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How I Un-Planned My Career

Shelbie Slater
Shelbie Slater

August 04, 2018

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“Learn how to do anything you can. Then, when someone asks for help, you can say, ‘I know how to do that!’”

This is what my grandpa told me, starting when I was eleven years old.

Years before I was old enough to legally drive in any state, province, territory, or small island nation, he had me pulling the car in and out of the white gravel driveway and careening around the yard on his riding lawn mower. I remember lying on the cement changing the oil in his Cadillac or hefting rubber as we rotated his car tires for what seemed like the hundredth time.

He wanted me to know how to do anything, and he always told me that I could.

Grandpa’s Advice vs. My Planning Skills

Before my grandpa ever plopped my tiny self onto a lawn mower seat, I was a die-hard planner and organizer.

I still am.

I pack for vacations weeks ahead, carefully rolling each article of clothing for maximum space. I am up there with the most dedicated list makers. This year alone, I have two wall calendars, two day planners, and a pocket-sized calendar just in case my phone calendar malfunctions. My clothes are arranged by sleeve length and my bookshelf is color coded.

You might assume that I applied the same precision planning to my career.

But I didn’t.

Honestly, I’m as surprised as you are. I started planning my future when I was six or seven. I remember the days of collecting my baby teeth because I wanted to be a dentist. I went through the obligatory preteen-girl veterinarian phase. Then I wanted to be an elementary school teacher, an orchestra director, and then a nurse….

But when it came to actually having a career, I didn’t pursue any of those things.

After years of planning to live on a college campus, I skipped the brick-and-mortar college system altogether. Instead, I joined Unbound and earned my business degree in two and a half years. I wasn’t entirely sure what I would do with that degree. I just knew that it was the next right thing.

When it was time to move forward with a career, I remembered what Grandpa had told me—to learn everything I could. Try it all.

With my grandpa’s early advice echoing in my ears, I did something unexpected: I kept taking the next step without knowing where it would lead.

I kept saying “yes” to the next adventure.

The whole world cries out for us to plan. Plan for your degree. Plan your career path. Plan for retirement. And it’s not that they’re wrong. Planning is awesome and all.

But sometimes we have our futures so planned out that we‘re blind to opportunities for adventure.

Here are some ways I unplanned my career, and how you can too:

1. Say “Yes” to the Off-the-Wall and Crazy

In my college and early career days, I rarely had to search for an adventure. It just popped up in front of me! All I had to do was say “yes.”

When I said “yes,” I got to:

  • Shoot and edit a documentary with an independent film company
  • Become assistant director of a nonprofit orchestra
  • Raise dairy goats
  • Land a two month marketing internship 700 miles from home
  • Learn how to paint with a local artist
  • Train to be a counselor
  • Do freelance work from home on my schedule
  • Take dance lessons

Even though not all of these things directly impact my career, they work together to make me a more interesting, creative person.

Because I am willing to learn anything, I am able to do anything.

2. Don’t Decide You Don’t Like Something Until You Try It

I don’t really like heights.

Okay… nix that. I despise heights, particularly falling from them or dangling from them by thin ropes.

But I decided this after I rappelled off cliffs and rode the best roller coasters and stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Not before.

My current job involves constant communication with health insurance companies. I don’t know the last thing about insurance! I don’t know what the strange acronyms stand for, how deductibles and copays work, or what forms I should submit for different needs. But guess what? I’m learning, and before long I will know all about it.

That’s all there is to it. You just have to be willing to try and learn.

Maybe you won’t like building a website, trying out for your community theater, or learning how to play the cello. But how in the world will you know what you’re missing until you try?

You see, learning anything you can isn’t just about a career. It’s about growing your own curiosity and making choices that stretch your skills and give you a new perspective. It’s about an attitude of “why not?” instead of “I don’t do that kind of thing.”

3. Remember It’s Okay To Fail or Quit

“I used to be afraid of failing at something that really mattered to me, but now I’m more afraid of succeeding at things that don’t….” - Bob Goff

Learning everything you can is about becoming comfortable with short-term experimentation, and even failure.

I’ve chased a boatload of opportunities in my life, and I sure don’t want to do all of them for the rest of my life. Even though I worked on a film team, I don’t want to be a producer. I’ve painted plenty of walls, but I don’t want to be a professional painter. I’ve changed way too many tires, but I don’t plan on opening an auto mechanic shop anytime soon.

Some of my projects, I’ve kept around for years, telling myself I’d finish them “eventually.” But I never did.

Recently, I finally put them away.

I understand now that I’ve already learned what I needed to learn from those projects. I discovered new interests and skills because of them, but I don’t really want to finish them. And the world won’t end if I put them away for good.

Try something.

It’s okay to hate it.

It’s okay to not want to do it forever. It’s okay to not be good at it. And it’s okay to stop doing it whenever you want to. Just try.

The Road Less Traveled Made All the Difference

Some people plan their education and career around a fixed idea of what they want to do “when they grow up.”

As I have said “yes” to as many learning opportunities as possible, my own career has looked more like a patchwork quilt than an unbroken line moving in one direction. Wherever I go, I carry the wealth of having done things. Whatever job I do, I possess ideas that enrich my work because I have lived adventurously and stretched the boundaries of expectation.

Yes, make commitments, dig deep, and make plans.

Yes, run hard after the work you love.

But leave space in your life to say “yes” to adventure and learn something new. Leave space for your career to be unplanned.

Someday you will say, “I can do that!” and your life will change. Because sometimes the detours are the most fulfilling experiences of all.

Mine have been.

Shelbie Slater
Shelbie Slater

If Shelbie has a cup of tea, a good book, or a deep conversation, she is a happy camper. With a background in accounting, classical music, and blogging, she believes learning is one of life’s greatest adventures.

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