When folks traditionally think of people in successful positions, they often consider traditional “successful” employment models/titles — doctor, lawyer, engineer, to name just a few. I always assumed that to be successful you had to have some sort of strategy laid out for your life, starting in middle school, and you hit these milestones along the way that move you closer and closer to that success column. And because I never had any of that, I always thought (and still fear, if I’m honest) that success, whatever that means, is a lost cause at this point in my life.
I know now this is far from true, because I’ve watched all of the same viral inspirational videos, read the same success narratives, and dealt with career coaches who have pointed me to the same counter-examples of this trope that you probably have. But acceptance still feels unnatural, and at times this can be a mental barrier. Where I am now is not the result of any sort of plan, and where I’m going from here is far from certain.
When I decided to go to college in high school, it didn’t seem like much of a decision. My parents didn’t have degrees and worked extremely hard to provide for us, but they certainly made it clear from early on that college would be the path to a less grueling life. That was about all I considered of education at that time. It was something I needed so I didn’t come home with achy joints every day. Seemed good enough.
But I didn’t have a shortlist of universities to apply to in junior year. In fact, I only really considered applying to one school for one program. I was going to pursue architecture. And why? Well, folks always said I could draw well. Architects got to draw (not anymore) and earn a pretty good living (arguable), so it seemed like a pretty obvious choice. There were three schools in Georgia that had accredited architecture programs and only one was really an affordable option for me, so that’s where I’d go.
Fast forward eight years, and I haven’t had a single employer who has bothered to verify that I received a degree (which I did, but not in architecture). Hell, it was only 3 years ago that I decided for a complete redo and went to graduate school to become a teacher (which I’m also not). I stumbled into programming my last year in the program, fell in love with it somehow, and, well, this is where I’m sitting now.
I know you don’t have to have a grand plan to be successful, but I don’t want to undersell that value of a plan. Now that I know what I want to do with my career, planning makes things a lot more clear and helps to set me on a path that will make me feel like a success well before I reach the end of my journey. But if I had a plan long before, what good would it have done me if I hadn’t known what I actually wanted out of life? If I’d stuck with architecture or teaching and felt unfulfilled by the work, then the plan would certainly be a failure in and of itself.
You can map out a path along the trail, or you can go bushwhacking. The trail will probably get you somewhere faster, but ripping through the forest will uncover many trails you never knew existed.† And when you look behind you, you’ll realize that you made a brand new trail along the way.
† The trail metaphor is totally 100% original, thought of it myself, and it definitely has never been done before.