A rocky career start, a handful of jobs, and deciding to leave the corporate world after a few decades in it—this wasn't exactly the career path I had planned.
When I was just starting out, I had what seemed like a pretty simple career plan: get the best education I could, land the best job I could get, and then work like crazy. Period. I envisioned my career like a single, long, straight path that I would run as hard as I could. I would put faith first—and family, too, when the time came—but at work I would always be running to win.
Or so I thought.
The first phase of my life went pretty much according to plan. I did well in school, worked a few years, and got into a great business school. But as graduation approached, I had a problem.
My classmates were accepting flashy jobs at big companies in New York and Houston and Los Angeles, but my husband was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The best job I could find in Tulsa was an entry-level consulting job at Arthur Young. Not flashy, not exciting, not impressive. Definitely not what people at Harvard Business School are expected to answer when asked about their post-graduation plans. But I had made a commitment to my husband to be in Tulsa, so I swallowed my pride and took the job.
I worked hard, but it was obvious the job and the company were not the right fit for me. So when an opportunity presented itself, I moved on. And then shortly thereafter, I did it again. Careers can be messy that way, especially when you are just starting out.
Job number three stuck, but life can be messy too, and by the time I was really settling in to my career in commercial real estate, my marriage was ending and I was looking at work in a whole new way. As a single mom I wasn’t just working to “win” anymore; now I was working to survive.
My job took me to Dallas, where I threw myself into stabilizing my children and my career path. And I did, for a while, until things got messy again. This is just the course of life and work: there are starts and stops and ebbs and flows, and you can’t cling rigidly to any one path or pace. There are times when it makes sense to push hard at work, to lean into that next promotion or project, and other times to hold steady at work in order to focus more energy and attention elsewhere.
To further complicate matters, as my career has progressed I’ve found myself led in totally new and unexpected directions. Leaving day-to-day corporate work at the age of 55 was not a part of my original plan, but here I am, moving into a whole new phase of life and work. In many ways, I feel like I’m just getting started—and I’ve learned a few things along that way that might help you throughout your different seasons of life.
One Leap at a Time
You won’t always have a choice in the matter, but to the extent that you do, try to tackle just one big change at a time. There is a time and season for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:11). I waited to have my kids until I felt a certain level of comfort in my job. Not that I had achieved all of my professional goals, but I was at a place where I understood the job and what it required, and I had established solid relationships with my boss and coworkers. Sometimes, this presents a dilemma because typically when people reach that “comfortable” space I’m talking about, that’s also time for their next career move. Many women worry that if they don’t capitalize on opportunities for advancement, they will be pigeon-holed. That is a real risk, but I think it’s one worth taking. Starting a family (or undertaking any big change in your personal life) brings countless new challenges and adjustments. It’s not impossible to do while you’re starting a new job or role, but it is a lot harder. Of course, you don’t always get to be in control of such decisions!
While my path has been winding, it’s been far from unusual. As Sheryl Sandberg noted, most careers look more like jungle gyms than ladders, and any one person’s path can and likely will wind considerably. If you hope to navigate successfully, you’ll need to start with a healthy perspective on what work is (and is not), and then approach it with flexibility, humility, and courage.
Work Hard, But Hold it Loosely
Because we put so much effort and energy into work, it can easily become an idol. We are called to work, and to work excellently, but not to be enamored with the results of our efforts. At the end of the day, work is still just work. Our God, on the other hand, is the God of the Universe.
In our culture, we are defined by our work, whether at home or in the marketplace, part time or full time, professional or vocational. It’s the first thing new people want to know about you: “It’s nice to meet you. What do you do?” As Christians, we are not locked in to that culture. We don’t have to fit in, and in many ways we shouldn’t.
“The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.” This verse from Ecclesiastes 9:11 is a great “keep it real” reminder not to put too much faith in human power or ability. In this broken world, the very best things people have to offer can all too easily come to nothing. That’s why we work for something and someone greater.
Flexibility and Humility
I’m a goal-setter by nature. I love working toward something and tracking my progress along the way. But in navigating the many seasons of life and work, I’ve learned to retain a certain amount of flexibility. If you are too locked in to one goal or path, you won’t be able to adjust course when necessary.
Pride, and the weight of expectations, can also get in the way. We all have an innate desire to be well thought of. It feels good to get recognition for hard work. And many working women—myself included—feel special pressure to prove ourselves and our commitment at work, not just once but over and over again. If you find yourself clinging to a particular job or job path primarily because of how it looks or what other people would say, then it may be time to take a step back and reassess your motives.
Courage (and Freedom) to Take a Different Path
When my oldest son was in high school, we went through several very rough years together. At first it seemed like pretty normal grumpy teenage rebellion. And then came the day when he got arrested. Getting that phone call rocked my faithful Christian, professionally successful world. My career was blooming, I had established myself as a leader in my company, I was serving in an executive role, and our business was growing fast. From a professional standpoint, it was time to push forward. But after some prayerful, tearful nights, I did the opposite. I went to my boss at CBRE, Mike Lafitte, and explained what was happening with my son. Then I asked for something crazy: “I need to leave at 2:00 every day in order to pick my son up from school and be with him at home. I need to do that for at least six months, and for as long as it takes to get him back on track.”
In that moment, in Mike's office, I knew full well I was putting my career on the line. Our conversation could easily have led to my resignation, but it didn’t. He backed me up, and I started leaving the office at 2:00, working from home part time and pouring into my son. When summer came, I took a full-on 10-week sabbatical. Today, we cheerfully refer to that time as “Mom’s boot camp.”
You could lose your job tomorrow. Or suddenly feel God calling you to be home with your kids. Or be unexpectedly led to write a book and start a nonprofit. Or get a phone call from a competitor offering you a position you and your family can’t afford to pass up. Have the courage to take risks and step out in faith. That’s the joyous and sometimes terrifying truth of setting your eyes on God’s glory, rather than your own: He can take you anywhere. God’s plans go far beyond your wildest dreams or fears.