The challenge of hiking in Scotland, I discovered in the Highlands with absolutely no one else around, is that the weather can change in a flash. One moment you’re the master of solo travel, the next you’re clinging to the side of a mountain in lashing rain wondering what the hell happened to the path and your phone reception, and whether anyone will ever find your body.
But, like I said, the weather is fickle. In an hour, you’ll be wringing out your clothes and drying your passport in the sun. And, once the clouds have lifted, it becomes clear where the path had been.
I decided on that stormy mountain, contemplating the end of my rather short life, that there was some meaning in that. In hiking and in careers, our routes always seem a lot more obvious looking backwards than they did at the start.
The story of my career is much easier to tell at dinner parties than it is on job applications. I’ve worked in refugee camps and in high-rise offices. I’ve nannied, shelved books, cleaned toilets and interviewed chief executives. I have degrees in both French cuisine and journalism (one of which I get asked about a lot more than the other).
I could never seem to find that singular beaten path. But, if I could do it over again, would I try to get to where I am — working as a journalist — without any of the meandering middle? No.
Aspiring journalists ask me whether a masters degree in journalism is worth it. Since I leveraged my whole financial future to get one, I will say that it was. But the skills I use most in my job are not those I learned in a classroom, but in a kitchen.
If you want to learn to stay calm and work efficiently under a firing line of stressed editors, being yelled at by French chefs in a chaotic dinner rush that your velouté is not reducing quickly enough is great practice.
There is no taking back sole meunière for revisions once it is on a table. If you can stay cool — even enjoy — the intensity of juggling scalding saucepans in sweltering heat on a tight deadline, making sure every element is perfectly seasoned and ready all at the exact same time, you might enjoy writing news.
People, especially young women, I have found, beat themselves up for not getting where they are going in the blink of an eye. As a culture, we fetishise success and youth, wunderkinds who burst out of primary school fully fledged and financially secure.
But I have also found that the people who take a little time on their “becoming” end up with a broader range of skills, more diverse perspectives and a stronger conviction that they can handle whatever gets thrown at them. As one friend, now in private equity, told me: once you have spent months operating in the heat of a convection oven of a commercial laundry warehouse earning minimum wage, desk job problems do not seem like very big problems at all.
One friend transitioned from working in art galleries in New York to managing hospitals in Virginia. Navigating the difficult demands of the highest-net-worth clients, she says, was invaluable for developing the emotional intelligence to support patients — whether rich or on state-support — who are often frightened, and seeking reassurance that their needs are also being met.
A top radio producer in financial journalism was initially a professional dancer for a decade. Dance informs her work every day, she says, as radio is a medium where rhythm, pacing and structure is paramount. And having another passion outside her day job, she says, gives her a healthy perspective — an understanding “that it’s not life or death”.
Another, a former roadie for a band, found that experience in a job where “no one is done until everyone is done” was an asset in the world of early-stage tech start-ups, where collaboration and teamwork are paramount.
Because diverse experiences give employees a broader framework through which to approach challenges, employers should consider different personal and professional backgrounds a business imperative.
There are strong arguments for developing specialisations, being able to work deeply and create impact. There are people who will fight to the death against generalists, and against the idea of “wasting” time doing anything except pursuing a specific career.
However, at its core, I think this notion is wrong.
Excepting bad luck on Scottish mountains, life is long. Life is also cumulative, and no experience is irrelevant.
“Your learning curve in your twenties predicts your earning curve in your thirties and beyond,” says Meg Jay, associate professor at the University of Virginia and author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How To Make The Most of Them Now. But there is a difference between seeking out diverse experiences in your career and avoiding your career, Jay adds. “Learning . . . about work and love and yourself, is going to pay off down the line in all sorts of ways.”
Sometimes, experience might just tell you that you never want to try that ever again. For me, it was crucial. Doing a desk job I hated in my first few years out of college showed me what I really wanted to do, because I woke up every day panicking that it would never happen.
Part of the problem with career planning lies with the words we have come to use to describe our journeys. If you are a doctor, or a mountaineer, perhaps there is a visible “path”. But, for everyone else, the path is really only the place our feet have been.
Instead of a path, choose a spot on your own personal horizon to aim for — but know you can change it when you want. As long as you’re moving, you’re moving in the right direction.
My résumé is not linear, but it always pointed towards the same thing: I wanted to write. I wanted my life to be about stories. Behind everything I did, however random or poorly paid, was the hope it would move me closer to that goal.
Or, at least, make a good story.