Career Journey: What inspired you to pursue your current career path, and how has your journey unfolded over time?

Whenever this question comes up, I recall a conversation with a former boss who asked “Where do you want to be in five years?” He sincerely wanted to help me reach my desired destination, and I worried I had made a bad impression when I said “I try not to plan that far into the future.” I was being honest. My professional life to that point had not been linear, predictable, or plannable.

And it still isn’t! Rather than a “career path,” I would describe my professional life as a winding, challenging, exciting journey shaped by two critical forces: 1) trust in my own instincts, and 2) passionate, generous people who saw things in me that I could not see in myself.

Twenty-five years ago, trusting my instincts led me away from a planned academic career to a surprise opportunity at a survey research company. I loved it! Since then, those same instincts have led me to take chances on new roles and new organizations, stepping off of the expected career path more times than I can count. Move from vendor to client side – yes! Take on business roles in a research organization – yes! Go to a nonprofit organization trying to grow its survey research function – sure! Looking back, my only professional regrets are the times I failed to trust those instincts and instead made choices out of self-doubt or a sense of obligation.

But even more important than trusting my instincts has been the many passionate, generous people I have encountered along the way who saw things in me I could not see in myself. From my earliest survey research mentors whose patience and brilliance allowed me to learn on the job without fear, to the many colleagues and managers and clients who opened new doors for me and then celebrated my successes – they have shaped my professional life in a wonderfully unpredictable way.

I still don’t have a five-year plan. When colleagues just starting out ask me about “career paths,” I tell them that people and opportunities and experiences will come into their lives that they could not possibly anticipate. That is a good thing. Embrace the unknown, trust your instincts, develop good relationships, and let your journey unfold in front of you.