Are Career Paths the Best for Professional Advancement?

There is no defined path to any professional career any longer. Life events, accomplishments, job experimentation and new interests fuel career development changes.

Workplace pundits, career planners, HR specialists, and self-appointed life-planning specialists and coaches have been touting the importance of career paths for decades. And when corporate America offered secure jobs—and meant it—career paths had some meaning. But even then, it wasn't guaranteed.

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In the best scenario, the concept behind the career path needs to be overhauled. Whether we change jobs or careers, most of us will alter our career course several times throughout our lives. Typically, such changes are unplanned.

We define ourselves by what we do for a living. Our career reflects innate abilities, goals, creativity, attitudes toward others and a host of other mysterious variables. In the skewed path to fulfillment, it's human nature to taste many jobs and experiment with new careers before we settle on something we are passionate about. The best we can strive for is finding something we love doing early on so we can devote the rest of our lives to excelling at it.

Job and career changes reflect not only the times but also, more importantly, a natural inclination to dabble and learn—so say career coaches John Agno and Rick Gee.

Looking back upon how his own life and career fell into place, Agno discovered this fact of life firsthand. He changed jobs every seven years before settling into a career he was passionate about: coaching senior technology executives—CTOs, CIOs and CEOs.

Along with a growing number of workplace advisers, Agno and Gee concur that there is no defined path to any professional career.

Gee adds that the entire notion of the career path has gone the way of the dinosaur. "More commonly, most people will travel several paths in the course of their lifetime," says Agno. "Typically, our early years are spent gravitating toward professions or vocations that are in tune with our personalities. Career adjustments, whether they happen early or in mid-career, are normal and natural. Every accomplishment and failure prepares you for what's ahead."

Management consultant, author and motivational speaker Tom Peters says, "There is no single path to success." And Buddha said: "Carpenters bend wood. Fletchers bend arrows. Wise men fashion themselves." It sounds a little vague, but the message is on the money: There is no telling how your life will work itself out, because there are so many things that are beyond your control.

George Helton and Ray Costello certainly agree with these astute observations. When they were in their early 20s, it's unlikely that they knew what CIO stood for—not to mention being able to fathom the remote possibility of actually becoming one.

But now, Helton is the director for Yakima County Technology Services in Yakima, Wash., and Costello is an Arlington Heights, Ill.-based CIO and technology director who's between jobs.

Helton has a BS in church music and music education, and an associate's degree in counseling. Costello has a BA in philosophy and a BS in computer science and business.

Pipe Fitter to Missionary

Fifty-six-year-old Helton's career saga began some 38 years ago, when he took his first job as a pipe fitter in a nuclear plant, following in his father's footsteps. "It was a mindless job, and it wasn't what I wanted," he says.

He joined the Army, where he landed a plum job as bass trombonist in the Army Band. He discovered other passions besides music; above all, he wanted to help people. So he accepted a job teaching troubled children in a missionary school in Unalakleet, Alaska, a remote fishing hamlet with a population of 300.

He stayed for four years, and might still be there if he and his wife hadn't discovered that their newly born son was deaf and needed state-of-the-art care, which meant relocating.

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