As professionals, there is this narrative that we are supposed to start at the bottom in our industries of choice and work our way to the top throughout our careers. Ideally, this is what happens, but rarely is someone’s path this linear. Despite what the narrative tells us, veering off course a little bit is usually a good thing.
Career paths can take twists and turns for various reasons, but some of the most worthwhile detours happen when risks occur.
At this point in my career, I am genuinely happy with where I’ve landed, but I’d never be in this position had I chosen to just stay the course early on in my career. My career risk is evident to anyone who looks at my resume, so apparent that I’m often asked in interviews how I went from getting a Master’s Degree in healthcare management and working for Duke University Hospital and my state’s medical board to content writing. On paper, it’s a strange leap.
The answer is pretty simple, though. I finished undergrad during the peak of the Great Recession when jobs were scarce for entry-level employees. So, I chose to enroll in grad school and picked my concentration based on job security because I knew that healthcare was an industry that wouldn’t be going anywhere, regardless of the state of the economy. I chose the safe route. But it wasn’t long before I started to feel antsy because, even though I was right on track for a steady rise in my career, my “safe” direction left me feeling very dissatisfied.
What is a Career Risk?
While the details of my story may be unique, the result is not. I am certainly not the only person who has ever found myself in the middle of their career realizing that if I wanted things to change, I’d need to take a significant risk.
As inspiring as the “rise to the top” narrative is, it’s also very unrealistic. Sure, some people start their careers, find joy in what they do, and stick to that roadmap, but they are probably in the minority. For most of us, our careers are not linear. Maybe you had a quick rise in your profession, only to find yourself unexpectedly laid off and having to accept a lower-level job. Or, perhaps you’ve been coasting for a few years because you’ve struggled to find an employer you like enough even to want to put in the extra work. There are all kinds of reasons a career path might not look like it “should” on paper, including a considerable risk.
Career risks look different for everyone, so it’s hard to give definitive examples of what they might look like since what may be worrisome for one person might seem like no big deal to another. So, the best way I can define it is a big move in your career that could have significant consequences if it were to go wrong.
It’s important to point out that a decision’s potential consequences don’t have to be catastrophic for it to be a risk. For instance, once I decided it was time to shift my career focus from healthcare to writing, I didn’t just up and quit my job to work for pennies while I made a name for myself. I have a family, and that would have been way too much of a risk for me to take. However, I did leave my job at the medical board for one that allowed me to write, but I had to take a severe pay cut to do it, and I had to write executive profiles, which did not interest me. It was a giant leap for me, but I never put my family in a position where we couldn’t afford the necessities or myself in a spot where there was no way for me to pivot my career if I discovered writing wasn’t the right fit for me after all.
Career Risks are Essential
Sure, there are potential consequences to risks. As intimidating as these risks may be, whether they’re big or small, they’re often necessary for you to grow professionally, and they may even help you grow personally, too. Still, there are also great rewards like professional development, opening up new opportunities, expanding your network, finding your passion, realizing new strengths as a worker, or landing the dream job you didn’t even know you wanted.
Who knows, by leaving the employer you love for a new company, you could have more opportunities for promotions and growth. Or, maybe by accepting a job at a lower level than what you’re currently at, you realize how much more time you get to spend with your family, and your work title starts to lose its meaning.
For me, leaving the healthcare industry meant turning my career direction towards something I like to do. And, after two years of writing executive profiles, I leaped into part-time and freelance writing about things I found interesting. It was terrifying to walk away from traditional full-time work, especially with all of the unknowns tied to freelance writing, but it worked out for me. Even if it hadn’t worked out, though, it still led me off the unfulfilling safe path towards a career that was worth taking a risk.
Take The Risk
I’m not here to tell you that it won’t be scary or to promise you that every risk will result in rewards because neither is true. But, what I will say is that, if nothing else, it’s just good in general to step outside of your comfort zone now and then. While the narrative might be that straight and narrow is the “ideal” career path, veering off course is a heck of a lot more rewarding. After all, your career will span decades, so you’re going to want a little excitement sprinkled in to keep things interesting.
Ashley Ziegler is a full-time writer with a passion for telling stories through the lens of motherhood to help fellow moms feel seen and understood (especially the ones who, like her, are totally winging it).