Written by Corinne Garcia Tuesday, June 26 2012
If the road to success was all mapped out for us, we’d probably all be stuck in a traffic jam, trying to squeeze past one another to get to the same place first. So, it must be a good thing that each of us paves our own way toward a different goal, whether it’s a desire to work your way up the corporate ladder or to start your own business.
Wherever you are in your career right now, getting there was probably an eventful one-of-a-kind journey. Maybe some of you took the traditional route, which might have looked something like: college, graduate school, finding a job in your field of study, moving up within your field - whether it’s at one job or by moving around to many - and staying on track toward the path to retirement.
But what if along that traditional path, you stumble upon a roadblock, making you take a detour and leading you to a completely different destination?
Dédé Wilson, 51, of Massachusetts ran into that kind of roadblock while she was studying at Hampshire College.
“I had taken time off from school because I just did not know what I wanted to do,” she says. “Then I had one of these epiphany moments. I realized that no one ever told me I couldn’t go after an avocation; they just assumed that there would be an academic path involved.”
Her passion was food. She grew up with parents who were amazing cooks. Her dad traveled often, bringing back spices from around the globe, and over the years she developed and expanded a sophisticated palate.
“I was always around good food, so it was almost tailor-made for what I was going to do as a career,” explains Wilson.
But to build on a career in food, Wilson wasn’t sold on going the traditional route, which would typically include a stint at culinary school. Instead, she wanted to dive right into the world of food. She did finish up at Hampshire, and then applied to be a pastry chef at a fine dining restaurant. She was asked to bring in elaborate samples for the owners to try.
“I thought, ‘If I get it, I’ll take it as a sign to jump in. If not, I’ll go to culinary school.'” She got it, and 14 cookbooks and 27 years later, she’s never looked back. She has also made several appearances on “The Today Show” and is a contributing editor for Bon Appetit.
Diane Potter, 36, of Kansas stumbled upon a different type of roadblock while in the middle of what she assumed would be her lifelong career, working in hearing aid sales. She was a new mother, and she and her husband had just bought a new home when she was suddenly laid off from her job. As the household breadwinner, she knew she had to find work fast.
“I was driven by fear of losing everything we had, and that just wasn’t an option for me,” Potter says.
Potter was cleaning out a file cabinet when she came across an article she’d torn from a magazine about becoming a virtual assistant through an online college. At that time, Potter had little to no computer experience; she didn’t even know what a PDF document was. But living in a town with little job potential, she quickly took the leap, spending what little savings they had on online classes and learning everything she could about social media and Internet marketing.
From there, she used her online school’s referral program to build a client base, and after one year of extremely long hours, not enough sleep and non-stop work, her business, Spingboard Designs, became one of the largest virtual assistant companies in the U.S., with 38 virtual employees and more than 800 billable hours per month — all from her home office.
“Three years later, I was providing an income for my family that was more than double my previous salary,” she says proudly. Today she has a physical office and full-time employees.
Jackie Danicki, 34, had the “I don’t know what I’m doing in college” roadblock as well. Originally from Ohio, she dropped out of college very early on - feeling that because she really had no idea what she wanted to do career-wise, school was just a waste of time and money. The funny part was she had always loved learning, always been enthusiastic about school and excited about higher education. Little did she know her education would come from jumping right into a career.
“I was spending a lot of time exploring the Internet, which seemed to everyone — including me and my parents — to be a waste of time,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to travel, but I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life.”
Following her travel and Internet instincts, she went (actually, she says “fled”) to Europe. With little cushion in the way of financial support, she quickly found a job writing for what became “Television Without Pity” (a website that provides recaps of select TV shows that was acquired by NBC Universal).
Unsure of how to make great money writing, she reached out to famous British journalist John Diamond who encouraged her to join an online group for journalists. There, she saw a job post from a recruiter about an editor-in-chief role for an e-commerce incubator.
“I was woefully unqualified on paper, but I got the job offer within a couple of hours of the interview,” Danicki says. “That job changed everything.”
