Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
March 23, 2012 7:37 PM

Embrace The Squiggly

How did you get here?

I'm fascinate by people and their career paths - especially the marketing professionals. Do you know what I never hear? I have never heard a story that goes like this: "I always knew that I wanted to be in Marketing. There was never any doubt in my mind. All through elementary school, all I could do was daydream about marketing campaigns and working on a company's overall strategic vision. While other kids were outside playing, I was busy drawing up logos for imaginary companies. In High School, I started the marketing club and could not wait until our Economics teacher touched - ever so-slightly - on the topic of marketing. Right after high school graduation, I interned at an advertising agency and could not wait to pursue my MBA with a focus on marketing." Nobody sets out to be a Marketer. Most marketing professionals don't have a very linear career path. It's actually very squiggly.

The reality of decisions.

You can contrast that fictional story above with a friend of mine. This individual was never really sure what they wanted to do. There was no clear desire or talent for one, specific, area of interest. In her final years of high school, a guidance counselor recommended engineering or the sciences because she had above-average math grades. From there, my friend studied engineering through university and squeaked by. Never truly passionate about it, she got her ring and entered the workforce. I had lunch with her a few weeks ago and she confessed that she was miserable because of her work, but could not figure out why. She had followed the rules: did well in school, advanced in a field that typically enables you to be both employable and paid well. Being an engineer was supposed to be a good life. We talked for a bit and then I half-jokingly said, "it's crazy that your current life is based on a few random decisions you made when you were sixteen. Can you imagine that? What did we really know at sixteen?" Her face became pale and flushed. She sat before me - jaw-dropped - and said, "that's it! Why am I leading this life based on the decision of me as a sixteen year old?" 

Embrace the squiggly.

Here's the thing: people want guarantees: if I go to school and get a degree, I get a good paying job, right? If I work hard my whole life, I'll have a pension, right? If I do everything my boss tells me, I'll get that promotion, right? I've been fortunate enough to have met some of the most fascinating musicians, artists, thinkers, authors, business leaders and politicians. I don't take that gift for granted. If there's one thing that has become abundantly clear to me, it's that the most successful people I know have had very squiggly careers. No linear paths and no constant and consistent ascents. It's been bumpy, weird, strange, funky and all-around fascinating.

Isn't that cool?

What I see as cool, most people read as terrifying. I can't quantify why I think like this (and I recognize that these are first-world thinking philosophies), but I have never been motivated by things like promotions, salaries or titles. I was working as an Editor for a community magazine when I suddenly agreed to become a sales representative for an online search engine start-up (and, we're talking about a search engine that came out long before Google existed). Why did I make that decision? It made no sense. I never even really liked the ad sales part of the publishing business. Yes, I was both intrigued and fascinated with the Internet, but it was risky, unproven and not a skill set of mine. Regardless, it felt right. In hindsight, it was one of the best career choices I have ever made. Interesting how those squiggly lines work out. What some might call jumping around, I might call following my professional muse.

What about you?

Being a marketing professional must have been a squiggly journey for you. You may even feel like you're still not one hundred percent certain of where you're at in your career. You may be nervous to quit to try something new or you may be chomping at the bit to get your hands into the next project. All of these are common feelings. We all feel like this. The idea here is not to always look at things in a linear fashion. Try thinking a little more squiggly and let me know how that works out for.

Squiggly just sounds like more fun, doesn't it?

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Ian Greenleigh
    Mitch Joel

    Straight lines are usually pretty long when it comes to careers in marketing. They're for "company men," patient, careful people.

    I was a poli sci major, which equated to nothing marketable when I graduated just as the recession gripped the US. Sales jobs were all I could get, but I started doing things that eventually led me to realize, "hey, this is actually marketing I'm doing now."

    Squiggly lines might not get you into marketing faster, but they typically get you into the kind of marketing you'll actually want to do faster.

