One of my favorite board games growing up was The Game of Life. Players choose a car, insert themselves (i.e., a tiny peg) into the vehicle, and take off across a picturesque game board where the ideal path was to go to college, get a high-paying job, collect money by landing on the Pay Day spaces, get married and have kids (insert more pegs), and ultimately either retire as a millionaire or end up in bankruptcy.
I knew this was just a game, but somewhere along the way, I had internalized the idea that there was some sort of path that I needed to take to be successful in life. This path was pretty clear and easy to follow until my junior year of college, when I realized I had to make some real decisions about what my career would be. I was a finance major, and eventually I landed a job as an equity research analyst at a major financial institution in New York City.
Three jobs later, here are four things I’ve learned:
The real game of life is one with an infinite number of paths. During my college years, though I was focused on pursuing the finance path, I started taking a number of classes in Chinese language, history and literature “on the side.” I loved these classes and eventually took so many credits that I was able to obtain a second major in Asian Studies. That should have been an obvious clue to me that perhaps I should consider another career path, but at the time, I was so singularly focused on getting into finance that I didn’t entertain any other possibilities. A few years into my first job in finance, I realized that I didn’t have a passion for it, and both the work and the hours were making me deeply unhappy. I had followed what I thought was the “right” path and invested a lot of time and hard work to land that first job, but it had taken me to a place that was not aligned with my natural talents or interests.
At that point in my career, I was burnt out. I was tired of eating dinner at my desk almost every night and resolved to get a new job. I interviewed for a position as a proposal writer at a relatively small firm, which had a much healthier work-life balance. The catch was that I would have to take a significant pay cut. At a time when women were “leaning in” and fighting to close the gender wage gap, I felt guilty for wanting to leave a prestigious, high-paying job with great future prospects. I wondered if I was selling myself short.
In hindsight, taking this job was the right decision. A year later, my husband and I decided to start a family. The flexibility of this job meant that I could work from home a couple days a week if needed. I was also able to get home in time for dinner and bedtime for both my children. That flexibility was something that would not have been possible at my old job, and it was exactly what I needed in those challenging early years of motherhood. There is no dollar amount I can put on the time I was able to spend with my daughters.
Earlier in my adult life, one of the first things I would ask when I met people was, “What do you do?” Nowadays, I never lead with that question, and I typically don’t ask it unless it happens to come up naturally in the conversation. Why? I’ve come to realize that jobs don’t define people, as mine certainly doesn’t define me. There are many other ways to learn about people’s interests and values. It’s important to be able to know both yourself and others as whole people, outside of what they do for a living.
If you don’t like your job, but you’re unable to leave for financial or other reasons, you are not stuck. You can start by exploring other interests while you’re in your current job. For example, take classes after work or online, or just simply allot 20 minutes a day to doing something you love or trying something new. I realized that I did not need to make a drastic career change to be able to do other things I enjoy, and in fact, pursuing these interests planted the seeds for future career possibilities. For instance, I explored my interest in teaching by volunteering after work as an English-as-a Second-Language (ESL) teacher for adults. I combined my love of language and music to create a music-based Chinese language class for my young kids in our neighborhood. Having done these things confirmed to me that I do love teaching and helping people, and it gives me the confidence to pursue this avenue full-time if the opportunity ever presents itself.
These four takeaways would have probably led me to bankruptcy in The Game of Life, but in the real world, they have given me a healthy perspective on the role that my career plays in my life. It’s okay for career trajectories to feel more like playing Chutes and Ladders; you may end up sliding down a chute and get discouraged, but what’s interesting about this game is that the chute can unexpectedly lead you to a ladder that will send you far higher than you could have ever imagined. Have fun and play on!