September 29, 2022

When I was growing up, my parents told me that I had to choose either a sport or an instrument. I cycled through a bunch, and none of them really stuck, but in middle school, it was climbing. Dad and I would go to the climbing gym a few times a week, and gradually we started to spend most of our time bouldering. We’d obsess over problems on the wall, hoping we could figure out how to top out before the gym changed up the routes. 


It’s been a while since I’ve been to the climbing gym, but I still think about the process of strategizing about my next maneuvers. Right now, the crux of the puzzle is making the leap to life after college. I’ve fallen in love with the field of positive organizational scholarship, so I’m trying to figure out ways to keep it in the forefront.  


I’ve managed to get it into my head that whatever job I choose after college, it won’t determine the rest of my life. And believe me, it took me quite a while to get there. But the next thing that I’m trying to believe in with some conviction is that whatever I end up doing, I don’t need to worry about putting myself on some proverbial wrong path.  


Sometimes I can get stuck thinking about the career models of the previous generations, where most people stay in one role or with one company for most of their lives — but the norm is changing as people move about to craft careers to best suit their individual needs and interests. As Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper argue in their TED talk “The Best Career Path Isn’t Always a Straight Line”, the rigidity of the classic corporate ladder can be severely limiting in some cases. They advocate instead for what they call the squiggly career: 


“A squiggly career is both full of uncertainty and full of possibility. Change is happening all of the time. Some of it is in our control, and some of it’s not. Success isn’t one-size-fits-all. Our squiggles are as individual as we are.” 


Climbing through a squiggly career. Illustration by Monica Haun.


At our climbing gym, there was a huge boulder in the center of the gym with routes of all different difficulties mapped onto it. Dad and I would clip on our chalk bags and try our best to figure out how to move from one hold to the next one with the same color tape. Sometimes we’d gravitate towards the same problem on the wall, but even then, our processes looked very different — I could make better use of the tiny toe holds, but he had the strength to hoist himself up on slopers.  


When I’m climbing, it’s not really about getting to the top. If I were to flash every route and get to the top on my first try, I’m sure that’d take a bit of the fun out of it. But that’s not to say that there’s not value in the prescribed routes as well — at our gym, when you topped out on the boulder, you crossed a bridge to the second floor. After a while of not being able to make my way up through any of the climbing routes, I decided to take the stairs because I just had to see what was up there. 


Taking the career ladder can be the right choice too. Illustration by Monica Haun.


I’ve tried to follow other people’s paths, asking at the Center for Positive Organizations’ conferences about what early career options in this field might look like, but I didn’t quite get the responses I was hoping for. Instead, many told me how they stumbled across this new field one way or another later on in their careers, and their first jobs out of college were so far removed from the work they love now. 


I was a bit disappointed each time this happened — it didn’t really answer my question — but I’m starting to realize that there’s some wisdom in these responses. I’ve already waxed poetic about my love for this field, but when I talk about my struggles with trying to determine my next step forward (grasping for some elusive perfect step), my mentors are always sure to gently remind me that the important thing is to figure out what feels right as the next step for right now. That it’s okay if what I love changes over time.  


Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I could ever want to pursue a different field (I know — I’m young and naïve). But what if I stumble on to some other wonderful field that meshes with who I am at that point in time? I mean, I started off wanting to be a teacher like my mother, then a theoretical mathematician, and then I found my place with cognitive science, and now I’ve narrowed my focus to applying positive psychology to organizations. Given how much I believe in work’s ability to be positive and fulfilling, I hope I allow myself to explore the opportunities that excite me. 


Our goals and our abilities change as we move through life and our careers. I’m starting to learn how to hold things loosely — to appreciate my relationship with them as it is in this moment, instead of trying to chart this strict path forward. We often hear about job crafting, where we figure out the ways to creatively align our values and talents with a particular role, and I think we can approach crafting careers in much the same way. The corporate ladder might be akin to the job description we get on paper, but in many ways, we have so much agency to shape our experiences, and it’s worth considering how each of us might take advantage of that. 


Sometimes I would never make my way through a particular problem on the wall, but maybe I was able to add a new maneuver to my tool belt that helped me crack other routes, or maybe I just had fun trying it and flopping back onto the crash pad. By being open to the mess and play of a squiggly career, we can grow towards our goals and embrace a spirit of exploration: 


“Exploring our career possibilities increases our resilience. It gives us more options, and you create more connections. We see how we can use our strengths in new ways and spot the skills that might be useful for our future. We can all start exploring our career possibilities.” 


Even if I do find myself being drawn to some other field in the future, I’m grateful for the tools that I’m learning from positive organizational scholarship. While we accumulate knowledge and wisdom in everything we do, the learnings from this field are uniquely applicable to any career shift I might gravitate towards, by virtue of this field’s emphasis on improving the culture and dynamics of any organization. I’m not sure what my career will look like, but I’m looking forward to the climb. 


Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing. 

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