I have a history of making wrong decisions at critical times in my life.
I was raised, like most people in the American middle classes, to place a premium on success. It was important not just to achieve that elusive state but also to be perceived as being successful by others.
Lord knows I tried.
In my college days I agonized about how I was going to launch myself from campus to ‘respected big company’. And once, by some miracle I did that, I stressed about how I would move ever forward in an upward fashion.
A couple of days ago, as I marveled yet again about the wonderful life I’ve had so far, it dawned on me just how much of my success has come, not because I made the right choices, but precisely because I often made the wrong ones.
Here are three of the biggest mistakes I’ve made.
1. I chose to study South Asian Studies. Figuring out what I should study at University was a big deal. It was confusing. I didn’t question the basic assumption that study should segue naturally into career. But as I had not the foggiest idea of what sort of career I wanted I spent the first half of my tertiary career just sort of hanging about.
I parachuted in and out of courses and college with regularity. I tried my hand at Anthropology, English Lit., and History but couldn’t find a hook to which I could tether an imagined career.
I went more practical next. Photography for a while, and then journalism. [My moment of glory came when I read the announcement of Khomeini returning to Iran from exile on the campus news radio.] Long stints as a fast order cook gave me a handy portable skill.
But none of this was career stuff.
Throughout those years, my love of Hindi and all things Indian sat bubbling gently on the back burner. I knew it was there but didn’t seriously consider turning up the flame. What the hell sort of job would that get me?
But after four years of dithering, I had had enough. I wanted to be done with University and get on with the career part. And the only thing I knew I could commit myself to with any enthusiasm was South Asian Studies.
Much to the restrained horror of my parents and even my own Christian soul, I damned the torpedos and enrolled with a full slate of South Asian courses: Ancient History, Hindi Literature and Comparative Religion.
My intellect and imagination sparked to life. I couldn’t get enough and by the end of the second semester I knew my next step would be a Masters in Indian History.
There was a time when area specialists—as I was called—were in high demand on American campuses. But that time was coming to a rapid end by the early 1980s. My most likely career path led to a small state university as a junior professor on a salary of less than $20k a year.
This grim truth did haunt me from time to time, but overall, I just so enjoyed reading Hindi Literature and studying the Bengal Renaissance I didn’t care what awaited at the end of the road. It was a road, in fact, I hoped would never end.
But end it did and the long avoided question had to be answered. What career?
As my college roommates went off to work in politics and Maritime Law I steeled myself for cold winters at the State University of Southern North Dakota where I would teach world history to the children of wheat farmers.
As graduation loomed the weight of my dumb decision to study South Asian Studies felt heavy indeed.
Out of the blue I received a call from a friend who had landed a job with the UN in Pakistan. He said he’d see if there were any more. As it turned out there were. Within 5 months of that call I was working for the UN in Pakistan myself.
Had I pursued a course in the Law or culinary arts or journalism this would not have happened. But precisely because I made the ‘wrong’ educational choice and was one of a very small number of Americans who was fluent in Hindustani, I was considered a brilliant candidate and my unexpected career as an aid worker began.
2. I quit the UN to join the NGO world. I was delighted but wholly baffled by landing a job in what I considered to be the bluest of all blue chip organizations. I had every intention to make a long and lucrative career in the UN and die with a blue Laissez Passer in my hand.
But then I met a sexy nurse in a minefield in Iraq and life was never the same again. It was made known to me that love and UN were incompatible and I chose the former. Which meant saying good bye to the latter.
It was not just my colleagues that were aghast. You’re a rising star! You’ll never land a job as good as this again. I too could not believe what choice I was making. I mean, love is great but there are limits! This is a UN career we’re talking about, after all!
I entered the NGO world with a chip on my shoulder, convinced that I had made the biggest career blunder of my life.
Fast forward several years.
I’ve had a series of field based leadership roles in several NGOs. I’m making good money. Best of all, I’ve got an impressive skill set: technical skills, M&E, budgeting, general management, fund raising, program design, public speaking, negotiation. I have an appreciation for diverse corporate cultures. I understand aid from multiple perspectives.
Had I stayed on in the UN I would certainly have gained skills. But most would have been focused on relating to or managing within the UN system. My understanding of humanitarian issues would have confined almost entirely to refugee issues. And it would have been impossible for me to rise to the highest field positions within the UN as rapidly as I had within the NGO sector.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that the ‘mistake’ of leaving the UN had actually been one of my smarter career moves.
3. I jettison a 28-year career to start a home business. After nearly 30 years in the same industry, I had little left to prove. And while my own ambitions were dented by the natural cynicism three decades of ‘saving the world’ brings, I could have and indeed, was being supported to rise higher within the ‘System’.
But I wasn’t happy. The debates were tired and redundant. The passion had long oozed out of the endeavor and I wanted to achieve something fresh.
So on the cusp of retirement age I cashed in every one of my chips and in a final act of foolishness turned my back on a robust pension plan and professional respectability and started an online business.
I have not a business bone in my body or the bodies of my immediate family circle. Yet, I could see the opportunity and that what success in this business required, were things I knew I had: resilience, patience, creativity and a desire to break free of organizational constraints.
A year in, the business is off the ground and delivering more in a month than any job in the aid sector ever paid.
So, dear reader, if you are feeling the shame, guilt and dread of having made a dumb move, my advice is straightforward.
Always follow your heart. Even when it seems like it’s leading you off the cliff.
We inhabit a world of illusion and wonder.
The delayed embrace of mistakes we make on purpose, or for a purpose yet to materialize, always seems more warm than the cold kick in the pants we give ourselves at the time.
Go forth and bumble!