Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

Advice From a Former Follower: How to Stop Following the Herd

I’ve been coming up with money-making ideas since I was five. Back then, I created a postage stamp trading platform in our school courtyard. When I was 12, I progressed to building computers from parts and selling them.

But when I launched my career, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and become an investment banker—because a job at J.P. Morgan was what everyone else wanted.

It’s appealing to follow the crowd when you’re starting out. For years, you’ve been directed by your parents, teachers, and college advisors. Then, all of a sudden, you’re out in the real world. There are limitless options. There are bills to pay.

You look to the people you respect for advice, but the loudest voice is the roar of the crowd. Your peers are graduating and joining the flavor-of-the-month field, and whatever bandwagon everyone jumps on seems to be the right one. It makes the big, boundless decision of “what you’re going to do with your life” just a little bit easier.

But while following the herd may be the path of least resistance, being part of the crowd can come at the expense of the career path that’s really right for you.

And here’s the kicker: Once you get on the bandwagon, it’s hard to get off. A lot of people have career crises after five years, when they realize the job they’ve chosen isn’t right for them. They want to change careers, but they don’t know how or what to do instead. Some are scared that changing paths will mean taking a big pay cut and starting over at the bottom. They end up staying in a career they don’t want—and in the end, they can’t truly be successful or happy.

How to Kick the Lemming Mentality

Coming to terms with the fact that you don’t want the same path everyone else does is easy—but coming to terms with the fact that you’re going to have to break away to do your own thing is not. Many people feel guilty, scared, or self-doubting. Their inner voices whisper, “What do they know that I don’t?”

I’ve been there. And I’ve learned that there are a few ways you can silence those voices—and follow the path that’s right for you.

Get Positive Reinforcement From People Who Have Successfully Left the Herd

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote 60 stories about the detective. He started out, however, as a physician, practicing for years before eventually leaving the field to focus full-time on his writing. You likely know someone who left marketing to become a nurse, or who gave up a promising law career to teach. Pick their brains to find out how they successfully saw beyond “what everyone else was doing.”

Recruit a Team of Supporters

While we all want honesty from our friends, we also want them to boost our flagging spirits. Surround yourself with people who see the potential in what you want to do and support your desire to find what will make you happy and successful. View them as your board members, and ask them to let you bounce ideas around. Better yet, ask for their thoughts on what you should be doing. What are you great at—better at than anyone else? What interests and passions do they think you should pursue?

Start Exploring Your Options

Instead of trying to jump into the “right” career early in life, give yourself the flexibility to try different paths, and eliminate them from your options when they turn out to be wrong. Are you considering entrepreneurship? Start a business. Interested in the corporate world? Get an internship. Don’t put it off—start today. Get out there in the world and determine whether you like that path.

I started out by jumping on the finance bandwagon, but it didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t want to work in this industry. Then, I followed another crowd into consulting. Although I enjoyed the company I worked for, I soon realized I was on the wrong path again. After giving the big organizations a try, I realized that I preferred being able to see the results of my efforts in a direct way.

At that point, I rediscovered entrepreneurship, where I’m hands-on and able to see the growth of my company, and that’s where I’ve been ever since. While I’ve always been interested in starting and growing small businesses, it took delving into the corporate life to discover that I was more attuned to the challenges of working with a startup.

So, here’s my biggest advice to you: If you’re thinking about entering a field that everyone else seems to being joining, take the time to consider your options. Do research. Seek out mentors. Do everything you can to meet people who have been involved in the fields that interest you, and talk to them. Ask them questions.

Most importantly, remember that to find your true passion, sometimes you have to zig when everyone else zags. But that’s OK. This is your life. Choose your own direction.

Photo of flock courtesy of Shutterstock.