When most professionals introduce themselves or create a LinkedIn profile, they appear to have a smooth, well-planned career trajectory. This makes sense. It would be odd to share career mishaps because we’re usually trying to make a positive impression or build our brand.
However, when you do a little digging, you’ll learn that many of the most successful individuals have a bumpy history of career detours that greatly contributed to where they are today. So if you hit an unexpected obstacle now and again, take a moment to consider if there’s a silver lining. There almost always is, even if it’s not immediately apparent.
Here are some ways career detours can benefit you:
1. Getting laid off. There’s no denying that being let go can be one of the toughest career detours, particularly if you never saw it coming. It feels like being punched in the gut. However, with mergers, acquisitions, failed start-ups, new technologies and other company restructures becoming increasingly common, it may be only a matter of time until you get caught in the wave, no matter how stellar of a performer you are.
What you’ll learn: The biggest benefit is realizing that career security lies within rather than externally with a company. After you land on your feet (and you will), you’ll make it a habit to keep growing your skills and expanding your network so that you’re prepared in case there’s a next time. Also, many professionals look back on a layoff as a gift, believe it or not. It can be easy to get into a rut, and the jolt of having to step back and reevaluate your career path can be a blessing in disguise.
2. Accepting a poorly fitting job. We’ve all ignored a few red flags in our careers in favor of a higher salary, great brand name, social pressure or some other reason. The human mind is fantastic at feeding us the data that support what we want, even when it’s not the most rational choice in the long-run.
What you’ll learn: A valuable benefit that comes from this detour is learning to step back and reflect on what’s most important in your life. There’s a reason that almost every career and job search manual includes a section on assessing your values – because they’re very personal, deeply ingrained and often the biggest determining factor in your satisfaction with a job. Even if you have a logical reason for accepting a role, if it doesn’t align with the principles central to your happiness (e.g., time with your family, a sense of purpose, growth opportunities and challenge), you’ll soon burn out and be on the hunt for the next job.
3. Starting on the wrong career ladder. Choosing a career path is difficult, but the good news is that in today’s market, switching not just jobs, but careers, is becoming more of the norm than the exception. Even if you’ve climbed pretty high up, there are very few examples of it being “too late” to make a change.
What you’ll learn: Clarity comes through action. Many of us choose a path when we’re still relatively inexperienced based on coursework, expectations, societal recommendations or happenstance. The truth is, there really is no “wrong” ladder because every new experience, every new contact and every new discovery is likely transferable to our success in another career. Even if you need to take a step back to get on a new ladder, your past experiences can be very valuable in catapulting you forward.
4. Starting a business that fails. This can be an expensive and demoralizing detour, but one that nearly every successful entrepreneur has experienced. Going out on your own isn’t for the timid, so even if you don’t achieve your ultimate goal, you’ve still gained a ton of ridiculously valuable and transferable knowledge that can only help your career, not to mention a level of resilience that’ll be deeper than most.
What you’ll learn: Starting a company is like earning an MBA through a real world project (and maybe equally as expensive!). You’ll walk away understanding how all the business pieces fit – legal, accounting, finance, marketing, management, ethics, analytics – along with some tough lessons and unique situations you won’t find in the pages of a textbook.
5. Screwing up a client relationship. We all have a few “I can’t believe I did that” moments in our careers. Whether burning an important bridge, making a terrible first impression or causing an expensive mishap, everyone makes mistakes, sometimes large and public ones.
What you’ll learn: The biggest lesson (although it’ll take some time) is learning that you’ll bounce back. Your career isn’t over and all you’ve worked for isn’t lost. Catastrophizing (blowing the situation out of proportion) is a common cognitive response when your emotions are in overload in the moment. Your best bet is figuring out why it happened (e.g., too much on your plate, distracted with a personal issue, etc.) and correcting the situation. You’ll walk away a little wiser, and perhaps more
importantly, recognizing that you can handle these detours should they happen in the future. Plus, you’ll become a more empathic leader.
6. Earning a degree in a field you’re no longer interested in. You may be surprised to learn how common this is. Whether you majored in English Lit as an undergrad only to discover you hate teaching or you decided to pursue law school but quickly tired of the 80+ hour weeks, you’re not alone.
What you’ll learn: Well, you’ll presumably learn a lot about your area of study. And even if that isn’t your intended career trajectory, the good news is that education is always valuable and you may be surprised at how it can come in handy for networking, offering creative solutions, mentoring others and generating interesting ideas. As hybrid roles increase and employers look for unique qualities in candidates, you may find your dual-background to be a major plus in the job search.
7. Passing on a great opportunity. This is a tough one because you’ll only be speculating that the missed opportunity was great. How can you really know as an outsider looking in? Still, this falls into the bucket called “regret” and it’s likely you’ll have a few in your career.
What you’ll learn: There will be many times when you have to make a decision. And accepting one choice means declining another. Your best bet is to pursue your choice with 100% gusto, otherwise you’ll find yourself looking backward at an opportunity that’s no longer available, which will inhibit any joy you can find in your current role. Most people regret things they didn’t do more than those they did do, so if you find fear factoring into your decision, follow your fear. It’s likely guiding you in a direction of something you’ll regret NOT doing later.
It’s difficult to be in the workforce for any length of time without a few unexpected detours. But most of these offer experience that can only be gained by going through it. The road to success is paved with many trials and many errors. Instead of resisting them or berating yourself, view these as character and skill building experiences that are necessary to pave the way to success.