We spend the first 20 years of our lives being asked what we want to be when we grow up. Then we spend the next 20 finding out for ourselves.

And though that can be exciting, it’s not easy. The first part of our lives is, with few exceptions, a step-by-step, guided path: Elementary school. High school. College. But after that, the roadmap stops. While you might have dreams and ideas of what you want to achieve in your career, the path getting there isn’t easily paved. And it’s different for everyone.

That’s why we’re bringing you this series: Over the next few months, 40:20 Vision will feature successful 40-something women sharing their stories on how they found their career path, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. While everyone’s career path is ultimately different, we also know there’s a lot we can learn from the journeys of those who’ve been there. 

Sonia Misak, Global Client Partner at Hall & Partners

What did you want to be when you were a kid? An animal behaviorist

Education: University of London, BSc, Psychology, University of Oxford, MPhil

First Job: The Donmar Warehouse Theater in London

Favorite Job: Research Director for Headlight Vision in London

Countries visited in last 12 months: China, France, Japan, Hong Kong, India, Korea, and the UK

Background: As a young girl in Sheffield, England, Sonia Misak knew she wanted to travel the world and never stop learning. But when it came time to find a job, it was less apparent how she could merge these two passions into one path.

Fast forward through a career that zigzagged from academia and policy research to top level positions leading global research for some of the world’s most interesting brands. Misak is now a Global Client Partner at research firm Hall & Partners, where she consults on product innovation, brand positioning, and portfolio management. Prior to that, she worked for Headlight Vision in London, and founded the company’s New York office in 2003.

Despite the inevitable twists along the way, Misak has been able to design her life around her passions. She knows now that the one thing you can plan on is change—but what keeps you on course is staying connected to what you love doing. Read on to find out how not sticking to a master plan led to her career success.

Did you know what you wanted to do after college?

I was torn between moving to Brazil or getting my doctorate in animal behavior. On a chance, I applied to Oxford’s Jewish Studies program and was accepted—and that made the decision.

Once I got there, I met an anthropologist and learned that I could work, travel, and study all at once. I immediately switched to anthropology with a focus on authenticity and memory.

Going from animal behavior to Jewish Studies is a big shift! What propelled your decision?

It was probably a gut feeling that neither of the other two options was quite right. Indecision propelled me to apply as a tiebreaker.

What was your first job?

I moved to Poland to begin ethnographic fieldwork for my doctorate in Kazimierz, the historical Jewish district of Krakow. It was a fantastic place to be for an anthropologist—a culture coming to terms with its history. Plus, I was young, learning a new language, and in a place that was undergoing great change, with the fall of Communism. I loved it!

At the same time, it was challenging. I learned discipline at an early age because I had to make my own schedule for researching, writing, and meeting milestones to keep the funding and grants. In many ways, it gave me the skills I needed to start up a corporate office.

What was the first bump in the road of your career path?

When Steven Spielberg came to Kazimierz to film Schindler’s List, I gave the crew tours and counsel on history and culture. I also met my husband, an extra on the film. We fell in love, moved to Vienna and I had two children in my 20s.

That wasn’t in my plan. I was always highly independent and thought of family as something that could tie you down and restrict your options. But the opposite has actually been true. Having a family does change your perspective, but it doesn’t necessarily limit your opportunities. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it can ground you and help you make better choices.

Now I’m grateful for the order I did it in. In your 20s, you can grow both your family and your career. You have lots of energy, you’re more flexible, and you have a different support system. In your 30s, everything is a bigger deal.

But at the same time, I could never have done it without a supportive family. My husband, an electrician by trade, could move with me and takes care of the children when I travel.

How did you end up leaving academia for the business world?

After two years writing my dissertation, being with my son, learning German, and enjoying the coffee house culture of Vienna, I got itchy feet. My husband suggested living in London, a place he’d always loved. So I accepted a job working in policy research and eventually to a startup strategy and innovation consultancy that specialized in global trends.

I didn’t think of it as giving up academia, but rather an opportunity to apply what I had learned in a new way. I was ready to “do” and my studies gave me the foundation to succeed. I didn’t have a master plan, per se, I just knew what I liked to do. You make the decisions that are right for you at the time.

What lessons from your research past prepared you for the corporate world? 

Researchers are trained to uncover motivations. This skill is invaluable for both new business and client relationships. New business is about listening for clues as to what your prospect really needs. It’s usually the issue behind the issue that counts. It’s the same for maintaining client relationships. You have to understand your role—to make your client look good. You can be clever later.

After helping lead Headlight Vision through two mergers, you left to join a boutique global research company. What led you to make that shift?

I wanted to spend more time traveling and doing research and less on administration and office politics. The fact that I learned how to manage a team while building new business gave me the freedom to be able to choose what I wanted to do in this phase of my career.

What did you learn on your path that you’d share with women in their 20s?

When you’re building your career, don’t be too specialized too soon. Get general experience, either management or in a broader area, so you can choose what you want to focus on later. General skills are transferable. You may be great at what you do, but if you’re past your mid-30s and have never managed a team, it’s going to be tough to learn. After all, a lot of it is learning by mistake.

Follow Sonia and her world travels on Twitter @misak.

Check out more from the Finding Your Path series at The Daily Muse!

Photo courtesy of Henry Solorzano.