You just never know

Fork in the road

The unplanned-for route may be the right road after all.

If you just spent four years in college to become a teacher, would you take a secretarial position instead? I did and found myself on a path loaded with unexpected opportunities.

After graduating in 1972 with a degree in speech & English education, I faced the hard reality that I could not land a full time teaching position. Needing regular income, I did the unexpected – what some probably considered unwise. I took what I could find – a position as editorial assistant at an association magazine, a position that could more accurately have been labeled ‘secretary.’

Recently, I returned to my alma mater, the University of Northern Iowa, to share my career experiences with several classes of creative writing and public relations students. Bright, young people receiving a good education and preparing themselves for jobs in their chosen fields. Just as I did.

After I told the students about my start in a secretarial chair, one young woman asked, “Did you regret taking that secretarial job?”

“I didn’t,” I told her. Not then. Not now. Not at all.

I needed the paycheck, but beyond that, I explained, everything was new to me and an opportunity to learn. I knew nothing about the publishing business and I jumped at the chance. As I took on assignments, I found I had a talent for writing. Then, six months after I started, the man who had been editor for 40 years retired and they gave me his job. Unexpected. Unpredictable. Unbelievable.

New-found skills, industry knowledge and a boatload of connections came with that job. Then my husband pointed me to a Help Wanted Ad for an ‘ag journalist.’ “Sounds like what you do,” he said. I applied.

It turned out to be a position at a small public relations agency. I knew nothing about public relations, but it sounded interesting. I took the job, an entree into another new industry. That position led to one at a larger agency where I worked for 20 years, learning a host of new skills, with emphasis on product marketing, developing messages for clients and teaching them how to deliver those messages, moving up the ladder and finally earning the position of President.

Then I came to Robert Frost’s famous fork in the road  – a time when I could stay on what had become a well known and well respected career path or strike off in the new and unknown direction of creative writing. I took the road less traveled. But I was remarkably well prepared for that road. All those previous experiences ensured I had the skill set not only to write books but also to effectively market them.

In Steve Jobs now-famous commencement speech to Stanford University, he points out that it’s only in retrospect, looking back on life, that we can see the dots and how they all connect. Someone looking at my career path now might think it was all brilliantly planned out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I worked hard, took advantage of opportunities, and built my skills. Just as important, I think, was staying open to possibility.

I hope some of the students I spoke with experience – and embrace – the unexpected along their career paths. I hope they are able to look past the job title. Because you just never know. Maybe the real future starts in a secretary’s chair.

Have you had a you-just-never-know experience? Do share.

Comments

  1. “Maybe the real future starts in a secretary’s chair” – I like the risk and optimism I hear in that line, Carol. I have two You-just-never-know experiences. One resulted in meeting my soul mate on a blind date. The other happened when I attended a “What the Heck is a Blog?” session a few years ago. Little did I know that would launch my encore career as a writer.

  2. Jesana Denter-Eckelberg says:

    Carol, I just love your story! This would be great for all young people to hear when they are having doubts about their education and career path. Thanks for sharing! Love, your Wisconsin cousin!

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      Thanks, Jesana. We often invest so much (emotionally and financially) in our chosen path that we overlook the likelihood that there can be many right paths. Glad you stopped by.

      • I’ve told countless frustrated undergrads who weren’t clear on their passions or path, “Just get a degree, then get a job. The rest will take care of itself.” That seems to be how it works for most of us anyway.

        • Carol Bodensteiner says:

          Absolutely correct, Sharon. I have, from time to time, been envious of those who knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives while I agonized over the fact that I didn’t know what my passion was. As a result, I was perhaps destined to throw myself on the mercy of life. But what a fun journey it’s been.

  3. Brenda Jones Wiarda says:

    I often challenge myself to find the “right” answer or make the “right” next career decision. I appreciated your perspective that often there is not a right answer – but rather a path to explore the journey and where it takes you. Thanks for the idea and for mentoring the next generation of leaders to find their way.

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      Brenda – I think we all do try to make the “right” decisions, based on the information we have at the time. But when it doesn’t turn out as we’d hoped, I think we need not beat ourselves up too much. It was just a decision and we can always make another. Or maybe what didn’t work out opened up some opportunity we never knew was there. The whole thing is a journey and I’m glad I’ve been able to travel part of that with you. Thanks for lending your voice to the discussion.

  4. My surprise career road was a relatively short loop: I signed on as a Mary Kay Beauty Consultant. Why? I never wore much makeup, and olive oil was my go-to skin care. How could I ask people to spend money on products I didn’t value? My academic training was in counseling psychology, with a master’s degree earned after a ten year gap. But with school-age children, I could not easily commit to the minimal pay and floating schedules necessary to “pay my dues” and become a bona fide counselor. I turned to teaching instead, part-time, for low pay and unpredictable schedules, at the local community college.

