When I was in high school I had a very defined career path. I told anyone who asked me (which was very few people since no one cares what a high school kid thinks) that my career goal was to be president of General Motors. I even applied to the General Motors College. (Bet you didn’t know they had their own college!)
They were my first choice but due to a glitch in getting the materials in from my school, my paperwork was not complete by the deadline and their rules were carved in stone.
So, I went to Washington University in St. Louis, where I received a great education despite the fact that I attended slightly more parties than classes. Wash U is generally known more for its pre-med program than as a party school but I didn’t let that stop me.
At 19, I graduated from college. Worked full-time all through college, worked full-time while getting my MBA and as an engineer for several years after that. For a while, I taught math and got a second masters at the same time.
At 29, I quit working full-time so I could finish my Ph.D.
After I graduated, I started working as a professor, expanded my consulting business I had started in 1985 into full-time. (Yes, that’s two jobs.)
At 39, I quit working full-time and took a post-doctoral position for a year. (Having my fourth baby at 39 slowed me down a bit.) Then, I took a position at a consulting company and continued the company I had started in 1985, taking on more and more business. (Yes, that’s two jobs.)
At 49, I quit working full-time, briefly retired and then took a position at a university. By then, the consulting company had split into two companies,which form The Julia Group. (Yes, that’s two jobs. In fact, for a while it was three as I was teaching statistics for the graduate division of another university.)
Someone noticed this recently and asked me,
“Do you deliberately take sabbaticals? That is supposed to be something only done in universities. And what are you going to do now?”
Well, it hasn’t been completely coincidental that I have done reverse sabbaticals and gone to a university every decade.
I find that as a consultant, I get paid for what I know and what I do. So, I may get asked to do a repeated measures Analysis of Variance over and over, for six projects in a row. Or, I may find myself repeatedly getting contracts to write grants for the Department of Education, because I have already gotten several funded.
Business is like that. There may be a few rare jobs where you get paid to learn things but those are mostly jobs where you learn things AFTER you have already put in a 40 hour week and those are your other 20 hours.
When I was an undergraduate, back when I attended classes with Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble (if you even recognize that reference you are old!), there was a saying,
“No one ever got in trouble for buying IBM.”
Business hasn’t really changed all that much. Plenty of people buy Microsoft products because that is what they have always bought. If you’re going to hire a consultant to do X, you are pretty safe hiring a consultant who has already done X seven times for satisfied clients. That way, even if the person screws up, no one can blame you, it’s a reasonable choice.
So, every ten years or so, I get tired of doing X and I decided to do Y or 7 or purple.
“You know, programming in SAS is cool, but I think I’ll take a look at what this Enterprise Guide thing will do, or maybe JMP or data mining or see what they’ve been developing at SPSS. Or, what the hell, maybe I’ll just go to Beijing and Tunisia.”
More than once, I have been called “insane” for giving up a great opportunity. The irony of that is that the second and third time I was giving up insanely great opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I had not been “insane” enough to give up the first one.
I’ve been an engineer, math teacher, professor, statistician, programmer, consultant – and for thirty years run a business while raising four daughters.
And yet, the bizarre fact is that it has all turned out okay. After every “sabbatical” (which, incidentally, has always entailed a HUGE cut in pay because university salaries * blow * compared to the corporate sector), I’ve stepped into a new stream that paid much better and was more challenging than when I left.
Not only have I ignored every bit of career advice I was ever given from, “Stick to one thing,” to “Dress for success” to “Don’t have pictures of your children on your desk or you won’t be taken seriously” to “Always show up at work before the boss” to “Don’t express your own opinions”.
but .. to most of it I have replied,
It occurred to me that I have not so much had a career path as a career random walk.
Yet, it has turned out okay, as measured on The Julia Group scale, which is a factor score consisting of (unequally weighted) jelly beans, Chardonnay, time spent laying on tropical beaches, how much I love my children, terabytes and years of marriage to someone who brings me coffee in bed at 9 a.m.
So, what now? Well, I have a contract under review with a federal agency, six papers I’m committed to write and the family wants to go to Hawaii.
After that? I haven’t the faintest idea. But I’m sure I’ll like it. Because if I don’t, I won’t do it.