Danicki went on to work with several successful dot-com start-ups, including working as the director of marketing and PR for one that was acquired by Skype last year for $150 million and as the director of social communications for Weber Shandwick.
These women share a common bond. They’ve all followed their instincts, and in some cases passions, instead of following the traditional career path. Instead of acquiring an education solely through the world of academics, they acquired theirs through diving right into work that they truly loved. And by doing so, they have all built hugely successful careers. It’s not that their careers are more rewarding than those who got to where they are through more traditional means, but these unconventional journeys hold a lot of valuable lessons for women in any stage or career path.
“I think it’s hard for some people to get in touch with what they really want to do,” Wilson says. “We all have instincts, but some people are more willing to trust them, exploring what would make them happy. The real barrier is that some people can’t find that.”
Wilson feels extremely grateful to have tapped into her passion to create her career and recommends that other women focus on their intuition, find their passion and really believe in themselves. Then, she recommends taking small steps every day toward the goal. For instance, when she wrote her first cookbook without any previous experience, her goal was to do at least one thing per day to get her closer to completion. Perseverance and flexibility have also added to her success.
“I never give up — even when something bad happens to me,” Wilson says. “You have to be able to pivot; don’t sit there and dwell. Do something to make it better.”
Potter’s family initially was reluctant to recognize her success.
“My extended family had a hard time understanding why I never got a ‘real job,’” she laughs. “They didn't understand what I was doing, and it didn't seem real as I didn't have to go anywhere to go to work. There was no office, sign, manager.” For her, perseverance and the will to save her immediate family outweighed what anyone else thought, and that serves as a good lesson for anyone.
But she says she would be nowhere if, like Wilson, she didn’t follow her intuition.
“When I read that article [about becoming a virtual assistant], my heart was happy, and I thought how awesome would that be,” Potter says. “Now whenever I feel that way, I know I should follow that. I could never have put 18 hours a day into hearing aids, but I could put that into marketing because I loved it that much.”
Danicki credits her intuition to run from college when she felt lost.
“I'm glad I didn't spend four years learning concepts and theories in a classroom,” she says. “I got to learn by doing and by being able to make mistakes in real business, and it was invaluable experience.” She explains her theory that the college years, from 18 to 22 years old, are a very low risk time of life and the best time to really get out there and pursue your wildest dreams.
“Unless you want to be a doctor, lawyer or something else extremely specialized, I don't think college is a smart purchase or use of low-risk years,” Danicki says.
As far as advice for other women looking to try an unconventional route, Danicki recommends finding people you can trust and look up to, asking them for input, and listening closely to be as teachable as you can.
“Get your hands dirty but also learn to delegate where it makes sense,” Danicki says. “Don't try to do everything by yourself unless you are the rare person who can be happy while isolated, exhausted and broke.” Her other tips for success include getting at least seven hours of sleep every night, eating well and laughing a lot, which can all give you a good baseline outlook, so you can deal with anything.
And what all of these women remind us is to find and pursue our passions, whether those are found through a traditional route and in a more corporate setting or by creating your own path and your own business.
“I know what drives me and satisfies me and gives me joy,” Wilson says. “I couldn’t imagine my work not also being what drives me as a person.”
Courage, passion and innovation are the qualities that motivated these women to choose a more unconventional career path:
Can you believe one multi-million dollar business got its start with an initial investment of just $26,000? See how Joyce Landry and Josephine Kling made it happen with Landry & Kling Cruise Event Services.
Not many people are courageous enough to leave their home country with $50 in their pocket for the U..S., especially without knowing English. Twenty-seven years ago, Venezuela-native Sonia Clayton took a risk and did just that. Now she's president of Virtual Intelligence Partners.
Deryl McKissack worked with what little she had -- confidence, faith and $1000 -- to start her own architectural firm, McKissack & McKissack, which is now a respected firm with a high-profile client base and offices nationwide.
Corinne Garcia is a freelance writer and editor living with her husband and two young boys in Bozeman, Mont. She has also written for Women’s Adventure, Christian Science Monitor, Northwest Travel, Pregnancy, Fit Pregnancy and Fit Parent.