Making the most of an accidental career
How typing lessons became a thirty-year business career.
When I was in high school and first considering potential careers, my mother advised, "learn to type, and you will always have a job." She wasn't wrong.
In 1990, I was 28, a college drop-out with a patchwork job history that included receptionist at an alcohol and drug abuse treatment center, Avon lady, newspaper copy assistant, department store executive secretary, tour boat marketing specialist, and maternity store manager.
But, with a typing speed of 90 words per minute and an aptitude for the new word processing software, I was hired as an Administrative Assistant at a high-tech manufacturing company where I would go on to spend most of my working life.
A few years in, my boss took me out for the traditional (and awkward) Administrative Assistant’s Day lunch—in truth, it was still called Secretary’s Day back in the 90s. Over pizza and salad, he asked what I wanted to do.
I’d only recently turned 30 and hadn't considered what my career might look like – or even that I might have one. I was living paycheck to paycheck and supporting two small children in a marriage about to collapse. All I knew was what I didn’t want.
“Well, I’m not going to make copies and travel reservations for the rest of my life," I said, deploying snark in defense. My boss shot me a look, unimpressed, and likely disappointed, that I wasn't taking the prompt – or my potential – seriously.
“You don’t get what you don’t ask for,” he said.
I stayed with that company for 18 years, rising from administrative assistant to marketing specialist to marketing communications manager. I learned about branding, messaging and strategy, problem-solving, and program management. I also learned how to speak up for myself and my team, when to lean in, when to pull back, and how to manage people.
I used the free tuition benefit to finish my bachelor's degree and earn a master's degree in Integrated Marketing Communications. Although I hadn't ever articulated this goal, soon I had built myself a marketing career.
An acquisition significantly shifted the culture of the company which had raised me into a professional. After eighteen years, it was time to move on.
But how does one begin a new chapter when you are who you are, because of where you are, and who you are surrounded by?
A friend encouraged me to apply for a position at his company, another technology business with great benefits and an inspiring vision and culture. By the end of the first week, I realized I was in a different league. I had led a global, but small, team that handled all the marketing, events, PR, and employee communications, but now I was one of hundreds, if not thousands, of marketing managers, each owning specific functions and industries.
Pushed once again, my strategic and creative muscles became stronger and more flexible. Working with a diverse set of co-workers, clients, and consultants challenged me to be both more collaborative and more assertive. But was I happy?
I had lost my ambition for the career I’d never really planned in the first place. I had financial security, my kids were grown, and I was building a new life in rural Vermont. I was ready to do something else, but since I wasn't sure what.
When my new manager asked, what do you want to do? I chirped a generic answer. “I want to create good work and have some fun along the way.” Her skepticism was clear.
“You can’t be ambivalent about what you want,” she said.
Here was the yang to the yin of my mother’s advice. Mom had said to learn a valuable skill and go where it leads you. Now I was being advised to set my own course.
I recently listened to the audio version of Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming and bookmarked this clip. “I hated being a lawyer – I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it.”
Two things struck me. First, the certainty of that declaration — even though Michelle wasn't sure what she did want, she was not ambivalent about what she did not want. Secondly, you can be "plenty good" at something and still not be fulfilled by it.
I was plenty good at marketing, and I was suited to the work, but after 30 years of corporate work life, I too felt empty.
Mrs. Obama summed up my feelings. To hear them from the most admired woman in the world affirmed for me that the question of 'what do you want to do?' is universal — it is the struggle of becoming.