Sunday, March 6, 2011

Career paths not taken

A touchy, personal and rarely discussed topic among my classmates has to do with our abandoned careers and where we might be if we had stayed in them instead of getting an MBA.

Before school, I worked at two newspapers -- five years at a small paper in South Texas, then three years at a large paper in North Texas. The position I left behind at my last newspaper was filled, and that person is still there, so I assume that if I had stayed I would be doing the same thing I was doing when I left. I enjoyed that job but would probably still feel somewhat stuck and fearful of layoffs. That fear is warranted, as there have been layoffs since I left, layoffs are determined by tenure, and even after three years I was just about the least-tenured person in the newsroom.

It's harder to tell where I'd be if I'd stayed at the small South Texas paper, which, for whatever reason, I have a much stronger emotional and sentimental attachment to than the larger paper. When I left, I was an online producer; that position still exists, so if I were there I might be doing the same thing. Knowing me, and considering the fact I never stayed in a department at that paper for more than 18 months, I almost certainly would've moved into another role, by choice or otherwise. That role might have been a promotion. One of the reasons I left was that I didn't see any obvious advancement blueprint there. It turned out, though, that there were quite a few new opportunities that arose in the years after I left because several other newspapers in the chain relocated their production staffs into my paper's building. This created new departments and management roles I might have been qualified for and found interesting. If I were still there, after all, I'd be going on my 10th year with the company, which (believe it or not) would probably put me in at least the upper quartile for seniority. I might have been deemed, by this point, worthy of leadership.

Whether I could have, or would have, seized a management role -- or any other type of step up -- is obviously not clear. But I have several friends who stayed and have risen the ranks of management. I'm happy for them, but it would be rewriting history to claim that I aspired to do the same. Still, their success is a reminder that I might have moved on to some interesting challenges and management experience had I stayed.

Do I care? It's easy to say no, and then point to my subsequent accomplishments and bright future. The truer answer, however, is that I do care a little. But my reasons for leaving were reasonable. I knew I wanted to go back to school in the near future, and I felt I should get a larger, more recognizable newspaper from a major metro area on my resume before I left Texas. I still think this was wise. And there were personal reasons I left, too. I wanted to date more, which I have done, and generally have more of a social life. And I wanted to make more money, which I did, and will continue to do. But I think my main root of personal dissatisfaction was that nobody else wanted to stay there, so my friends were constantly coming and going. It was hard to feel good about any long-range plan at that newspaper when every two months I was at yet another going-away party.

So I left for various reasons. It's a curious exercise to wonder where I'd be if I'd stayed, but in business school we're encouraged to judge a decision by whether it was smart given the information available at the time, not by the outcome. For me, leaving the small paper for the larger one, and leaving the larger one for Yale, were difficult decisions borne out of a restless sense that there was more out there -- more to learn, do, see and experience. I can't undo those feelings, so I have to stand behind my choices.

It's OK to wonder "what if," but everyone does so regardless of circumstance. I'd be playing the "what if" game even if I had stayed at that first paper in South Texas. I'm pleased with my choices, and even the outcomes.

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