The benefits of a ‘squiggly’ career

The benefits of a ‘squiggly’ career

Over the past three years, I have interviewed nearly 100 leaders from many different walks of life to find out their sources of personal inspiration. One of the most striking discoveries has been how many of them have found success and fulfilment after having made significant changes in the direction of their careers.

Declan Donnellan, the renowned theatre director, left university to become a lawyer, but he soon came to the conclusion that he “wasn’t cut out for that world”. It was only when he followed his heart and switched his focus to the stage that he began to flourish. He has since gone on to win numerous Olivier awards and recently received a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the prestigious La Biennale de Venezia.

Dr Vanessa Ogden began her career by entering the world of banking. “I knew after a year it was really not the right profession for me,” she recalls. She made the move to become a teacher and “it was like the whole world had woken up. I felt like I had been living in black and white and suddenly I was living in colour.” Vanessa progressed to become Head Teacher at the Mulberry School for Girls in the under-privileged London borough of Tower Hamlets. The school has since earned a consistent ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating and was described as “phenomenal” by Michelle Obama following her recent visit there.

As we start out in life, it is not easy to know what kind of work will best suit our passions and talents. It is only by experiencing things in practice that we can ever find out for sure. And even if we get it right to begin with, there is always the risk that we lose touch with the activities that most inspire us as our careers unfold.

Sarah Ellis is a young leader with a very refreshing perspective on these challenges. Sarah headed up marketing strategy at Sainsbury’s and has founded two enterprises of her own, Inspire and Amazing If, each dedicated to supporting young people’s career development. “I’m much less worried these days about the next job and the job after that,” she explains. “I’ve changed the way I think about what it means to be progressing. It’s less about going down the traditional career paths and more about exploring what you enjoy and seeing where that takes you. I like the idea of people having squiggly careers.”

The idea that life is a journey of exploration also helps us make more sense of any turns that feel like they have taken us off course. The experience we build up, the skills we develop, the relationships we establish – all these factors can become assets in ways which we could never have predicted.

Steve Jobs dramatized this point brilliantly in his famous address to the graduates at Stanford University. He recounted the value in retrospect of him dropping out of college and following his passion to study calligraphy. Without these shifts, he and the Mac would never have had the same impact on the world of personal computing, though he could never have known that at the time. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward,” he concluded, “you can only connect them looking backwards.”

So, as we enter 2018, now is a great time to take stock of the way your own career is developing. Are you doing work you love and that plays to your strengths? Are you looking forward to what lies ahead with a sense of purpose, adventure and intrigue?

If not, how could you refocus your time and attention to feel more energized? Is now a stage to consider a more fundamental shift to find a more inspiring direction?

Leading a squiggly career might not always be neat and orderly, but it has the potential to leave us feeling a great deal more excited and fulfilled as our lives play out over time.