5 Professionals Who Make a Great Case for a Non-Linear Career Path

Your career isn't just a straight and narrow: it's more of a zig zag, really.


It’s easy to think of career as a ladder. Most of us do. It seems straightforward: you come out of university, take a grad job of sorts and then start the endless climb to success.

The problem is that’s not how life (often) goes. Things happen – it might be redundancy, sickness, or simply the desire to get out there and try something else. Life is not linear – so why should your career be?

COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg put it best when she told students at Harvard Business School: “If I had mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed it.”

The best businesses are built on failure. Success isn’t measured by the ability to jump through successive hoops – it’s more about the ability to pick yourself up when you’ve missed the hoop entirely. And unsurprisingly, the most well-rounded people have had, well, well-rounded lives.

“A jungle gym scramble is the best description of my career,” Sandberg said. “I could never have connected the dots from where I started to where I am today.

With that assertion in mind, we’ve pulled out some thoughts from a range of entrepreneurs – across different industries – that suggest career isn’t linear, and that it neither has to be.


BUSINESS. “You may be asked to do a job that isn’t in line with your five-year plan. Take the job. If you love it, you may find a new path to follow. If you don’t you can still take away plenty of useful knowledge. You may stumble, and I hope you do, because even greater learning will come from your mistakes!… Be bold, take risks and allow yourself to fail a bit.”

Trish Lukasik, Senior Vice President of Sales at PepsiCo


ARTS. “The pathways constantly change and evolve. It’s important to be able to see options no matter how unconventional or surprising. Every time I thought something was coming my way, it turned out I was ready for change, but not the one I had meticulously planned. The ups and downs, the uncertainty, and the long, non-linear road is worth it.”

Kate Cherry, Artistic Director of Black Swan Theatre Company


PUBLISHING. “My career… has not been linear. Most people’s careers zig zag, and are full of unexpected moves and failures that lead to something better. I remember when my second book in my 20s was rejected by 36 publishers — by which time I was tempted to change professions — I went and got a loan from a bank and kept going. I think our resilience is dramatically improved when we trust that often out of the biggest heartbreaks come the best things in our lives.”

Ariana Huffington, Huffington Post editor-in-chief


EDUCATION. “One of the myths of standardized education is that life is linear. A message we should give all young people is that it is not. Students are often steered away by well-meaning parents, friends, or teachers who tell them they will never get a job doing that. Real life tells a different story, and there is often little relationship between what people study in school and what they do in real life.”

Ken Robinson, Author, speaker and Education advisor


TECHNOLOGY. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple

Heather Wallace

Yes, so true! What I perceived my journey would be in my twenties has been something very different in my forties.

Summer Edwards

Fabulous article and just what I needed to read at this moment- I am considering whether to take an opportunity that is interesting and will push me out of my comfort zone, but it isn’t quite aligned with where I thought I was heading with this work. I think I should take the opportunity!


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