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Embracing a Nonlinear Career Path: A Journey of Growth and Adaptability

By Hoai Huong Tran

I began my career as a professor, then transitioned to the non-profit sector, before moving into the corporate world. Over the years, I have worked in various roles and capacities, continuously acquiring new skills, honing existing ones, and broadening my worldview. This journey has allowed me to build a robust and versatile skill set, making me agile, adaptable, tenacious, and a well-rounded professional.

A couple of years ago, someone asked me how I had managed my career. “It seems to fit,” my acquaintance remarked. “I can connect the dots of how your career came to be.” It seems obvious now, but I’m reminded of a quote by Steve Jobs: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.”

Indeed, it makes sense now, but years ago, it didn’t. I had gone to graduate school to become a professor, but that changed when I started questioning my purpose in the fourth year as a tenure-track assistant professor. I didn’t plan an alternative path, so it was almost sacrilegious to entertain such a thought. What would I do if I were no longer a professor? My whole identity revolved around my occupation, so what was I without it?

Stepping into uncertainty was daunting, with potentially severe consequences. What if I failed, and sacrificed my career for nothing? But I also knew the potential payoff of having the courage to leap. My parents had faced uncertainty by escaping Vietnam after the war, so my siblings and I could experience freedom and the opportunity for a better life in the United States. Their gamble paid off. So why shouldn’t I follow suit, trusting what Steve Jobs called “gut instinct, karma, destiny, or whatever,” and hope to land without catastrophe? I took a deep breath and jumped; it was one of the most rewarding decisions of my life.

It has been more than two decades since I took that jump. I will borrow the idea from the renowned neuroscientist Beau Lotto, who said, “The first step from A to B is not B, but from A to not-A to let go of what you thought to be true before.” Beau called it doubt.

“We should celebrate doubt in businesses and in our lives. But not just in itself because now I don’t know, I need to deviate from what I knew. Now I need to diversify my experience, to be open to those new kinds of experiences, and then from that I can distill a principle. And then from that principle, I can decide to do something and then I do it. And now I get a deeper understanding.”

You can listen to Beau Lotto’s insights here: Elevation Barn Podcast.

I went from being an assistant professor at San Francisco State University (SFSU), my ‘A,’ to the assistant director at Washington Kids Count, a program affiliated with the University of Washington in Seattle, my ‘Not-A.’ This significant shift marked my first step into a different sector and role. I expanded into the business world a year later, starting at Starbucks. From there, I moved on to Microsoft, several startups, and eventually Climate (a division at Bayer).

In the Elevate Podcast with Will Travis, Beau Lotto talked about the uncertainty of changes. “People hate change,” Beau said. Everyone seems to like the idea of change, but many don’t want the consequences of change. “The process of change can be really scary and really hard. They want to get the end of the benefit of it… And yet, the irony is, [change] is the only place we can go if we are to expand ourselves, if we are to learn, if we are to achieve understanding.” Embracing change is not easy, but it’s a crucial part of personal and professional growth and a skill that can be developed and honed.

My decision to take risks and make changes was not without consequences. I faced the opportunity cost of watching my former colleagues rise the corporate ladder, becoming directors of A and B or VPs at X and Y. Meanwhile, I struggled to find a place where I would be accepted and appreciated for my choice to step into a new industry or learn a new skill set every few years. This was years before the growth mindset became the “idea du jour.” Even after the growth mindset entered the business vocabulary, organizations still hesitated to invest in someone who seemingly had more breadth than depth of experience.

“What can you offer us with your breadth of knowledge and experience?” they would ask. I would respond with an example. My first career as a professor taught me an invaluable skill needed in every organization: the ability to communicate effectively. The student population at SFSU, where I began my career, vastly differed from Cornell, where I attended graduate school. I had to respect these differences. For example, my lecture on social stratification worked at Cornell, but failed miserably at SFSU, forcing me to change my strategy and delivery. Consequently, I became a storyteller, using stories, examples, metaphors, and analogies to connect with my audiences. If they didn’t understand, I wasn’t doing my job.

As a professor, I learned how to motivate others, resolve conflicts, and vet resources to develop strategies for training and developing students. I was responsible for sourcing and synthesizing information so my students could understand it. I couldn’t afford to be careless, because if I didn’t understand the material, my students wouldn’t either. These skills and lessons from my first career have been invaluable, and I have continued to use and hone them ever since.

So, when Bayer hired me as a product manager to work with data scientists on developing a machine learning model to replace the first generation of science-based solutions fueling their digital agriculture tool, they didn’t get just a product manager. Instead, they benefited from my experience as a former professor, market and UX researcher, consultant, writer, demographer, and sociologist. Even though I had limited knowledge about agriculture, my lifelong passion for learning and diverse training gave me the tools and drive to acquire industry knowledge quickly. This is a testament to the power of transferable skills and the value they can bring to any role or industry.

A nonlinear career path may not be for everyone, but I hope my stories have shown you the opportunities and successes it can bring. More importantly, it has brought me personal growth, fulfillment and a sense of purpose. With the development of AI, a career path that fosters creativity, agility and tenacity may be the antidote to the current condition where our skills are rapidly becoming obsolete. I encourage you to embrace change, take risks, and trust in your ability to adapt and thrive in any environment.

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Hoai Huong Tran

Hoai Huong Tran, a sociologist by nature, is deeply committed to understanding the world around her. Her multicultural background, originating from Vietnam and raised in America, has shaped her and ignited a profound curiosity about the intricacies of human interaction and experience. She is dedicated to exploring, understanding, and articulating the complexities of the world with depth and insight.

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