by Dean Joyce Feucht-Haviar on March, 2012 – As I reflect upon it, there is only one person I know who took a direct path from what he said he wanted to do in high school to doing it (and continuing to do it to the present). He wanted to be an airline pilot. I thought his fear of heights might get in the way, but apparently not. He went on to college and then into the Air Force. Before long, he was Captain Kruse and has been flying ever since. And, as far as I can tell, he remains content with that career choice, remains engaged in the work and continues to grow as a professional in that field.

But, a career path that straight, from aspiration at an early age to realization, seems relatively rare. While some careers, such as a physician, require a relatively early decision and a long commitment to an educational path, a more winding path seems far more typical. It is not necessarily a random or broken path, but one that leads through a series of career choices, each of which tells us something about ourselves – refines our sense of the possible and, in turn, sharpens our aspirations. If we are fortunate, our subsequent choices are an increasingly tighter match between our talent set and the nature of the work we do.

winding road

"Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage."

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

My friend Harry Miller is a grand example of what I mean. He started with an interest in the arts, but his family background was such that a career in the arts was not seen as a viable option. He went into the military and attended college on the GI Bill. He started earning money working on shows – not Broadway shows but trade shows, commercial fairs and exhibitions. (He told a great story about choreographing a dozen or so "dancing" tractors.) He became a successful theater director in a wide range of venues and learned set design, dance, acting, scriptwriting and more. What he learned about himself was not only that he did, indeed, love the arts, but that he was really good at bringing out the best in others (pushing them to do more than they thought they could do), and he was addicted to learning (an avid reader, curious, eager to know more). He went back to school later in life (I think he was in his early 50s), earned his doctorate and became a faculty member at a university in Ohio teaching comparative arts and humanities. I encountered him there in taking one of his courses – it truly was life changing. It didn't matter what Harry was teaching in terms of content, because his focus was on teaching students to think, see, learn and create. And, he was remarkably good at it – and remarkably happy doing it. He crafted his classes like works of art – they were interactive and reflective (with journal-keeping focused on personal reactions to readings, class sessions, individual projects and group projects that pushed students to work collaboratively for a successful outcome). He won awards for teaching. He moved from one university to take a position at another that gave him a greater range of teaching options. (In addition to traditional students, he was able to work with nontraditional students and honors students). He died a few years ago in his late 80s, planning for his next class, having recently won another teaching award.

Harry's path was winding and refining, with several stops along the way, each rewarding to him and each a step to something closer to his essential self – the place where his mind, his spirit, his set of talents the lessons learned from his experience, and his formal education came together. I don't know what prompted Harry to return to higher education in his 50s. It wasn't a common thing to do at the time. He didn't do it because his career was unsuccessful to that point. He followed his own sense of what was right for him. I do know that had Harry not made that choice, my own sense of self and possibility would have been quite different. And, likely, most of the several thousand students who studied with him over his 30-plus year career in higher education would say the same. Harry would say he was having a grand time. And he clearly was doing just that – which made him all the better at his work.

Studies show that today, on average, people change careers three to seven times across their life spans. They don't just change from one position to another in the same career path, but change entire career paths. If you feel you are still looking forward, wondering what you could be – should be – in decades ahead, you are not alone. Will you be one of those who take the steps necessary to move down that winding path of your refined aspiration, your changing sense of yourself and what is possible? If you have not found where your heart lies on the first try, like Captain Kruse, find it when experience points the way, like Professor Harry Miller. I have found my own creative place right here working with my colleagues to develop exceptional educational opportunities for those shifting their careers. My colleagues are exceptionally good at walking along with those who are traveling that winding path of aspiration. At the end of spring, I will attend graduations, and I will wonder more than once how many "Harry Millers" there are among the graduates – individuals who will make a remarkable positive difference in the world for decades into the future.