    Reply
  • Posted by Steve Supple
    Mitch Joel

    Sounds like my career path. I think Squiggly careers must be very common.
    Steve

    Reply
  • Posted by James Howe
    Mitch Joel

    My career defines squiggly. I've been a grade school teacher--twice. Wrote advertising style campaigns for health and safety and loss prevention before settling into marketing communications for nonprofits/public sector. And now I'm most excited about social media.

    Trust me when I saw I've left out many squiggly lines. At times it's frustrating but I always seem to end up in a better place and I can't wait to see what comes next.

    Reply
  • Posted by Tony Faustino
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch, your "squiggly observations" parallel a number of concepts from The Start-Up of You, by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.

    I'm a massive fan of this book. So I apologize in advance for sounding like a commercial. But, the squiggly career path from your personal experience highlight Start-Up of You concepts such as:

    * A mindset of permanent beta (so you're always building new skills, capabilities, and contacts). And, building those assets may not necessarily come from another industry or people we're spend the most time with.

    * Taking intelligent risks (when you followed your gut on The Internet)

    In my opinion, squiggly = being more entrepreneurial. And, that's a great thing when it comes to managing our careers.

    Reply
    • Posted by Eric Ruckle
      Eric Ruckle

      The book looks great. Just ordered it. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Reply
      • Posted by Eric Ruckle
        Mitch Joel

        While the Squiggly can be a bit scary, it also seems to provide the most flexibility. Oddly enough, that could mean more security.

        Reply
      • Posted by Tony Faustino
        Mitch Joel

        Eric, you're most certainly welcome. You won't regret investing in The Start-Up of You. In fact, Mitch wrote a post about it on March 27th. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did and take to heart its principles.

        Also, I think you'll enjoy the Start-Up of You LinkedIn Discussion Group. It's a great group with smart people and stimulating discussions (just like what you'll find here in the Six Pixels Community).

        Reply
  • Posted by Linda
    Mitch Joel

    I like that description Mitch - my has definitely been "squiggly", but you learn a lot from deviating from linear - I liken it to a road trip - if you stick to the highway you'll get there, but it's a very direct route and you get the same view as everyone else along the way OR you can take a few turns here and there, take the road less travelled, make a few interesting stops along the way, even if you occasionally have to backtrack, the journey is much more interesting and you never know when you're going to find a new destination that is far more desirable than your original one.

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    Right on the spot, at least from my personal stand point. Most people end up doing something totally different to that they originally signed up for, however squiggly is a term as appliable to marketing as to any other carreer path, it just seems to be told on marketing more often.

    Reply
  • Posted by Bob Williams
    Mitch Joel

    You say "the most successful people I know have had very squiggly careers." Define "success" in this context. I suspect it's not related to salary, or perks, or other monetary type rewards. I hope it's related to finding fulfillment and satisfaction in their work by producing something that provides value to everyone in the transaction.

    A squiggly path keeps things fresh. It means constantly learning and facing new challenges. It means learning to adapt. It means growing within oneself. It represents a journey.

    Reply
  • Posted by TT
    Mitch Joel

    "I recognize that these are first-world thinking philosophies"


    Not necessarily. I'd argue squiggly career are more of a North American thing.


    As an American, my squiggly was, and always has been embraced by recruiters. In the UK where I lived and received some of my education, they don't get it. Even worse in China, where I'm writing from. They can look at a CV/resumé and not understand that an IT project started and finished in 30days or less and with that, the job ended, which to me, is a competency issue. So, imagine how squiggly looks to such "professionals".


    Both Bob Williams & Mr. Faustino are on to something though. I'm not a "marketing professional" in the strict sense of the term although I did design a web-centered marketing turnaround and brand momentum strategy for a Chinese company which later decided it couldn't afford me, and hired cheap labor to implement the plans.


    Still, like you, I've always done squiggly. Probably started at AT&T in the 90s where they made you do things cross-functionally because you're good at it. Not because of "linear" thinking. However, this is an incubation period for me. And I'm not at all ashamed of my squiggly trail. It'll be embraced...I hope, when I return home.


