The Long and Winding Road

When navigating through your career, follow your own path

by Teresa Whitacre

In math, it’s said that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. While this is theoretically true, following a straight path isn’t always best when it comes to your career.

Consider these well-known successful people and how unwieldy their paths to success were: Actors Danny DeVito and Whoopi Goldberg started in cosmetology and were mortuary hair dressers. Truett Cathy took his military leadership to new heights when he founded Chic-Fil-A, and country singer Faith Hill was a receptionist long before her music career.

The course by which you start your professional journey isn’t always where you stay, and that’s OK. These highly successful people didn’t follow the paths of others—they built their own roads.

Focus on—and follow—your own path

It isn’t always clear which path will lead you to your next career opportunity. Whether just starting out, in mid-career or looking to advance, the path toward your career goal isn’t always presented in a neat and tidy package.

The road to the right choice often doesn’t lead straight to the correct door. Many times, you must enter through the back door or climb through the window to get where you want to be in your career.

It is human nature to see someone travelling in the direction you want to be going and think that you must follow suit. But how do you know that their direction is the right direction for you? A quality engineer may see a senior person get promoted to quality manager and think that’s the path he or she must take. But career advancement doesn’t necessarily have to be upward—lateral moves are just as important. One person’s aspirations and directions aren’t necessarily the same for everyone.

Think of your career direction as a road map. Maybe you have planned for level, high-speed interstates that will quickly take you straight to your goal because that’s how someone else got there. But when you follow that person’s path, you end up on bumpy, curvy country roads.

The changes in terrain weren’t something you prepared for, as often happens when you shadow someone else’s direction. Instead, follow your own path. Don’t be an extra in your own show. Step out onto your own stage and write your own screenplay. If the stage door doesn’t lead you to the career play you seek, bypass the door and go through the window. There’s always a direction—you might just need a different path to find it.

There is no controlled blueprint that says a quality (or any) career must progress a certain way. My own career has taken many side streets and detours that led me to where I am today. I’ve had to take detours, climb in through windows and take back doors, and I have never regretted it.

One of the ways I achieved career success was through my involvement with ASQ. I took on volunteer leadership roles and met people who I learned from, worked and networked with, and helped along the way.

I learned how to follow my own path—without a map—and take the road that was best for me. The key is to follow the best direction for you—regardless of what others do. Because what works for them may not be right for you.

Naysayers be gone

You don’t need doubters along the way. Negativity keeps you from standing front and center on the stage while showcasing your screenplay.

I started my career with a negative mentor who told me I wasn’t following the right career path. But I was determined to become what I set out to be. After I started down my path, I blocked out all that negativity and proceeded toward my goal. During my nearly three-decade career, when I encounter negative people, I find a way around them.

If such folks get in your way, detour around, over or through. Don’t ever let someone tell you that you cannot achieve what you set out to.

There’s nowhere to go but up

No matter where you are in your career, there is always room for achieving what you want. Whether it’s to move up, sideways, down or stay where you are, there are always possibilities. Select the right choice for you—that’s all that matters.

Teresa Whitacre is a quality engineer and principal at Marketech Systems in Pittsburgh. She has a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from Ashford University in San Diego, CA. She is an ASQ-certified quality auditor, engineer, Six Sigma Green Belt and manager of quality/organizational excellence. An ASQ fellow, Whitacre is an instructor for ASQ’s Pittsburgh Section’s certified quality inspector refresher course and is deputy regional director for ASQ Region 8.

Thank you for such an inspirational article. We must create and follow our own paths.
--Shivon Scope, 03-28-2018

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