Long ago, dissatisfied with how slow my career was progressing, I decided to leave the nest – the safety net of the big company where I worked – and find my own way up the corporate ladder.
Don’t get me wrong. It was a great company and they were grooming me for executive management, but at a snail's pace. So I set about grooming myself. Now I’m supposed to tell you that it was all smooth sailing from there. But that’s not even close to the truth. The truth is it was never smooth sailing. Not by any stretch.
I could say my career was a rollercoaster ride from hell. But that would also give the wrong impression. Rollercoasters are relatively safe. There was nothing safe about my career. And I certainly didn’t end up where I started. But it was very much like a rollercoaster in one sense: it oscillated between terrifying and fun.
The truth is I don’t know how I got to where I am today. Sure, I can sort of look back and see how it happened: all the risks I took, the relationships I built, the opportunities I chased down, and the experience I gained. But it wasn’t as if I had a plan, other than to follow whatever path seemed right at the time.
And, when things went wrong – as they so often did – I drank myself into oblivion for a week or two, hit the reset button, and started all over again. And somehow, through the grace of God, good Karma, who knows what, everything somehow managed to work out in the end. Which brings me to the point of the story.
I never wanted to admit it, but looking back on it, I can see how much of my success was just plain luck. I can also see one more thing very clearly: I was never in control. Not once. There were times when there was an illusion of control, but time and events inevitably proved otherwise.
Now, when I mentor and advise people – particularly young people – I get the distinct impression that, instead of trying to manage their careers, which is a good thing, they’re trying to control their careers, which is not such a good thing.
They seem entitled to a career in their field and making the amount of money they expect to make, all without paying their dues. And when their careers don’t launch like a rocket ship to the moon straight out of school, they jump on the entrepreneur bandwagon like it’s some sort of panacea, which it isn’t.
The truth is, careers never go straight up like rocket ships.
Before I got my start as an engineer in the high-tech industry, I had already been a cleaner of blood and guts in a butcher shop, a foot messenger in midtown Manhattan, a clerk on Wall Street, and a bank vault attendant. And yes, that last one was with a B.S. degree in physics.
I’ve been fired, laid off, and passed over for promotions countless times. But I never gave up hope because I wasn’t searching for some panacea. I had no preconceived notion about how things were supposed to happen. I had no plan, other than to find something I loved doing, work hard at it, and hopefully make enough money to take care of myself and my family.
So when an opportunity arose that seemed interesting, I jumped on it. Even if it was something I’d never thought of and it meant working my tail off for less than I was worth, if my gut told me to do it, I did it. And that randomness, that openness to opportunity, is what enabled me to eventually find exactly what I was looking for.
Look, you should never trust your career to anyone else. That goes without saying. And why should you? Your career is no different than anything else that’s important in life: your health, your love, your family. But just as with your health, your love, and your family, you can’t control your career.
You may be in charge, but you can’t control how things will go and you certainly can’t control how things will turn out. And, if you try too hard, you just might wake up at the end of a bummer rollercoaster ride where things didn’t work out as you’d planned, you’re right back where you started, and worst of all, you didn’t have any fun.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.