    Oh, and for those who haven't taken or heard of the CVI™ (Core Values Index™) assessment, take it! It's fun. You might discover things about yourself that'll probably help guide your next career move. The test says I'm an "Innovator/Builder" (i.e., Dominant & Unique Value Set) although I'm yet to make a buck out of that discovery:-)

    Reply
  • Posted by Rosemary ONeill
    Mitch Joel

    Go Poli Sci majors! I was plucked out of technical writing by a wonderful mentor who recognized a spark of something in me, and I'm eternally grateful. Sometimes the squiggling is uncomfortable, but then nothing worthwhile is ever comfortable, right?

    Reply
  • Posted by Steve Hardy
    Mitch Joel

    Great post, Mitch. It's funny - I actually was that person you describe in the intro paragraph. And yet I've also had a pleasantly "squiggly" career (spanning advertising, publishing, blogging, mobile content, web, consumer electronics, and entrepreneurialism). Breadth of ideas and experience, and a winding path, are definitely more fun - and probably more valuable/applicable in marketing than many other fields.

    Reply
  • Posted by Susan Murphy
    Mitch Joel

    It's funny how many people think that security (a steady paycheque, pension, etc) is the secret to happiness, yet, once they achieve those things, they are rarely happy.

    With the exception of my first job in TV where I got to produce a music show and interview bands for a living, most of the steady paycheque jobs I held were either in unhealthy work environments, or they would end up being unchallenging and boring after a time.

    It was only when struck out on my own 8 years ago that things started to move in the right direction. Now I have about 4 jobs, and all of them are jobs I choose to do. I am happier and more successful without that perceived security than I ever was with it. Do what you love and security will follow. Funny how that works, eh?

    Reply
  • Posted by Karen Wilson
    Mitch Joel

    I love that you wrote this. I've struggled sometimes with my somewhat transient career path. Why can't I seem to get that job I never want to leave? Then I think again and realize that sounds incredibly boring. My interests change. My skills expand. Moving around gives me the ability to grow in different areas. I like that.

    The only thing better will be the day I am fully self-employed.

    Reply
  • Posted by Ophelie
    Mitch Joel

    Yep, I also have a squiggly career path -- and it also started with a political science degree! I then studied journalism, worked in news research for awhile, then onto communications, and now marketing. I never would have envisioned myself doing this kind of work 5 years ago, but I love what I do.

    Reply
  • Posted by Maxine Grossman
    Mitch Joel

    People sometimes ask me whether my "background" is in digital marketing. I assume they mean my university degree, but find it funny that this even comes up, considering my professional experience in digital marketing is about 3 times as long as my education experience.

    The internet only barely existed when I was doing my degree. I studied Religious Studies because I wanted to major in Philosophy but the Religious Studies department more closely resembled what I imagined Philosophy would be like. Talk about teenage decision-making!

    Since many people assume that a career follows linearly from a degree I was asked countless times, "What are you going to do with THAT, be a nun?!?". Um, yes, that is exactly the plan. I will be the first Sephardi-Ashkenaz nun.

    Rather than think of my past squiggles as being unrelated to the present, I believe I bring all those detours to the table. Our personal squiggles along the way inform our total outlook, and are precisely the experiences that bring colour, texture and individual perspective to our current role - whatever that role may be.

    Reply
  • Posted by Charlotte
    Mitch Joel

    I definitely have a squiggly career path. As well as a variety of shop jobs...

    ...the jobs that had most influence on my life > Library Assistant (aged 16)> Editorial Assistant (top-shelf mags, aged 22) > Social Media Assistant (aged 23)> Freelancer (aged 25).

    However each I've almost fallen into in one sense of another and they have helped me become a more rounded worker.

    Now as a freelancer I work a variety of jobs and I reckon that can be a great way to expand your mind. I'm a book-keeper, cleaner, market stall assistant, jewellery making freelance writer and marketing consultant.

    However, I do think perhaps I'll have to think about my future and settle.

    Reply
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