5 Things You’ll Learn When You Veer Off A Traditional Career Path

There’s a lot to be said about taking the road less traveled. Here’s what you can learn from a non-traditional career path.

5 Things You’ll Learn When You Veer Off A Traditional Career Path
[Photo: Flickr user mrhayata]

Looking back on my career, there are some crucial lessons that have shaped my happiness and professional success. The underlying key was pacing my career based on what was most important at each point in my life, and then using that time to dabble on the side. Ultimately, the dabbling ended up opening more doors than I ever imagined.


From leading scout troops for my kids to managing professional organizations and sitting on boards, I’ve met interesting people and tried new things. By taking time to try my hand at a variety of experiences, I keep learning about myself–my values, strengths, likes, and dislikes–and how I can meaningfully influence the world around me.

If you’re going to dabble, you’ll likely have to face some challenges, test your courage, and maybe even be uncomfortable at times. But the way you feel on the other side could be life changing. Here are some favorite lessons I’ve learned:

1. You’ll Learn Patience

You don’t need everything immediately; much of the time, it depends on where you are in your life. I started my doctoral program at 35. After I completed my degree, I was content teaching part-time and dabbling to keep from getting bored and to satisfy my curiosity until the kids were older. That allowed me time to enjoy moments of learning until I was ready to focus more on my work and deal with the intensity required to get tenure.

The delay seemed like forever then, but it really wasn’t. Thanks to dabbling along the way, I have more to share now with my students and clients.

2. You’ll Discover What You’re Good At, But Never Thought Of Doing

While I taught high school math at a school in racial transition, I received conflict management training and served as an internal consultant to the school district. That experience helped me discover a passion to help others work together and solve tough problems. It also led to the launch of my consulting and leadership coaching business.

3. But Don’t Commit To Something Just Because You’re Good At It

I was very successful at computer programming. I used those skills for extra income in college and for creating games for my kids to play. When I was ready to focus more intensely on my career, I went to a career counselor and realized that I did not actually like programming; it was something that I did to earn money or pass the time.


4. Be Brave Enough To Ask For What You Need To Accomplish Your Goals

I did not follow a traditional path–juggling parenting, career and education–to get to where I am today. Therefore, I have not always had access to the same resources as someone who climbed the ladder in sequence. But I’ve learned to show my worth with visible accomplishments that provide value to the organization–and ask for what I need. More often than not, I get it.

5. Unleash The Leader In You

Letting down my guard to try new things throughout my life, I’ve been able to see the world through many lenses and gain confidence along the way. My mistakes are plentiful and the learning is continuous, but my impact is clear. I am no longer shy about speaking out on issues that could be detrimental to an organization or an individual. When I see a problem arise, I often fall back on my dabbling days to help me strategize a plan of action and move toward a solution.

I’ve been fortunate to work with great leaders. You know what? Most of them have taken the time to dabble along their road to leadership, too. They know who they are because dabbling requires soul searching.

When you go through lots of trial and error and learn what really makes you tick, it is then that you can really enrich the world–or at least your small piece of it.

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