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Career Unclear: Finding Your Own Way

Justine Lee
Aug 25, 2014 · 7 min read

Some of us just weren’t made for a traditional career path. If you’re unsure where yours is leading, we’re here to tell you that it’s okay. In fact – it’s exciting! You can’t even imagine the life that’s about to unfold for you, because no two routes are the same. You may have to make many turns before finding clarity, but once you do, you’ll look back fondly on what it took to get there. In the meantime, we wanted to share our paths thus far, in case they may prove helpful.

Who are we? We are Tria & Justine, two writing majors from Carnegie Mellon University whose entrances into the real world coincided with the Global Financial Crisis. Super Fun Times. Over the past few years, we’ve worked hard to find our place in this economy, and are happy to say that we’re now both at points of enthusiasm about our careers. When you decide to make your own way, the possibilities are endless. Here are just two approaches. Read Tria’s here, and Justine’s below.

The year the economy went to shit

My dream followed me to Carnegie Mellon where I pursued a degree in Professional Writing, the school’s equivalent to a degree in journalism, and minored in business “for good measure.”

I wrote stories for the school paper, and over the summers, for local newspapers and blogs. So far, so good.

And then 2008 happened. The year the economy officially collapsed, I graduated, and my pursuit of journalism endured further adjustment.

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Everything in that grey box.

Learning to write e-mails — really well.

I moved back to my hometown in the Bay Area, and applied for everything: all the jobs I really wanted, the jobs I kind of wanted, and the ones I didn’t really want but at least were at exciting companies.

Countless rejections and stiff interviews later, I landed my first real job! I joined Edelman, a top PR agency, in their Silicon Valley office. I’d be representing tech companies, and though it wasn’t journalism, I’d get to do some writing. Plus, I’d be working with journalists, which over time, could lead to an “in” at a major publication? Maybe? Who cares? I was employed!

Now or never

After almost three years at Edelman, I had the experience and confidence to know it was time to leave.

How did I know? Well, when I imagined myself doing what my boss did, or what his boss did, I wasn’t excited. I wanted to create something with my name on it! I began using my free time to produce an audio story about a professional cuddle therapist, but that wasn’t enough. Somehow I knew my next move had to be drastic.

Enter my longtime dream of living and working in Taiwan. I was 24, single, had some money saved up, no mortgage to pay, or better opportunities holding me back. My parents saw the value in me going, too; I’d learn Mandarin, reconnect with extended family, and get acquainted with my heritage.

The stars aligned, and though I felt anxious to be entering an uncertain, indefinite time in my life, I quit my job, packed my bags, and was on my way.

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Having so much fun I felt bad

My time in Taiwan was so freaking fun and life changing I wrote about it separately (right here and here). Here’s the gist: I spent 1.5 years in Taiwan in total, improved my Mandarin tenfold, traveled around Asia, worked 8 months as a project manager for an iOS travel app, wrote blog posts about my travels, and had the time of my life.

I left, not because I wanted to, but because I needed to. It didn’t feel like real life anymore; it was too comfortable. At age 26, I was ready to take my career to the next level, and I only saw that really happening in the U.S., where I could create and communicate freely in English.

What the hell am I doing with my life?

Leaving Taiwan meant re-entering reality, and my new reality was a super competitive Bay Area that had more job listings for software engineers and product managers than it knew what to do with. Where did I fit in?

I had “put my time in” at Edelman, “discovered myself” and gotten “international experience” in Taiwan, now what? I was 26 and had no real career trajectory to look towards.

There were a few things I did know. I didn’t want to go back to PR. I wanted to live in San Francisco. I thrived in work environments that celebrated ideas, rather than protocol. I enjoyed the process of capturing stories that were interesting to me.

During my what-the-hell period of 2013, I did what I didn’t want to do, I went back to PR. This time as a solo consultant for tech startups. I gained confidence working directly with CEOs, got practice marketing my skills, and made some money while I looked for an opportunity that excited me.

I’m glad I held out. After a rigorous interview process and a few late nights putting together a proposal, I landed a six-month contract at IDEO. My job would be two parts: 1) capture the stories coming from the Digital Shop, the firm’s creative tech studio, and 2) revive IDEO Labs, a blog for prototyping and experimentation stories.

In those six months, surrounded by brilliance, I got better with a camera, co-produced my first video, learned how to solder, and came away primed for my next adventure: a similar (but permanent) role at a competing firm. I admit — I feel a tinge of unease jumping ship, but my excitement far exceeds it.

Seeing Order — At last!

Today, I start my job at frog, joining the marketing team as the knowledge manager. They are entrusting me with their asset library, tens of thousands (maybe millions) of photos, videos, texts of all their work. It’ll be my responsibility to make sure all these assets are just right for all the pitches, stories, and world-facing mediums. I’ll also be embedded on project teams to help direct assets for the future.

It’s a real grown-up job, and I am wildly excited about it and the career it’s opening me up to. It’s in just the type of work environment I do best in, affords me a life in San Francisco, will challenge me, and is supportive of my creative pursuits outside of work.

When I reflect on the past six years (age 22–28), I see order in what once was chaos. All those moments of “Ugh,” polite rejections, coffee meetings with would-be mentors, venn diagrams of life, are now everything I needed to get to exactly where I am.

This only could have happened if that didn’t happen.”

“I wouldn’t have realized this about myself had I not taken that opportunity.

“I wouldn’t be so cool now if I wasn’t so utterly uncool with myself then.”

From the outside, where I am today is a far cry from my original dream. I’m not writing for National Geographic. I’m not even a full-time journalist. My personal blog readership is in the teens.

Somewhere along the way, I accepted that I might not become a well-decorated, known or paid writer, but that didn’t mean I would stop seeking stories to tell. I’m working on an exposé about truck drivers, going to sign up for video production and editing classes, will continue to blog, and most importantly, I will stay curious.

The truth is — I care more about embracing life experiences that round me out as a person than I do about prestige, being a “career woman,” or chasing what looks good on paper.

It has taken all six years to get to this point, and I imagine the next six years will be similar — filled with confusion, revelations, breakdowns, and greatness — and merit a blog post of its own.

That’s my story. What’s yours?

There were certainly days when Tria and I felt lost, and that our explorations were a waste of time. What we took heart in were the stories of others who were carving out nontraditional careers, and we’d love to see more of these. We encourage others out there to share their paths with us. Link to us, add to our collection, or #careerUnclear. And when you share, invite a friend to as well. Let’s keep the stories coming.

Career Unclear

Finding Your Own Way

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