How to Find Your Path and Embrace the Detours

Did you choose the career you really wanted?

“My entire professional life has been very accidental,” said Julie Wittes Schlack, my friend and former colleague. We met to discuss the unconventional path that led to her career and new book. She was an instructional designer, turned business leader, activist and author.

It can take years to reconcile the assumptions we have about work. Many of us follow outdated rules or well-meaning parents into careers that don’t fit. Julie’s upbringing, however, encouraged bold choices. She shared, “My father was trying to be a good provider while hating every fucking second of it. My parents realized they needed a more meaningful life and left Montreal to reinvent themselves.” I laughed. She added, “… Well into my adulthood I realized not everyone reinvents their lives in their late thirties! It was the greatest gift they could give.”

Julie, blessed with many talents and interests, kept open to serendipity. Ignoring mainstream career advice feels rebellious. But if the ideal career is where aptitude, meets passion and purpose, how do we find it?

Disconnect Work From Your identity

“I started drifting along,” Julie said. We had worked together at a marketing agency but she wasn’t pushed into corporate life. “I don’t think I ever expected to find complete emotional fulfillment through my work,” she said. Brilliant! Without the pressure, of tying her sense of self to a job, she dabbled. “I’m sort of constitutionally curious. Although I was an instructional designer, writing courses about topics like elevator repair, I was also learning how the world worked,” she explained. The world wasn’t working well for everyone and she decided to get involved.

Choose Radical Reinvention

Julie’s parents were part of the civil rights movement. Which inspired her to seek social change. She said, “I was in college during the turbulent sixties. People were becoming either more radical or more disengaged. I was active in the antiwar effort and the women’s movement and had this consuming sense of the world’s injustice.” Which led to her first major attempt at reinvention. Julie explained, “I had lived this privileged life, so I moved to Allentown Pennsylvania, to work in factories and do labor organizing.” She smiled and added, “Where I realized we probably won’t see an enlightened proletariat revolution in my lifetime!” While passionate about workers’ rights, starting a family, prompted her to reevaluate. “Becoming a parent changed everything,” Julie said. It forced her to balance idealism with pragmatism.

Navigate the Values Conflicts

Julie said, “It was all well and good for me to subject myself to different hardships, when it was just me, but not with a kid. I (had to figure out) how to embrace my values without turning my kids into lab rats.” After she and her husband moved to Massachusetts, she faced a parenting dilemma. Julie believed in strong public schools and resisted sending her daughter to a gifted program. She said, “Socially it was great for her because it made her better at navigating the world. But academically it was terrible. I had to ask myself, keeping her here is what I believe in, but is it good for her?” She added, “Reinvention is driven by those kinds of conflicts.” When what’s ‘right’ for society feels ‘wrong’ to individuals the answers aren’t simple. Julie, tuned into the cultural reckoning around her, began publishing sharp observations about political and social trends.

Keep Learning. Keep Creative.

Julie decided to go back to school, for her Master’s in Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing, while adjusting her full-time schedule. She said, “I’ve wanted to write since high school. Like parenting, in writing you create your own problems and get to solve them. It’s also thrilling to see your work come into the world.” I smiled. She explained why she chose returning to school, despite already being an accomplished essayist and business writer, “For the first time it was financially thinkable! … Selling the company (where we both worked) created financial stability. My husband was making more, the mortgage was almost paid off and the kids were out.” Yes! How did she bring her professional interests together?

Go On. Be the Multidimensional You!

When Moms are careering through the leadership and pay gaps, it’s tempting to keep work and personal passions in separate mental corners. Although more than 1/3 of modern workers are ‘side hustling’ the ‘how’ of negotiating and making it work is pretty uneven. In Julie’s debut memoir This All At Onceness, her combined interests and experiences from social justice to the corporate boardroom, are all in the book. It’s aptly described as “… a story about idealistic energy and how it travels through time.” She tells our cultural story of a simultaneously positive and negative transformation, through her unique lens. I asked how she’s doing self-care now, especially when her creative pursuits, have expanded.

Let Self-Expression Meet Self-Care

Julie explained feeling creatively charged, “Now that I’m in a pretty consistent groove with putting words on the page, I’m now being more attentive to ensuring that I actually have something to say.” I nodded. When describing ideal self-care she said, “Swimming out in the middle of Walden Pond, fresh air, moving my body in a way that’s not painful or stressful … and being alone.” Beautiful! She explained how self-care changed radically with an empty nest, “After caring for kids, and then elderly parents, this is the first time for self-care to not be the anomaly.” She added, “Exercise, eating well and getting enough sleep, I might have done one at any given point (before) but not all three!” So true.

Stay Hopeful

When I asked, ‘what’s next’ Julie said, “Wanting to make the world a better place. I’m both terrified of where the world is and energized by the fact that it requires a new way of responding.” She’s carefully observed the progression of where we are culturally and politically. She’s hopeful and excited about what the next generation will bring. She said, “Seeing my daughter, and granddaughter, I’m learning from them and following their lead. That feels new and forward looking.”
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Many thanks to the talented Julie Wittes Schlack!

Julie Wittes Schlack is a founder of C Space, a global customer agency, and is the company’s senior vice president for product innovation. She is also a writer, teacher, editor and researcher, with numerous articles published in the business and market research press, including Harvard Business Review Online, Ad Age, Research, Alert and Quirk’s. Her essay collection This All At Onceness was published by Pact Press. She is the mother of two adult daughters, in whose lives she never meddles. Follow her great adventures on Twitter and her website.

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