My first job out of college, I worked in the structural engineering department at an architecture firm. Each new engineer was assigned to a project manager. All the project managers reported to the department head.
Having graduated college during a recession, I was immensely grateful to have a job at all, especially one that was a perfect first job in my field. Like most new graduates, I’d had very little experience working in a corporation before this, so I applied the same mentality that helped me do well in school to my new work environment: listen to the teacher, do exactly what you’re told, let your hard work speak for itself, and wait your turn for the next opportunity.
Around two years into my first position, I was working on a very large project. The department was overloaded, so I was the only full-time engineer on the team other than my manager. My project manager’s wife was pregnant with her first child and was having some problems with her pregnancy. This resulted in my project manager needing to take substantial time off work right around several of the milestones deadlines for the project. Because the project was so large, the milestone dates were spread out over several months.
I was becoming more and more frustrated. I was working a lot of overtime and barely making a dent in the workload. And, although there were several engineers working extra on their own projects, I was often the only one working on that project. When I told my project manager that we needed more help, he agreed and was sympathetic, but the message I ultimately received was to “figure it out.”
After months of working extra, I cracked. I was doing exactly what had served me so well in school, and I was upset that I seemed to be the only one putting in the time needed to get the project done.
So, literally shaking with fear, one day I marched into the department head’s office and told him that if I was going to be doing all this extra project-management type work, I wanted to be paid accordingly for it.
I wish I could say I was eloquent and calm when I asked. I wish I could say I presented a fact-based analysis of why I deserved a raise. But no, I was really just frustrated and tired.
Looking back, what I did is exactly what I coach my clients NOT to do. Going over your direct manager’s head without many well-documented discussions is a bad idea. Marching angrily into my manager’s boss’s office to demand a raise? That’s a really, really bad idea.
What happened next was astonishing to me at the time. It’s even more astonishing to me now, 13 years later, when I recall my emotional state when I asked. With no discussion at all, the department head said: “I agree, we’ll see what we can do.” About a month later, I got a 10% pay bump.
It was then I realized that what served me so well in school didn’t work in the corporate world. Waiting to be acknowledged for my accomplishments and doing what I was told without complaint was very comfortable to me. But at that moment? I realized the only person responsible for getting what I wanted in my career was ME.
I am a female engineer. Like many young women growing up in the United States, I was taught to listen to my teachers, to do what I was told, and to be a “good girl.” I was taught to defer to teachers and managers and bosses. Good girls should be peace-keepers. They let their accomplishments speak for themselves. They are pleasant and affable at all times. They wait their turn.
At the same time, I understood that I could do anything I wanted if I was willing to work hard. I learned that if I studied more and put in extra effort, I would be rewarded with an “A” in school. I internalized these lessons at a very young age, and they were reinforced throughout my education.
That day at work, I learned that everything I thought I knew about achievement, and my assumptions that the same tools that worked for me in school would also work in the corporate world, were utterly wrong.
That day I decided to follow my own career path. I decided to stop waiting for someone to pat me on the head, tell me I had done a good job, and offer me a new opportunity. I decided that instead of allowing other people to dictate my career path, I’d ask for what I wanted instead. I decided I would curate my own career instead of conforming to someone else’s agenda or the ideas of what “good girls” could or couldn’t do. I wasn’t going to wait until the next time I couldn’t take it anymore to own my worth.
The decision to follow my own career path — by making the most of my own strengths and interests — turned out to be the most important career decision I could make.
When I committed to this decision, I became the boss of my own career. If I wanted something, I asked. If I had an idea, I spoke up. And if I was unhappy with something at work, I embraced my own power to change my circumstances.
That’s not to say that it is easy. I’m still unlearning all the conditioned deference to others (and especially men) that I learned as a child. It’s still uncomfortable to ask for what I want, but most of the time I do it anyway. I still experience imposter syndrome. I still have to pick and choose my battles.
I’ve also learned that the decision to follow my own path has made every other career decision I’ve ever made easier.
Instead of asking “Why is this happening to me?”, I started asking things like: “How did I contribute to this?” “What can I learn from this experience?” and “If this isn’t the outcome I want, what can I do to change it?”
Instead of blaming others — my boss, my manager, a difficult client, or the inescapable fact that I’m a woman in a male-dominated field— I looked at myself first, allowing all “blame” conversations to be quickly turned to “How can we solve this challenge?” and “How can I create a win-win situation here?”
When, some ten years into my engineering career, I looked at my daily work tasks and realized many of them weren’t allowing me to use my strengths, I didn’t just complain about it. I found volunteer opportunities to further develop those skills.
The decision to follow a career path that matches my own values and strengths has been the compass I have used to guide every other decision in my career, no matter how small, large, easy or difficult.
It’s kept me true to myself by forcing me to consider what I really want, and if what I’m working on today will help me get there. It helped me gain more visibility and recognition for my work at a younger age. It requires me to keep dreaming, to imagine how I can best use my own unique skills to both make a living and make the world a better place.
That decision also gave me the courage to follow my business and leadership interests instead of the more traditional engineering technical path. It led me down the seemingly crazy path (at least for an engineer) of writing and publishing a book, She Engineers, fueled by my love of writing and a passion to share what I’d learned to help other female engineers succeed.
It also helped me view my family — and especially my three young children — not as a constraint to my career which we know statistically kids can be, but as the reason I wanted to succeed. I stopped listing all the reasons things couldn’t work, and started saying “This is important to me. How do I make that happen?”
Following my own path led me to start my own company, something which I never would have thought in a million years I would do when I first became an engineer.
Choosing my own path is the single most important decision I have ever made, and it will be the single most important one you can make too. I am the only person that knows what is best for me, and if I don’t ask and make it happen, no one else will. That decision means that when I hit the inevitable career bumps, my career doesn’t collapse because I have the ability to change it. That decision means that I have committed to a career that is authentic to who I am, not what others expect.
Your own career path, which is unique to you and based on your own strengths and values, is calling. Are you listening?