Tuesday, June 22, 2010

No Cookie Cutters Needed

Here is my response to a great blog post on the Washington Post.com.  Once I figure out how, I will post the comment on that site.  Until then, enjoy.

Some people know exactly what career they want from childhood.  Is it easier to help those people in life and to help them progress through a productive career?  Obviously.  Most of us are more like you Misti and need to explore our options.  That usually means a bit of mentor and career trial and error along the way. 

Many people try to “help” mentees by leading them down the path that made them successful and indoctrinating the mentee into the mentor’s world.  They assume, this worked for me, it will work for you.  While this may be a great process for making cookies, it usually doesn’t work for developing people.  In reality, it usually results in an ended relationship (this isn’t working for me) or the protégé will follow the mentor’s advice and pretend to be engaged in the process only to find they are not fulfilled by the process or engaged in the work.  As a contrast, the best mentors I have had, asked me questions that helped me find my own path.  This is much harder for both parties, but it is more productive in the end. 

When I was applying for college, I was picking from majors about which I had no real knowledge.  I had been in Junior Achievement for three years so I declared Business as my major.  I attended a liberal arts university (Truman State University) so I “had” to take all those other classes.  Those classes opened my eyes to more areas of interests and jobs in the world than I could have ever imagined.  Within a few years, I became a political science major who was going to change the world (and never ever go to law school).  I moved to Washington, DC after receiving my undergraduate degree and worked in a couple of non-profits that I believed really could change the world.  I loved the passion with which the people I worked approached the mission of the organizations.  However, I soon found out that to advance in DC, I needed another degree.  I looked seriously at the Masters in Public Administration, the Masters in Business Administration, and the Juris Doctorate.  I went to law school because I thought it seemed challenging.  (Note to all recent graduates out there, this is the worst reason in the world to go to law school.)  I was challenged, and I felt like I had accomplished something significant when I graduated.  I examined public and private job opportunities and chose to enter the world of public service (still trying to save the world).  With more than ten years of practice, I can honestly say, there is no better place to start a legal career if you value the ability to learn and the (sometimes constant) search for what is the “right” answer instead of “how can we win”.  That being said, I am still learning completely new things and I (like many of my colleagues) have varied interests that often equate to a second, part-time career. 

I still struggle with people who believe that there is an expected career progression in my field and if I am not at a certain place on it, I am not “good enough.”  Inside, though, I realize that my diverse skills honed by a lifetime of learning are worth more to me than a manager title ever would be.  I now direct my career and judge it against my own standards (am I learning something new, am I helping other people, am I challenged) rather than trying to fit into the cookie cutter mold that people have deemed proper.  I value the mentors I have had along the way who asked those probing questions they never really expected to hear the answer to, they only wanted me to think about for myself.  In truth, those are the questions I go to when I have to make a decision.  Things like, how do you want this experience to change you?  I have learned (by flat out asking) that the mentors who reach out to mentees in this way, actually feel that they develop their own interpersonal skills as well.