Linear vs. Nonlinear Career Paths

Article by AMY LANDRY

Many believe that professionals know where they want to go and how to get there. But in reality, most of us end up walking a nonlinear career path that brings us places we never could have envisioned.

What do you want to be when you grow up, and how do you plan to get there? I believe the first time I was ever asked this was back in middle school. As I think about it, I’m still being asked this same question today, halfway through my career.

Over the years, I have answered this question three or four different ways depending on what was happening at the time. I want to be a lawyer, so I will go to law school. I want to be a market analyst, so will I will get my degree in international business. I want to be a fashion buyer, so I will intern in a buying office. I want to be a compliance officer and, one day, a chief ethics and compliance officer, so I will get my CCEP certification and pivot from working for vendors to a practitioner role.

I have pivoted or changed direction a few times. For a long stretch, I thought this meant that I was bad at figuring out what I wanted to be, which also meant I was bad at progressing up the ladder. But is that truly the case?

How many of you have gone through something similar? How many of us always feel like our interests change? How many think we want to do something or get to a certain level in our organization only to realize once we get there that it wasn’t for us? I would look at friends and colleagues in amazement as they all seemed like they had figured out something that I was still trying to do. Would I ever figure it out, or would I be destined to a roller-coaster career?

Over this past year, something finally clicked as I kept hearing more and more individuals share the twists and turns they went through in their careers: Most look more like a jungle gym than a step ladder. I started to realize that not everyone will follow the standard, linear career path – and that is totally fine. I came to understand that it’s OK to make a lateral move or a step backward or change careers altogether if it fits into where you are now in your career. Ultimately, it is OK to follow a nonlinear career path.

Some might not even be sure how linear or twisted their own career path is.

Career coach Stacey Lane has a good definition of a non-linear career path: It “starts out in one direction, but zigs and zags through insights, discoveries and happy accidents. A nonlinear path requires a bit of planning, chance, serendipity, risk and faith.”

With this in mind, it is OK for us all to follow our own path that builds on our own unique strengths. Without you knowing, it can align with where you want to be. It can bring you where you need to go to learn and grow into your best professional self. It can have you waking up every morning excited to go to work every day. My hope is that more and more of us nonlinear career professionals come forward to challenge the status quo of needing to have a linear career path.