Thursday, April 19, 2012

The secret to success for the undecided

Almost all of the highly successful professionals I’ve ever talked to have admitted that they are still trying to figure out what to be when they grow up.

But studies show that not having a direction is not a good strategy for success. Simply wandering doesn’t work.

But that doesn’t mean you always have to have it figured out. And that is what most successfully undecided professionals have figured out how to do, both in college and beyond.

I recently interviewed the incredible difference-maker Kristen Cambell, who admits she had no idea what she wanted to do in college. Her journey holds the secrets to evolving your career and moving forward, even when you’re unsure.

Kristen is the Chief Program Officer for National Conference on Citizenship, a 67-year-old nonpartisan nonprofit organization that was chartered by congress in 1953 and is dedicated to increasing civic engagement across the country.

Kristen attended college at East Central University in Oklahoma. She had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, and – like many – changed her major many times. Kristen even admits today she still sometimes finds herself unsure of where she wants her life to go.

As she put it, she has a diversity of interests and skills and is excited by the many opportunities she can create (and that might be created) that may not fit into traditional buckets.

And this is key – because even for those who might feel very decided about your future, you’ll always want to be willing, open and flexible. We live in the most rapidly changing economy in history, and we have to be willing to adapt a wide variety of strengths and interests to meet those changing economic needs.

Yet like most of us, Kristen still knew it was important to choose a major and have a direction. How did she choose?

She was inspired by her professors.

The professors who taught the courses in mass communication inspired Kristen. She wanted to learn from them and could see herself emulating their careers. Kristen said, “I still carry this through in my professional career. A lot of the people I work with and for now are people I truly admire and respect.”

Kristen was so thankful for the personal attention she received from her professors, and attributes much of her success to that early mentorship and guidance: “My professors didn’t just teach me skills, they taught me how to be a thoughtful person, a critical thinker, and to think about how information can teach me about how I want to live my life.”

Kristen graduated with her degree in mass communication in 2004 and got a job in advertising. As she put it: “I really felt like something was missing emotionally in that job. I felt like I had a larger calling then helping business owners raise their sales of candles 10% that quarter. I didn’t feel like I was making best impact I could with my personality, time, and talents.”

It’s not that advertising jobs are bad. It’s just Kristen could feel it wasn’t for her. But it’s what she did next that has led her to where she is today. It’s what she did next that too many people are afraid to do, and then get stuck.

Kristen left her job. She then joined Americorps VISTA, the national service program specifically designed to fight poverty through contributing to a wide variety of community service programs.

Americorps brought her to Washington DC where she worked with a faith-based institution on their volunteer recruitment, and then served on the planning committee for the International Conference on Faith and Service. An executive for the Case Foundation was also on that board, and hired Kristen after seeing her great work. After a few years there, she was ready for a new challenge with the National Conference on Citizenship.

The key here? Kristen noticed her feelings, made a leap, and kept working hard. It’s as simple as that. The hard part is the courage and persistence this requires.

Kristen’s advice she wished someone would have given her in college? “Don’t try to rush it and appreciate the journey you are on right now. Learn where you are, and continue to figure out how to balance your long term goals with the present, without devaluing either.”

And the final thing to draw from Kristen’s story. Can you guess? (Again, I swear I don’t script these or try to get them to say this…)


It’s just key to success. Everywhere I look, it’s just there.

(The exact question I ask in these interviews is: “What is one thing you think my college student readers should do as soon as they finish reading this article in order to be more successful?” I’ve been amazed at how often the answer has been mentorship.)

Kristen’s take is really great: “sometimes we think mentorship is walking up awkwardly to a 50-year-old man and asking him to ‘be our mentor’ in some structured way. Someone once told me mentors should be like your personal board of directors; people you can talk honestly with, ask for guidance, and trust. Just like boards of directors are carefully chosen, you should be intentional about finding mentors in your life.”

Talking through new decisions and confused paths is also one of the best conversations with a mentor. So if you’re undecided:

1. breathe
2. tell someone
3. do something
4. ask for advice
5. keep experimenting

For more information about working in the nonprofit world, Kristen recommended these websites:

NGen – Developing next generation of nonprofit leaders

And I recommend you check out Americorps VISTA as well to learn what it’s all about and see if it’s something you might want to consider when you graduate. It’s a great option for the lost and undecided (i.e. all of us).

For more interviews with interesting professionals you can check out previous posts below. If you also know of someone who you think is a really amazing and admirable professional,or would like me to talk to someone in a specific profession, e-mail me the info and I'll try to get in touch!

Jennifer MasciaNew York Times Journalist
Lucas Boyce, NBA Executive
Jason McIntyre, Founder of The Big Lead
Jeff Selingo, Editor of Chronicle of Higher Education
Ashkon and Stephanie, Founders of
Mark Babbitt, Founder of

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