gave in to my career aspiration(s).
I was of the conviction that hands-on career experimentation is crucial to find my fulfilling career path. Formal academic explorations in the confines of a university or internships do not usually expose one to the nuances of personal growth in relation to your job.
I tried many different roles - child psychologist, product manager, data analyst, and software engineer. I spent most of my free time reading books or engaging in communities I was drawn to – neuroscience, machine learning, product management, psychology, business economics, etc. I let my inspirations guide me and things started to shift. As I accepted who I am, I was able to find clarity for what will bring me work fulfillment and this, in turn, propelled my career. The journey nevertheless had its share of doubts, fear, and a strong inner critic.
Below are some of my learnings on how I went about this.
Step 1 Build Career Self-Awareness
Make a list of all that you want to do
Often we are our biggest blockers. We have to give permission or hear out what we want to be. Make a list of all that you want to do in your life. It could be an opera singer, a psychologist, a writer or anything in the tech space. Give yourself the utmost liberty to be as outlandish as you can and get all your career desires on paper because if you don’t listen to your own career desires, no one else is going to. When you do this, you are calming over-thinking, over-trying, over-working, and instead, letting your innate controls system guide you.
Create a list of career inspirers
Next step is to look for role models or other people who have walked a similar path. Going through this step was a huge validation for me. I was one of the early birds on LinkedIn who was scavenging for people with similar career transitions. I found a doctor who did an MBA. I found a biology high school teacher who is a product manager. There are tons of people here on Elpha or on LinkedIn. Connect with people you resonate with and hear their perspectives or experiences. Observe how they went about switching careers or transitioning through roles.
Create a career plan
As you talk to and study other people who went through similar paths, a solution or pathway would start to form. From the list you made in the first step, understand what you can try in your current situation. Filter them out and answer these two:
Best case scenario - What is the best thing that could happen?
Worst case scenario - What are the transferable skills I would have gained?
Revisit this list at least every month to leverage the power of your subconscious mind to track progress, recalibrate, make connections or seek opportunities for next growth. The key is to practice seeking what you want clarity on with persistence, and calmness.
Step 2: Take radical accountability of your time, effort, and energy
Having no career clarity introduces one dangerous risk - time wasted in jobs that are not right for you. Hence, ruthlessly reflecting on your current goals, desires, future goals, and job environment is crucial to ensuring your effort is counting towards your long-term goals. Here are two things to maneuver through a transitional phase/job.
Track Accountability via self-reflection
I wish I had known this much earlier. Often, we only remember our flagship success in a role and forget the insightful day to day learnings, communication dynamics we navigated. These may be outside the scope of your direct responsibilities. However, these are golden nuggets to remember. Record your weekly or monthly learnings, your reflections, along with wins and successes in a career journal online or on paper. You’d be amazed how helpful this becomes when you are particularly trying to filter and talk about your transferable skills at your dream job interview. I often turn to this when I experience imposter syndrome or under calibrate myself.
Calibrate inner voice and external noise
Often lack of lucid clear goals is a sign of conflicting goals that need untangling.
I once left a managerial position to start at entry level in a product company even though I was a 6 months manager, the fastest at a really good firm. The impact I’d have didn’t authentically align with my personal core. However, I accepted the entry level job despite a clear pay gap and gender biased hiring process, because it was in a subject I was absolutely passionate about. I radically let go of things I can’t control and reframed it as a bridge job or stepping stone.
I worked hard and got promoted fast. 3 years later, I was hired into an executive position because of that same skill set I gained here. In the process I experienced my first win at trusting my inner voice that such a skillset will be in demand even though it seemed ridiculous at that time. I am now able to have a much broader impact by advising C-Suites in Fortune 500 companies on how to use technology to solve societal problems.
We live in an era where there is massive growth in every field. Choice overload and hype cycles may have us confused on how to best realize our potential. It may seem like the grass is greener on the other side. It will seem that way until we align with what authentically matters to us – it may be learning, growth, passion in a particular role, or all of it. It is important to be aware of what is authentic to you and then calibrate that against the current hype cycles.
Step 3: Reframe Reframe Reframe – the no.1 toolset in your arsenal
Your perception of yourself is fundamental to your beliefs and what you achieve for yourself. Instead of berating yourself or thinking you are less than others for lacking clarity, practice kindness. Here are some examples to reframe
- You may be a polymath who has diverse interests and spots synergies across industries. These types of folks have made outstanding entrepreneurs.
- You may be highly intelligent and the roles you are looking for is something you’d have to pave way in the world
- You are making sure you are not resenting your path later on in your life
- You are learning more about yourself, your desires, and in the process, gathering precious soft and hard skills. With a strong foundation, your growth will be exponential.
Reframing helps you uncover useful angles in a bad work experience. At my first job, I worked for a toxic manager because of whom I questioned my path, the type of job, and the type of people in those roles. In retrospect, I unintentionally learnt perspectives on how to be a good manager, sharpened my people management and upward management experience that proved tremendously valuable as I moved higher.
In summary, try to look at failures as detours, delays in clarity as sharpening your knife, and uninvited career opportunities as a skill set upgrade. Be kind to yourself, believe you have everything you need, and trust in your inner intuition.