    Then fate introduced me to a Paid Professional Speaker, who became a mentor of sorts. He told me I had to learn sales to be able to do anything at all, and I had to commit to at least five years of active membership in Toastmasters. Toastmasters was a pond for this duck. Learning sales more like a desert. I signed on with Mary Kay, assuming this was something I could limit to school day hours.

    Let’s just say I could only endure this sales training by focusing on my goal: earn several awards and boogie. This was the toughest class I ever took! But when I realized that the Mary Kay script worked better than anything I could invent myself and started going by the book, the awards, i.e. crystal wine glasses for meeting production goals, began to stack up on my shelf. I became shameless in telling people what I did and asking, “Have you (your wife) had a Mary Kay facial yet?”

    I accosted a woman I knew only vaguely with this line when our paths crossed at an Art in the Park event. When she heard what I was doing, she asked, “Isn’t that something you can do with a high school degree?”

    “Yes. Would you like to know more about becoming a Beauty Consultant?”

    “But you have a master’s degree! Aren’t you wasting it?”

    “Not at all. My masters degree helped me become the person I am, and I like the person I am. How could it be wasted? When would you like to have a facial?”

    I pulled that response out of thin air, but as I spoke it, I realized its truth. I did like the person I’d become, although I did not like selling make-up. The woman had a facial and bought nothing. Surprise? Not really. She was coerced. Manipulated. I soon realized I had met my goals, and got out. Class over. But I’ve never regretted the time I spent selling make-up. Together with Toastmasters, it opened doors to selling things more in tune with my passion, which I eventually discovered was writing and “selling” ideas.

    • I love this story, Sharon. Little did I know . . . !

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      Terrific story, Sharon. When students complained to me about a class/professor/project they didn’t like, I told them they learned just as much – maybe more – from those difficult experiences. Sounds like your time with Mary Kay did that for you. Everything we do, everything we experience, the good and the bad, weaves the fabric of who we become. And through it all, you became a cool person. Those of us who know you like the person you are, too.

  5. Carol, I have found this to be very true in my life as well, but thanks for sharing….it’s always good to get a reminder of that life lesson!

  6. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder says:

    The best part about becoming a senior is looking back and seeing how the life story actually unfolded. I had two goals when I graduated from high school — go to university to become a teacher and get married. Either goal seemed hopeless and unreachable at the time — no boyfriend, no senior matric. math. I found a job in a bookstore — German/English Got the job because of my German, found my significant other through that job (a miracle story), went across continents to African with him (he’s a linguist/Bible translator) back to Canada when I turned 41 and fulfilled my other dream with eventually a PhD in German Literature and Languages. Began to teach, first at university, then private international students in a Mennonite school and at home. Who would have thought! It’s been a slice.

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      Your life journey is fascinating, Elfrieda. Your story shows the importance of knowing what you want but not getting so focused on achieving it ‘right now,’ that you fail to let life unfold in its own time. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Great post, Carol. I think what you point out here–and what others here have reinforced–is that an “unusual” career path is not all that unusual. Your message “to embrace the unexpected” is, however. I think many people feel that they should not take the fork, or go off the expected path. Your experience is valuable in saying that sometimes it’s the best thing to do. (After all, you could have continued to look for teaching jobs if you had wanted to.)

    I also had trouble getting teaching jobs, first in elementary education, and later in universities. (Long story.) A friend introduced me to someone at ETS, and I discovered I’m really good at test writing. Someone also sent in my dissertation to a publisher who wanted to publish it (a surprise to me). That got me started in writing. Meeting bloggers has led to me writing more creative work. Most likely I would not have done any of this if I had had a teaching job right out of college.

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Merril. Your story and mine – “Getting what you want may not be what’s best.” Hmmm. It occurs to me that we may have been too young to know what was good for us. So life took control. Do you suppose??

      • I think it could be youth and inexperience–or simply ignorance of what is out there. There are all sorts of jobs and careers out there that most of us know nothing about it. Then again, I was fortunate to have a husband who did have a good teaching job–and who enjoyed it– so I wasn’t forced into taking something for the money.

        • Carol Bodensteiner says:

          That is so true. Even though I was an avid reader, the idea that I could be someone who wrote books never crossed my mind. And I had no concept of jobs like magazine editing or public relations. When I was growing up, I know of only three or four things a woman could do: teach, nurse, housewife. Even secretary wasn’t really on the list. I could, indeed, have continued to search for teaching jobs – going further and further out geographically and trading off home and family time in the process. Practicality came into play, though, and I opted for the steady paycheck close to home since my husband’s job at the time was commission sales.

Join the conversation. Your comments or questions welcomed!

*