Stop Apologizing For Your Non-Traditional Career Path

December 07, 2015

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When we advise leaders on their hiring strategies, one thing we tell them is “When you’re down to two finalists for any open position, hire the person with the quirkier career history!”

People who take chances and have the confidence to step outside a narrow career path are more likely, in our experience, to make better decisions and to trust themselves rather than a dusty policy in the clinch, when instinct and fortitude matter.

That’s what you need on your team!

If you have a non-traditional career path, an unusual academic background or any kind of non-standard history, someone is bound to give you a hard time about it at some point if it hasn’t happened to you already.

With me it was my operatic background. “So are you an opera singer, or an HR Manager?” people would ask me. I said “Both. How awful to be only one thing!”

People get fearful and when they do, they often lash out and put other people down. In that moment they will go after any weakness or perceived weakness they can spot, and your non-cookie-cutter background may be just the thing!

Your life story is your own. Nobody has your story, and nobody ever has or ever will have it apart from you. Your upbringing since infancy, your family background, your education, your talents and your sense of humor are all part of your brilliance.

Anybody who doesn’t care for you is welcome to jump in a lake or live a long and happy life without you. You don’t need the whole world to like your brand of jazz . You aren’t here on earth to please everyone. You have to please yourself, and the minute you do, the right people will find you!

I spent a long time apologizing for and being embarrassed about my background. I didn’t realize at the time that everything I brought to my jobs and to my career was just what was needed.

Eventually I stopped apologizing and started to see my theatrical past and other atypical aspects of my HR story as good things, rather than negatives.

When you see the power in your story, other people will see it too!

I went to speak at a university. A young man sat in the front row.

He spoke with me after my talk. “I’m getting my MBA as a full-time student,” he said, “but I’m having a tough time in some ways. I like my classes, but it’s obvious that some of my classmates look down on me. I got my degree and then started a landscaping business. I did very well. I only sold the business and came back to school because I want to learn how to be an entrepreneur on a larger scale.”

“Hang on a second,” I said. “You started a landscaping business from the ground up and you grew it to the point where you could sell the business – not just the trucks and equipment?”

“Yes,” he said. “I sold my business and the proceeds from that sale are paying for the not-inexpensive two-year B-school tuition here.”

“You are already a successful entrepreneur!” I said. “Who would dare to look down on you? Ignore them! They know not what they are talking about.”

Thank you!” said the young man. “I get so many digs and slurs from other MBA candidates who’ve never held a job any more responsible than picking up the phone – but they worked in an office and wore a tie, while I was up on a ladder.”

“The first thing you have to do is stop listening to them or anyone else who doesn’t appreciate you,” I said.

“Those MBA candidates are on their own path. You are on yours. You are here at school because of your mission. Keep your mission in mind!”

He did. A year later I heard from the young man.

He wasn’t out of school yet but he’d already been hired by a venture capital firm to scout new opportunities. He had told the partners at the firm that he planned to start his own business before long. They said “Cool!” and invited him onto the team.

You have to sing your own song and let anybody who doesn’t like it go listen to someone else. You have nothing to apologize for and no one to apologize to. You are here in one piece and looking ahead at your path. That’s all any of us can ask for.

Your background is perfect and as worthy as anyone else’s – but you have to see that first, before anyone else will!

By Liz Ryan.

Liz Ryan is the CEO and founder of Human Workplace. Follow her on Twitter @humanworkplace.