by Bob Weinstein

Are Career Paths the Best for Professional Advancement?

Feb 04, 20088 mins

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.

When the Kennewick school district where he relocated refused to grant him a teaching license because he could not fill certain requirements, bureaucratic snares turned his life into endless drudgery. To pay his rent and mounting bills, Helton was forced to take a series of manual-labor jobs, which included working as a ditch digger, welding inspector and retail stock clerk.

But during this difficult period, Helton discovered a new passion: technology. He saw it hardly as a career path, but rather as a way out, an uncharted road to a better life—a new future.

Helton is a self-taught techie. He read everything he could get his hands on. For practical, hands-on knowledge, he repaired and rebuilt trashed and discarded computers that had been deemed unsalvageable by their owners. Surviving on three or four hours of sleep a night, Helton taught himself how to program.

When a low-level computer technician’s job opened at Yakima’s Department of Transportation, Helton jumped on it with a vengeance. So began his IT career. His hard work and persistence paid off, and 20 years later he landed his job as a senior technology executive for Yakima County.

From State-Hospital Attendant to Railroad Brakeman

Fifty-four-year-old Costello’s career was equally unconventional. By the time he entered college, he still didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do with his life. When he graduated with a degree in philosophy—a far cry from IT—he took a job working as a technician at Illinois State Hospital.

Two years later he made a career swerve and took a job working for the Chicago and North Western Railway as a brakeman in the freight yards. After five years, a coworker told him about his own part-time job programming electric organs while studying computer science at night. Costello had always been interested in computers, so he taught himself how to program. He enrolled at Chicago’s DeVry Institute of Technology and went on to land a degree in computer science. He finally found his passion.

But he said it was hardly a career path: “I needed a job, and the only one I could get was a low-level position as a programmer,” says Costello. He wasn’t upset about it, either. He deemed it a start—and he was happy he got it.

The rest is history, as they say.

The Big Message: Chuck Career Paths, Redefine Career

Gee doesn’t find Helton’s or Costello’s career changes unusual. Finding something you love to do, he says, can often be a lifelong process. Some discover their passion early in life; for others, it takes a lot longer.

“If you’re building a technology career, you’re forced to constantly alter your path because the technology is always changing,” Gee explains. “Whether you’re developing software or you’re running an IT organization, you have to be prepared to adjust to constant change.”

Rather than obsess about finding a career path, Gee says that we ought to rethink our definition of the word career. “Clearly, our careers ought to be redefined at different stages of our lives,” he says.

Helton adds that our careers, and the roads we take to achieve them, ought to be reframed within the context of our lives. “It is not what we do that determines who we are,” he says. “Who we are determines what we do. I’ve discovered that our lives ought to be bigger than ourselves. Life has to be about more than ourselves.”

As for Costello’s take on career paths and life in general, “I’ve thought a lot about career paths,” he muses, “and to this day, I’m not sure I was ever on one. I might have thought I was, but I was just jumping from one opportunity to another with an underlying goal to be the top IT man in whatever company I was working for.”

Discovering Value and True Calling

Looking back, Costello says his early career was defined by a need to change and grow. As he moved through a series of IT jobs, he realized how valuable he was to a growing company. As a CIO, he defined his role as an “IT rebuilder.” “But I never saw myself as being at the end or pinnacle of an IT career path. I saw what I did as a calling,” he says.

As for this whole notion of a career path, Costello says that although he’s smarter, wiser and more knowledgeable than he was 20 years ago, he’s still growing. But he has learned one powerful lesson: “Be open to change. In IT, it never stops.”

Costello’s last words on career paths: If we have to have a buzzword to describe the development of a career, Costello opts for “career journey.” “That’s how my career has developed,” he says. “It’s been a journey—a road trip full of good, bad and incredible experiences. And it’s not over yet.”