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Zig-Zag Career Paths

Would you describe your career as linear, a very nice straight line in a particular job or profession? Or like mine and many others, a bit of a zig-zag and haphazard career path? Having been at work now for more years than I care to remember, I have had a number of different careers and many varied jobs. Most of my jobs zig-zagged across core skills and general transferable skills applied from one industry to another. Though my sometimes chaotic career pathways are not necessarily indicative of most people I am sure. So how does a career work, is it planned or does it just happen to people……..that is the question.

This navel-gazing came about as a result of an interesting article a while ago by Peter Honey called Muddling Along (2017). Peter Honey describes himself as a “classic drifter” and “my whole working life has seen me drifting from one project to another” On the other hand Peter Drucker who suggests in an HBR article “Managing Oneself” that;

“Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values.” – Peter F. Drucker

Don’t come back on Monday!

With my headmasters parting words “and don’t come back on Monday!” ringing in my ears, I left school at the tender age of 16. Having to leave school for being a bit of a tearaway with no qualifications felt like a badge of honour at the time. Though it didn’t last long. Unemployment benefit in the 1970s was £7.70p a week. Enough to give my mother £5 for housekeeping and to fill up the petrol tank of my motorbike for a week. Then things changed. After a few months, I managed to secure a 4-year apprenticeship as a lithographic printer in a Kent based print works, Whitstable Litho.

A printers life for me

With the indentures signed by my father and the company, I felt 7 feet tall and finally had a purpose. All this for £18.50 for a 40 hours (double day shift) week. How innocent I was for the fun and exposure to an adult working life to come. The experience established core values and beliefs about how work works, people, management and the discipline of doing a great job.

The apprentice lithographer title was one I would feel justifiably proud of until returning from the London School of Printing one evening. During the train journey, and sitting opposite a chap who was three sheets to the wind (drunk to the uninitiated), he asked me what I did for a living. I proudly announced and loud enough for the carriage to hear that I am an apprentice lithographer. The man thought for a few seconds, eyes wandering desperately trying to make sense of my answer. Eventually, through his sozzled haze he slurred with some difficulty, “and I am a photographer too!” I left it there and stared through the condensation of the train window, deflating slowly like an old party balloon.

Careers by accident

I didn’t plan to become a printer, a training officer, work in the paper industry, research & development, production/operations management, customer technical sales/services and marketing. I didn’t plan to lead international technical development teams, develop training/L&D for sales and management. Or plan to work in quality systems and environmental science. Or run large multinational coaching programmes for sales performance or design and deliver Welfare to Work condition management, health & wellbeing programmes. Or even plan to work with many diverse clients in my own business. My purpose or “why” only really emerged when I knew I wanted to become a psychologist. Then had to knuckle down to get some proper education with a BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Occupational Psychology and an MSc in Ecology. Along with many certificates and courses as an obligation to my continual professional development.

Clearly, my many careers paths and working life were not planned at all. We had little or no career advice, bar getting just a job. Best I could hope for was to get a trade. The school was a sausage factory with a poverty of expectation for its pupils. Needless to say, I didn’t disappoint them with my behaviour and lack of achievements. Leaving with no qualifications at all and a flea in my ear. If I had good career advice maybe and a modicum of interest in education as a teenager, then things would have been different. Though on reflection I would not change a thing. As these experiences across my zig-zag career path have helped clarify many a career vision for countless people.

What will you do when you grow up?

Few people emerging from university or school have any idea of what they want to do. If they do then they have had great career advice, coaching & guidance.  The theories of Planned Happenstance and Chaos Career theory suggest we ought to be flexible and be open to opportunity when it appears. Maybe the theories are closer to the mark than we give them credit for. Be prepared to take a wager on a job that might just help you move toward a career that you will find rewarding and interesting.

On the other hand, creating a five or ten-year career vision will support you focus on incremental milestones that help you reach your goal. Most of the time the reality is somewhere in the middle. Plan for a future career by all means but be flexible and open to the opportunity if you find it interesting and exciting. Grasp the opportunity of a role that will build your career capital, skills, a chance to understand your strengths and focus on your talents.

The unplanned planned career path

The career or working life that fits the bill at your life stage that is unplanned is some ways quite reassuring. We are all told to plan and try to control every aspect of our lives to win the prize of a glittering career, money or other desired goals. The problem is that our ability to control really stops at the end of our fingertips. We can only control ourselves and in my case, that can be a bit slippery. To help you get started here are a few points you might like to consider to be able to start to put your career plan in place.

The Unplanned Plan

  1. Learn to trust yourself – think about what is most important to you at your career stage, what are your colleagues and friends telling you about what you are good at? Gather as much data as you can on your talents, strengths, skills etc.
  2. Be flexible and open to opportunity –  no one can predict the future but you can be ready to take opportunities when they arrive.
  3. It is all about you – your career is your responsibility, so it’s up to you take control.
  4. Be aware of your career drivers – your career drivers change as you progress through your career so reflect on what you want from your work on regular intervals.
  5. Enjoy the journey – your working life is an ever-changing landscape so enjoy the process rather than the destination. It’s okay if your career is a zig-zag affair.
  6. Look after yourself – make sure you look after your health and wellbeing especially when your career is going through tough times. Sometimes plans can go awry, it may well be for a reason you hadn’t spotted. Or that its time to go back to your plan and look at your goals? Most of all are kind to yourself.

Be realistic

Most of all keep your career plans and vision realistic. Plans must be based on what is actually possible and achievable. Forget the gurus that tell you to follow your passions, these paths are paved with shattered dreams. You will need realistic and planned goals to create a career capital and a centre of gravity around you. Reminiscent of the apprenticeship models of careers – Novice, Apprentice, Journeyman/woman to Mastery.

We know that goals that are well an truly out of reach are unlikely to be reached. Think of your career plans as an evolution if you can, rather than a revolution. You may need to build career capital and have a reputation in a particular area before you will be taken as a serious contender for a job. Most of all your working life will be fine if you are mindful of where you are going. Take your eye off the ball and outside influences can take control. Your career is yours to with what you please. Others, of course, may have big plans for you, though who is in control of what you do? Careers and working life can be tricky, chaotic and sometimes an emotional rollercoaster. However, it’s yours to plan and develop so make it count.


So over to you to have a cogitate about your career or work. Have you just left school, college or university and don’t know what to do? Or are you under pressure from other people to conform to what they want to do? Perhaps you want to allow your career to meander and a zig-zag career path across a thread to arrive at your true purpose. Conversely, you are a linear careerist who is travelling from A to B to C to D with no hindrance. The choice is yours and of course, as the truth is always somewhere in the middle.

However, the career journey and your time at work is the thing to enjoy. Working in different environments, with different people with diverse ideas is the key. Look for opportunities and grab them, if they fit in with your career vision or plan. Try to be mindful of where you want the work experience to take you, will it take you off of your career course?

Whatever you decide to do with your career and time at work try plan as much as you can. If you like the unpredictability of the unplanned career path then you may have to be nimble on your feet. You may have to keep a weathered eye on your company/industry, your skills and where your next opportunity may spring from. Whatever you decide to do good luck with your career plans and have fun on the journey and enjoy the ride.

2 thoughts on “Zig-Zag Career Paths

  1. Hi,

    Thank you for your kind comments and of course you can use any part of the article. I am interested in what part of the post you found most inspiring? Please reference the part you use.

    Many thanks, David

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