The Unexpected Path

Laurel Bellows is featured on the front page of the business section of  July 16 edition of The Chicago Tribune.  Bellows is the incoming President of the American Bar Association and the article features highlights of her career. I do not have much in common with Ms. Bellows except one thing: Our careers took unexpected paths.

Ms. Bellows explained that as a young trial lawyer, she expected to represent corporate clients. Perhaps she envisioned herself in the sleek, downtown high-rise buildings hammering out deals across mahogany tables, as corporate legal work is often portrayed in the media. But Ms. Bellows career took an unexpected turn because of her first assignments. She was sent to the local court to represent people accused but without representation. Thus she began her career representing prostitutes instead of bankers. ( To readers who just thought “same thing”, don’t go there. Move along.) Her first clients were dressed in “leopard skin clothes and high heels” instead of custom-made suits.

Over 30 years later at the pinnacle of her career, Ms. Bellows reflects upon how this unexpected early assignment influenced her success. She learned that everyone has their own story. She learned to look for individuals and not stereotypes. She understood that her clients had difficult lives, but none were “worthless or valueless.” And, she accepted her role as a fierce advocate, making prosecutors work to prove their case. As a result of this experience, Bellows began a practice built upon working women of all occupations. She expanded by representing women in the financial services industry because her clients felt she understood their stories and had empathy for the issues they faced. She took on tough cases with enthusiasm. Today, Ms. Bellows represents the corporate clients wearing nice clothes in tall buildings. Soon, she will lead the premier professional organization in her industry.

Rocky Trails vs. Smooth Highways

Perhaps we are moving away from the myth that a high-profile career is a straight line between two points.  The paradigm that success starts on a carefully planned and executed “path”  then continues on a straight line up has probably always been the exception.  Yet, discouraged people I’ve talked with thought it was the norm and they were the exception. I will use Ms. Bellows’s story to illustrate a perspective that might help: Many career “paths” of successful people look more like rocky trails than smooth highways.

Premier leadership development organizations, such as the Center for Creative Leadership and Lominger, have research that concludes successful leaders learn the most from unconventional or novel experiences. Leadership guru Michael Watkins advises us to find “career playgrounds” to test our skills and broaden perspectives.Why? One of many important reasons is that unexpected experiences challenge ingrained notions of who we are,  how we work and how we succeed. When we can’t use what we know in the ways we envisioned, we are forced into new solutions. New insights are the gifts from these experiences; we get to keep them after the challenge has passed.

Detours and Destinations

Sadly, unexpected starts, career detours and professional derailment are not concepts but reality for too many of us.  How many people do you know who are not beginning careers in the way they expected or whose progress has been interrupted due to economic forces out of their control? I won’t offer that there is some cosmic reason for their circumstances or the “blessing in disguise” comfort. They deserve far more respect than platitudes. But perhaps Ms. Bellows story can remind them that success begins in many places, and often unexpected ones. And, when they reach the pinnacle of their career, perhaps it will become clear that the detour helped them to reach their destination.

Resources to Read More

Goldsmith, M., Kaye, B. and Shelton, K. (2000). Learning Journeys: Top Management Experts Share Hard-earned Lessons on Becoming Great Leaders and Mentors. Palo- Alto, CA: Davies- Black

Oor, J. E. (2012). Becoming a More Agile Leader: A Guide to Learning From Your Experiences. Lominger Inernational: A Korn Ferry Company.

Watkins, M.D. (2009). Your Next Move:  The Leader’s Guide to Navigating Major Career Transitions. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

4 thoughts on “The Unexpected Path

  1. I have always believed that we sell ourselves short (and we sell the career expectations of those we supervise short) when we think that any trajectory in life is a straight line that continues upward smoothly. Life doesn’t work that way – why should one’s career? In fact, it turns and dips and rises and levels off and then charts in a way one can’t necessarily foresee. And that is what makes it energizing, challenging and arguably frustrating sometimes.

    • I could not agree more, Mimi. Still, I wonder if we see this wisdom in hindsight. Perhaps its a combination of economic stress and uncertainty, but I seem to be counseling people who want more career certainty, not less. On some level, don’t blame them. They’re scared, have student debt or family obligations, and stress over the right assignment and right next assignment.I get it. Still, like you, don’t think that the path to success is going to be as predictable as they hope.

  2. Hi Susan
    Your post rang home with me. More and more I have students who are about to graduate coming to my office with a familiar refrain. They are worried that they don’t have a “smooth highway” planned, that they don’t know what they want to do, and that life isn’t what they were told to expect.

    When I tell them about my personal rocky trail/career path, they relax. No one has told them that life is not one straight line, and that they won’t always get what they want (except of course the Stones…). Suddenly they worry less, because they now know that the rocky trail is normal, that they aren’t hopelessly behind.

    Thanks for the wonderful story.

    Colleen

    • Once again, Colleen, I’m happy the students have you. I, too, note a high anxiety level among current and graduating students. Some of it is probably age appropriate ( I forget how I sweat bullets leaving college), some of it is working with high achieving young adults who have always been able to figure it out, and much of it ( at least in the U.S.) is the overall economic uncertainty.

      I certainly understand the desire for clarity and the comfort direction brings. My hope is that they give themselves a break, take a job that will get them started in something they enjoy, and don’t forget that we can learn a lot from even undesirable jobs. In fact, they might just teach us the most.

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