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Why We Need to Embrace Our Career-Path Curves

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When my coaching clients struggle to move their careers forward, the roadblock usually is not their managers. Or their organizations. Or their co-workers. The problem is actually the limitations of their own thinking.

They often believe there’s only one path to travel for advancement. They think the single route to the top is going after the boss’ job and continuing along that straight line created by the org chart.

Guess what?

Professional success rarely follows a linear path. If you’ve ever read the section called “How Did I Get Here?” in Business Week magazine, you’ve seen that some of the most powerful people took unexpected turns in their career journeys. That sends us an important message. The big curves in our professional lives—even the ones that feel like hopeless detours—could give us valuable experiences that will help to differentiate us farther down the road.

Here are a few things we can learn from the career-path curves of serious movers and shakers:

1. You can become highly successful even if you come from humble beginnings.

Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz grew up in a housing complex for low-income families. After being employed as a plumber and a cafeteria worker, investor Ken Langone co-founded Home Depot and took it public. Before becoming one of the world’s top-earning authors, J.K. Rowling was a single mother living on welfare. Your starting point doesn’t matter; success is always a potential destination.

2. You can succeed in a different area than you studied in school.

Consider Portugal-native Victor Luis, who earned a Master’s degree in international economics. Since 2014, he’s been the CEO of Coach and runs a thriving global brand best known for its elite handbags. Another example is Peggy Cherng, Co-Chair and Co-CEO of Panda Restaurant Group. She earned a Master’s degree in Math and a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering. A diverse knowledge base can prepare leaders to achieve goals they never anticipated.

3. Your first job may be unrelated to your long-term career focus.

Marne Levine was hired after graduation to work in the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Today, she is the COO of Instagram. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban got his start on the road to becoming a billionaire as a garbage bag salesman. Former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke was originally a waiter serving nachos and margaritas at South of the Border. What about computer company founder Michael Dell? His first paycheck came from washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant. Everybody has to start somewhere, but where you go from there is up to you.

The point is, your career trajectory is more likely to be a zig-zag climb rather than a straight shot. And that’s OK! Things change. You will change. It’s essential that you give yourself permission to consider new opportunities as they come along. If you limit yourself by thinking there’s only one “next step,” you could be missing out on something extraordinary.

Wherever you are today on your journey, make the most of it. Ask yourself some key questions. What value am I providing now? What do I need to learn so I can grow and advance? How can I connect with someone in my current job who could help me open the door to new possibilities? Where else can I apply my unique set of skills and talents? A different organization or industry? In a perfect world, what would I love to do every day?

Think about it, but don’t overthink it. Remember that a diversion job may help you uncover new strengths—and new insights about yourself. The types of people you want to work with. (Or don’t.) The environments you find stimulating. (Or boring.) Sometimes discovering those answers can give you the exact fuel you need to make smarter career choices in the future. No experience is wasted.

If you haven’t read the “How Did I Get Here?” column in Business Week lately, I hope you’ll put it on your list. It’s one of my favorites. I think you’ll be surprised by the backgrounds of the admired leaders who are profiled. I also hope it will encourage you to embrace the curves in your own career path and learn to use them as a competitive advantage.

Did you have an unusual first job? I’d love to hear about it.

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