In elementary school, I briefly thought about becoming a paleontologist and digging up dinosaur bones. But a school field trip to an actual archeological dig cured me of that pretty quickly. To my surprise, I found myself … well, kind of bored.
That’s the thing about carving out your own path in life; what seems like a sure bet can end up being a dud. Moreover, you never quite know when true inspiration will strike.
For instance, the first time I really remember feeling energized about a potential career path was following an AP Economics class in high school. Compared to everything else I was taking, it was truly interesting to me.
I wasn’t stuck memorizing science formulas and equations; I was learning about concepts and ideas that connected to the real world. It wasn’t long before visions of joining the Fed as an economics wonk became “the dream.”
So, I went off to college to study economics. Soon, I found myself sucked into finance and math classes. There were also recruiters from large companies on campus, where all you had to do was drop off your resume and interview well. In the blink of an eye, like many of my peers, I ended up with a job offer to work on Wall Street.
I put on a suit, became an investment banker, and started working alongside very large companies, primarily in the oil and gas space, to do work on their behalf. A lot of the work was very exciting and challenging but, ultimately, I didn’t feel great about the work I was doing.
It was around that time that I read Plan B by Lester Brown, which deals with topics like climate change. It motivated me to recalibrate my career path around this notion that I could put my talents to work in areas like sustainability, climate change, and clean energy.
But by the time I was thinking about grad school, the market collapsed and the Great Recession of 2008 took hold. It was a time when it was hard to find any job, let alone move forward with a career switch in a space that I’ve never worked in.
I kept moving forward, however.
There, I pursued an MBA, as well as an MS in environment and resources. Of course, this new chapter presented a new challenge.
At the time, the field of climate change only presented two primary paths for a career. You can do the actual science or enact positive change through policy. (Nowadays, the landscape for career opportunities in climate change is much more diverse thanks in part due to advancements in technology.)
As someone who didn’t have a real science background, that path didn’t seem like the right fit for me. However, I also knew I didn’t want to work in policy either. I even considered cleantech for a little while, but I struggled to find that one technology I really wanted to hang my hat on.
While wrestling through these different options at Stanford, I was also at the heart of Silicon Valley. So, I got my hands dirty with consulting and other project work.
“This seems like something that I could be very good at and would enjoy,” I realized. Based on my background and skills, it was a match made in heaven that I had even considered.
That’s how it works sometimes, though. You go into something with a preconceived idea about the outcome, but you’re proven wrong or learn about something new. And that’s what happened to me. I went into Stanford pointed toward climate change, and I came out with a taste for product management.
On paper, these pivots seem glossy and exciting, but they can be nerve-wracking when you’re in the middle of trying to figure things out. In my own case, as I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do (and before I found product management), I had looked at things like corporate sustainability; I even did an internship at a venture capital firm.
I also had pulled myself out of the workforce, which is a scary thing to do for anyone.
I could have stayed in investment banking. I could have climbed the ladder and checked all of those boxes, like I was supposed to.
I wasn’t happy, though. And that cost wasn’t worth it. Looking back, I wish I had paid attention more to some of the feedback I received in a few interviews – that I didn’t seem genuinely excited about the work I was applying for. I’ve never been the most gregarious person in a room, but if something doesn’t really excite you, you need to ask yourself why you’re there.
For those who may find themselves similarly “stuck in the middle,” I would challenge you to imagine yourself being “in the zone” at work, where you’re really excited about what it is that you’re doing.
That’s what you’re looking for. You want to find somewhere, where you can be in that zone, feeling good about what you’re doing and how you’re spending your time every single day. When I hire product managers now, I always ask them why they’re a product manager. In my experience, this question is rarely (if ever) asked, but it’s so important to understand why you want to do the work that's put in front of you.
And if you find yourself in this in-between space right now, don’t be too hard on yourself for not having it all figured out yet. Use this time for learning by asking yourself questions like:
We all fall off the horse. Plans don’t always work out; in fact, I’ve learned they rarely do. But you need to learn how to get back up in the saddle and continue to forge ahead. The more you put yourself out there, the more likely you’ll end up right exactly where you’re supposed to be.