5 Guideposts on my Uncharted Journey

By Phyllis Smith

Cathy McKnight, Uncharted Journeys Host, image for Women Inspiring Women

April’s Inspiring Woman was Cathy McKnight whose podcast Uncharted Journeys has hosted scores of talented women sharing their stories. On the call, we all shared our reactions to the thought-provoking questions Cathy asks her guest on each podcast. The conversation flowed and we all learned a lot about ourselves and each other. Upon reflection on my own answers on the live call, I decided to approach my inspiration blog with an idea toward a 20-thousand-foot overhead view of my own uncharted journey. Not so much as how I got where I am today but more what the journey looks like from a holistic perspective: 

  1. Navigating my career path which was really more of a career wander
  2. Leveraging my superpower (everyone has one!)
  3. Finding my creative outlet even as I filled out checklists
  4. Embarking on my career change
  5. Trusting the journey

What were those early astrologists thinking about?

I remember my mother giving me What Color is your Parachute my Junior year in college. That might be the first time I heard about a Career Path and charting your course. I also recall taking a series of aptitude tests that were supposed to show you what your ideal career should be. In my mind then I thought that there was going to be clear progression to each of my jobs—like the classic Vice President who came from stuffing boxes in the mail room. 

Where I’ve ended up is not on a path but more of a constellation, like Pegasus. I’m not sure how that set of stars reminded anyone of a winged horse… My own set of jobs looks more like the stars behind the fancy horse—a set of upward, lateral (and reversed) movements. However, those individual elements did amount to a cool picture. For me, my career path really looked more like wandering with no clear destination, but I was moving with clear intentions at each stopping point. 

Uncharted Journeys, Pegasus Image 2

Good advice: bloom where you are planted 

Cathy McKnight asks all her guests, and asked the WIW crew, this great question: what was the best advice you’ve ever received. I heard the advice to make the best of the situation you find yourself in during a yoga retreat I was on. I had so many opportunities to follow this advice working at IBM Remember the joke was that IBM meant I’ve Been Moved? Well, my experience there would have had the acronym: IBR—I’ve been re’orged (or reassigned). Working there meant that on a Monday I could come into work or log on only to find that my boss was not my boss anymore and my department might have been changed or even my role. Many people reacted to these changes with deep concern and anger. I took a different approach (after some initial complaining and questioning the process of course). 

One time, my team was moved to a completely different company as part of a spin-off. I was to remain on as a Product Manager. This was a difficult role for me as I was responsible for managing customer expectations and contract renewal—neither which I had a lot of experience in, but I took the tack of knowing one of my skills—Cathy called this recognizing my superpower—was my ability to get along with people. As I talked to each one of my product’s customers, I treated them how I would want to be treated. I took an approach of honesty and empathy—not always common qualities in the software sales world. I took my talents and applied them as best I could to the environment. Cathy emphasized that our superpowers help us overcome the challenges we face. Being in a job I didn’t necessarily choose was my challenge; however, recognizing that I had talents to be successful I could apply to that job was key to my satisfaction

Best advice you've ever been given screenshot

The colorful spreadsheet makes the day go by faster

As a project manager, I have to spend a lot of time in Microsoft Excel. Every To Do I have fits in nicely into that familiar grid. After a while, I end up with spreadsheet burnout. There is always another row and cell. It sometimes feels like I fill out forms all day long. As I began my search for my next livelihood while I was still employed in software, I longed to find a creative outlet. I remember talking about this with a friend at the time who told me that she had found a fun way to make her job as a pet sitter more interesting. She would write long notes to the pet’s owners sharing anecdotes about her walks. I thought about my own spreadsheets and realized I had some (maybe small) openings to add some interest and creativity to my daily work. Even this slight pivot was enough to bring back some energy into my day and approach my work with some new objectivity.  

Thank you, Granny

My grandmother was a pragmatic person. She had a hard life and knew the value of opportunities. One of her favorite expressions was: Take the tarts when they are passed. They may never come around your way again. As a child, I imagined her sitting at the dining room table, taking a small turnover off a plate before passing it to the person next to her. It is sort of an early 20th century version of Life is short. Eat dessert first. 

I had thought about leaving my job for a number of years before the opportunity presented itself to make the leap. I hesitated as I had a large team who relied on me and also felt like people would be angry with me for leaving. My mentor had a great response to this—sort of the inverse of not doing something because someone will be angry with you. She said, make the change and you might inspire someone to make a similar change. If I didn’t leave when I did, when would I? Certain things in the rest of my life had fallen into place and the time seemed so right. I wasn’t sure if the universe would align in the same way ever again. The universe was putting a plate of tarts before me and I reached out and took one. The enjoyment continues! 

The mysterious power of serendipity 

One of the reasons my career path looks less like a highway and more like a Rorshach test is that I seem to rely on some amount of chance, luck, fate, call it what you will. My inner critic might call this laziness on my part but I think it has served me well. Take for example, my current activity—blogging about Women Inspiring Women. Liz Robinson co-host of WIW offered me this gig, when I explained how I had left my job to pursue more creative outlets. These monthly installments have rekindled of my love of writing. Believing in the power of those stars in my constellation to align requires an effort, but it has served me well so far. 

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