*This article has been edited as of Sunday, 10/12/2015
Some of us know exactly where we want our careers to go. For the rest of us, most of us have no clue and spend far too much time worrying about the fact that we don’t know what we want. I had the pleasure of chatting with Maria Ross, who is, by all accounts, a superwoman. She’s a marketing guru with loads of experience tucked under her belt, a brain injury survivor, an author, and a mama. And most of all, she hasn’t always known what she’s wanted to do. Truth be told, I left my interview with Maria feeling reassured and energetic.
Maria hails from New York originally, and then secondarily from Ohio, where she attended middle school and high school. As the youngest of 4 children and the only girl, Maria figured out how to handle herself early on. She is the grandchild of Italian immigrants, and she grew up knowing the importance of education and a good work ethic. But when she reached college, she still hadn’t figured out exactly what she wanted to do. After consulting with a professor, she chose to study and get a degree in business, joining Anderson Consulting (now known as Accenture) after college. She gained a lot of experience, which allowed her to explore different avenues of marketing. She also took a stint at Discovery Networks, helping to build the Animal Planet brand (which I know we all very much appreciate).
Even though Maria was in her early twenties, she noticed her need to be challenged early on. Specifically, she started to notice that she got bored easily and needed new changes consistently to keep her attention. So, she moved to Silicon Valley in 1999, ready to take on the dot.com boom. The bust came soon after and Maria learned to rely on her marketing skills to pay the bills via one off consulting gigs. But of course, that too became a bit underwhelming and she found herself back on the startup kick, rolling up her sleeves and becoming a multi-tasking queen. In the midst of this role, she and her husband decided to move to Seattle where the grass is usually greener and houses cost less (can I get a hallelujah?). She worked remotely and kicked butt on a pretty regular basis until she started to sense that it was time to get a move on again, and she opened her own consulting company, Red Slice.
With Red Slice, Maria was able to go at her own pace and do things her way, which she soon realized was much more important than she could ever imagine. One day, she suffered a severe brain aneurysm at home. Through years of rehabilitation, careful practice, and a re-evaluation of her busy life, Maria got better. She was able to slowly return to work at her own pace, and though she had to relearn a lot of things, she also relearned how to live life better. She slowed down, focused on fewer, better things, and built a company she loved. Since then, she and her husband have moved back to California and had a baby.
What struck me about Maria was simple – she didn’t have a narrow focus on what she wanted to be. And yet, the woman has succeeded in so many different ways that it’s impossible not to want the career success she’s had. Her agile career moves criss crossed throughout her life, but at no point did she really ever stop improving. In fact, her varied experience is what kept her afloat and successful in the long term. Instead of being nailed down to one profession, she’s kept her options open at all times, aggregating a Webster’s dictionary of skills to be used at the ready. So why is that so many of us feel so frustrated when we can’t explain what we want to do (or even know what we want to do)? Perhaps it’s because we all think we should know what we want by the tender age of 22, but really, it’s okay if you don’t.
If you’re a regular reader here, you might remember my reference to Steve Jobs whenever I talk about getting all the experience you can get because you never know where it will take you. Jobs mentioned once that he felt lost and bored in college, so he took a calligraphy class. Years later when it was time for the Apple computer to be born, his calligraphy skills came in handy, helping to create the first computer fonts ever. Seemingly random experiences come together in completely sensible ways, you just have to be patient.