In a world that’s changing at the speed of light, where the old guard – Skills and Experience – are being challenged by teenage prodigies like Purpose and Passion, the nonlinear career path has finally shed its dodgy reputation and is now in vogue. For those who are restless, unnaturally curious or incubating suspicions that a change might be worth a look, the upsides are plentiful.
It doesn’t matter where you go – sideways, downwards, or way out there in leftfield – as long as you do it for the right reasons, there’s a good chance you’ll find the growth you’re looking for.
It goes without saying (but this is the internet, so I’ll still say it) that a structured, linear path full of purpose – medicine being an obvious example – can lead to success and fulfillment too. Linear is the optimal path in many different fields, and there’s comfort in the path you can see, rather than those you can’t.
Dr Deepak Chopra is an author and pioneer of alternative medicine, and when it comes to our careers, he thinks the unknown might have more potential now than ever before.
“At the outset of my medical career, I had the security of knowing exactly where I was headed. Yet what I didn’t count on was the uncertainty of life. There is wisdom in uncertainty — it opens a door to the unknown, and only from the unknown can life be renewed constantly.”
The advantages of nonlinear career paths
Life constantly renewing sounds pretty good. What else? One of my favourite perspectives on nonlinear journeys is this, from author and Harvard Business School fellow Claudio Fernández-Aráoz:
“Non-linear job changes can tell a lot about several powerful emotional intelligence-based competencies — flexibility, adaptability, empathy, organizational awareness and relationship management — that differentiate stars from average performers in new roles. Disruptive moves can also tell you a lot about potential because they show a candidate’s curiosity, insight, inspiration and determination, which in turn indicate a search for learning and challenge.”
Of course, a nonlinear career can just be a manifestation of those qualities. But it can also be the cause. There’s no doubt that in embracing the uncertain, you test the outer reaches of your comfort zone, challenge yourself and learn what you’re actually capable of.
You’ll get to collaborate with new peers and learn from new bosses. “Life is beautiful because of the people we meet” says author, motivational speaker and star of one of the most popular TED talks of all time, Simon Sinek. The more unconventional turns you take, the more diverse the people you meet.
Provided you’re guided by meaning and passion, you’ll be working in alignment with your values and serving your purpose. When you embark on an unconventional career path, you may encounter more obstacles and fail-learn more often, but because you’ve got skin in the game, you build resilience. As you collect skills and experience, you develop valuable new perspectives, boost your ability to create and innovate too.
All of that can be summed up in one word. Growth.
How a nonlinear career path will broaden your horizons
One of the most famous takes on the trajectory of modern careers came from Meta Platforms’ COO Sheryl Sandberg:
“There is no straight path from your seat today to where you are going. Don’t try to draw that line. You will not just get it wrong, you’ll miss big opportunities. Careers are not ladders, those days are long gone, but jungle gyms. Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. Don’t just move up and down, don’t just look up. Look backwards, sideways, around corners.”
Many well-known examples of unconventional career paths involve jumping to completely different companies, sectors and roles. Vimeo CEO Anjali Sud made the leap from investment banking to Time Warner before taking a sideways (or arguably downwards) move to an internship at Amazon, then into business development, operations, marketing, and finally leadership.
Experimenting with a new business function is an established way for nonlinear travelers to trigger the next growth spurt. On her winding path to the top, former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns went from intern to product development, planning, executive assistance, VP of global manufacturing and then operations.
These sideways moves may not always come with the pay bump or killer job title, but the real value lies in growth, which is rarely linear.
How to purposefully bend the linear to your will
Though there are limits to the concept of career planning – as many of the biggest turning points in our careers happen by accident, or by necessity – there’s no harm in looking ahead and giving the linear a little nudge.
Know what actually makes you valuable. Remember Harvard’s leadership expert Claudio Fernández-Aráoz? He also says that “experience and knowledge are less relevant, while the abilities to learn and adapt, to be resilient and to connect with others are ever more crucial”. In a world where knowledge is one click away, it’s qualities like energy, integrity, empathy, good judgement, problem solving and leadership that count for double. When it comes to making a career shift, “your value is what new perspective you bring and how you can think about doing something differently” says Morgan Stanley’s CMO Audrey Choi.
Be open to opportunities. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said that life doesn’t always present you with the perfect opportunities at the perfect time. “Opportunities come when you least expect them, or when you’re not ready for them. The good ones, they’re messy and confusing and hard to recognize. They’re risky. They challenge you.” In the field of positive psychology, openness to new experience is linked to creativity, curiosity and the desire to challenge norms. It’s easy to be open to slam dunks. It’s the long shots you need to be ready for. “Sometimes opportunities come along that are not planned for, or that make you nervous or that make you uncomfortable” says former Hudson’s Bay Company CEO Helena Foulkes. “Those can often be the most interesting decisions.”
Revaluate how you see risk. Most of us aren’t great at assessing risk in stick-or-twist career choices. We’re built to prioritize security over opportunity. “I’m doing well here, I’ve spent time building relationships, why break that momentum?” What we don’t often consider is the risk in not taking risks, because it’s harder to judge. Could you be growing more quickly doing something else? “While some of my career choices may have looked risky from the outside, to me, they never felt very risky” says Jackie Bassett, Director of People Strategy at University of Chicago Medicine. “That’s because the one common thread for me, throughout my professional life, has been following my passion.” That brings me nicely to the last but most critical companion for your nonlinear trip.
Most of all, make purpose and passion your guides. Doing something that someone else thinks is worthwhile, and that is meaningful to you, is the soul of any decision in the nonlinear career path. The ‘why’ underpinning our career helps us find more fulfilling opportunities, pick appropriate goals, measure our progress and have faith in our career trajectory.
Rather than a fixed role or responsibility, try looking for products, people and places that align with your values. When our work also involves something we feel inspired by, we’re far happier and more valuable to the people around us. As entrepreneur, author and social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk says, “skills are cheap, passion is priceless.” When you combine purpose and passion, there’s no such thing as a wrong turn.
There are plenty of examples of nonlinear career paths that were not deliberate, the result of chance opportunities colliding with an open mind and a growth mindset. However, nonlinear paths can be intentional too, and once you’ve figured out your purpose, you’ll have all you need to explore unchartered territory.
The final word goes to Steve Jobs, whose lyrics are slightly different (and better) to mine, but the melody sounds very much the same.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”