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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

You Don't Need to Follow a Clear Career Path to Get Ahead

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There’s almost a 75% chance that your current job’s unrelated to your college major.

You spend four years sweating for that BS in accounting...only to end up as a field sales rep for a pharmaceutical company.

You break your back for your BA in Modern European History...and now you're a fleet manager for a rental car company.

Or, in the case of Lindsay Moroney, you follow your heart and obtain a degree in Art History, and then through a series of twists and turns, you find yourself the VP of Strategy and Operations at The Muse.

Moroney, a recent guest on the Happen to your Career Podcast, is a perfect example of someone who hopscotched her way to her current position, going from pre-med to art history to a job in the art industry before landing, quite happily it’s worth adding, in her current role. She got ahead even when she didn’t know where she was going.

We discussed the idea that as much as we want to view our career path as one that’s been laid out for us, illuminated by lights like an airplane runway, it’s really nothing of the sort. In fact, it’s a journey through a labyrinth, with myriad twists and turns and unlikely surprises along the way, and it’s OK if you don’t have a career plan.

You may wonder then, what is the point of setting goals, working hard, and ending up somewhere you never intended to be? How can you make progress if you continually break course? How can you be successful if you can’t even follow a straight line?

Here’s the thing: The more activities you participate in, the more people you meet, the more opportunities you grab hold of, the more likely you are to find something amazing along the way—regardless of (or maybe especially if), your path is quite windy. In the words of the inimitable Oprah Winfrey, “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.”

Moroney and I (and, apparently, Oprah) are strong believers in saying yes to the next cool opportunity, even if the end goal isn’t abundantly clear. When I asked her how her career evolved, Moroney said, “I didn’t have an end goal in mind. I never thought, ‘Well, if I do these things I’ll end up at The Muse.’” Instead, her guiding light has been to look for new opportunities and chances to learn and grow. “That just kept taking me on steps that were really wonderful,” she says.

So, how can you adopt this philosophy of action in your career?

1. Make “Yes” Your Default

When your manager needs someone to take part in an interdepartmental project, volunteer. When you see that the internal documents needs updating, take on the task. Poke your head outside your cubicle and look around. You never know what you’ll find.

It doesn’t matter if a project or opportunity isn’t the stuff of dreams; not every single occasion is going to be the best thing ever. But embrace the less exciting moments, and you’ll reap the benefits: learn a new skill, expand your experience, grow outside your comfort zone.

2. Expand Your Circle

Connect with people outside of your normal “orbit.” Get back in touch with your old high school friend who’s now a record producer. Have lunch once a month with a former colleague, just to catch up. Talk to the guy sitting next to you at the dog park. Find commonalities and differences between your industries.

An early connection through a friend of her father’s was able to show Moroney that a career in the art world was possible. “She had turned a passion into a real job,” Moroney recalls, and that was inspiring. Conversations with people who were living the life she imagined made her dream seem achievable.

3. Give Serendipity Room to Operate

Not all opportunities have to come from the office. Take that Spanish refresher course, volunteer for a cause you believe in, join a running group. The great thing about serendipity is that it can—and does—occur everywhere.

Over 50% of the people who I've helped make career changes have job offers that originated from chance encounters or relationships. So don’t leave your career up to chance—create more opportunities for yourself, and see what you discover.

For instance, I'm a big fan of the airplane encounter. Sure, I could be silent the whole flight, focus on my iPad (I'm an introvert, after all), and not strike up conversation with my seatmate, but then I’d miss out on opportunities to meet people and expand my network. This is how and where serendipity happens.

In sum, your path doesn’t have to be linear from A to Z. What looks like a side trip may actually end up being your next great career move. It truly is as much about the journey as the end destination.

As Moroney says, “I’ve just followed what I’ve enjoyed and what I’ve been passionate about.” Things had a way of working out for her—and if you want to get ahead, you’ve got to stop stressing over the unplanned course of your career. Keep your life in motion and your eyes open, and, chances are, it’ll work out for you too.

Want to hear my entire conversation with Moroney on the Happen to Your Career Podcast? Click here to check it out.

Still trying to figure out your path? Ditch the confusion for clarity by downloading The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Career That Fits You from Happen to Your Career.

Here at The Muse, we love introducing you to people who can boost your career. We are working with this contributor on an affiliate basis (meaning we earn a little money when you choose to use their services), but rest assured that we don't just work with anyone. When it comes to articles like this, we chose to work with this coach not because he wanted a Muse byline, but because his advice was truly awesome. Here's to finding the career of your dreams!