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I have a fascination with career stories: how people end up where they are, what brought them there, and how they came to their own version of success.

It’s one of the reasons why I spent the better part of my 20’s going to nearly every professional presentation, society meeting, and networking event I could think of. If I connected with the speaker, or liked their story, I would stand in line after the presentation to thank them for their words and – if it wasn’t part of the presentation – ask them: so, what brought you to do what you do? And I would listen, in full fascination, to the answers.

This fascination is also why I had one of the top Linked-in profiles back in the early 2010s: you know, when that professionals-version-of-facebook was still somewhat new. I was fascinated with what people were doing, why they were doing it, and what other careers were out and available in the world.

So when I left the hustle of corporate and retreated to the suburbs to raise my kids, I turned to career podcasts to entertain my daily walks with the stroller and dogs, getting my steps in, all while figuring out my next career move. Two of my favorites weree Creative Start with Cortnee Loren Brown and The Accidental Creative with Todd Henry.

So today I am sharing my through-line: the choices and opportunities that brought me where I am today. I’m not sure it will help anyone figure out their own path, but maybe it will help give some insight into following your gut and choosing the heart over the head, at least in times where it fits the moment.

The balance of the heart and the head.

Finding your career pathway is all a matter of where you are, what opportunities are available to you, what you want, and what you need in that moment. Sometimes our needs are basic: enough money to pay for a place to live, to afford the cost of living, transportation, and food. Sometimes we have the privilege of making more want-based choices, like getting the degree you most want to learn about or getting free internships to start in highly competitive industries.

So if, for instance, you are 18 and you know, for a fact, that you’re going to end up personally funding your college education, and you know you’re on your own with no parents to live with, the heart might say “I’m not ready for college” and the head might say “but I have to get an education”, you can work with the heart and the head to navigate the needs-wants-desires conversation a bit better.

The truth is, I looked at a lot of colleges. Most of them were a plane flight away. And I knew my parents financial situation would not allow for any support with that. I knew I would be on my own. And I just wasn’t ready to finance $150k on a degree that might be the wrong one for me.

So I decided to go to work. I got an apartment with my friends on the edge of the kind of affordable neighborhood where we were safe, but knew our cars would get broken into and expected stuff to get stolen. And it did.

I had two jobs then: an evening job in retail that I started in high school, and a daytime job working on the back end of a small stock trading company. It worked, for a time. I went from only affording pasta to being able to weekly grocery store sushi. Hello, life upgrade!

But the hours were tough and, truth be told, I knew I couldn’t sustain two full time jobs. So I left retail and found a better opportunity at a mortgage lending company.

And that opportunity led to my first career.

It was a great gig. A lot of it was just manual processing: checking paperwork, entering it into the computer, checking to make sure everything was correct. I was so good at it too. I was efficient, quick, and really organized.

This was at a time when we had our first mortgage boom. Rates then were lower than they had been in years and everyone was refinancing for a better deal. Times were good and our organization quadrupled in size in just a couple of years.

When incentives for overtime came up, I went for it, working upwards of 60-70 hr work weeks, soaking in all the extra cash, and enjoying a really comfortable salary for someone in their first job.

I trained new staff on our process, got a few promotions, and knew – if I wanted it – there was a place for me. I could build a happy life climbing my way up the corporate ladder, organizing office softball events and planning cake parties in the kitchen for whoever’s birthday was next. I did kickboxing at night at a local karate studio, ate well, got a nicer apartment, and even bought a brand new car.

To keep my personal promise of pursuing college, I took night classes at a local community college. I did the basics: writing, math, coding, accounting. As an employee benefit, my company paid a portion of the classes. I pursued print photography for fun: studied the basic rules of photography, learned the developing process, and made my own prints. One of my photos was featured in the photographer’s local art show and printed in a national publication.

Life was good.

But I also knew that something else was out there. And I knew I would always regret it if I didn’t pursue it.

So I left my comfortable gig in finance to pursue a full-time engineering program. And that, I’ll save for Part 2 of the through-line series. 

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