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Career Crossroads: How These 3 Successful People Pivoted Their Paths

By Erica Trinidad on August 8, 2017

Sometimes, you can have a pretty solid job: the work is good, the pay is great, plus the company is reputable. These are all nice things to have – but what if there's something missing?

Enter the career pivot. There's a key difference between it and a career change: pivoting is a shift in direction on a parallel path; a career change is an entirely new path to begin with. Pivoting is switching jobs within the same industry (think: marketing manager to digital marketing manager). Changing is quitting your software engineer job to open up your own bakery.

There are many reasons to pivot (growth, specialization); so in order to navigate your own, read more for how 3 greats chartered theirs and see what works for you.


That Pivot Moment

In the fall of 1976, Oprah arrived in Baltimore from Nashville to co-anchor WJZ-TV’s 6’o-clock news with Jerry Turner – a beloved news anchor in the metropolis at the time. Hired as a rookie, Oprah stood out to then-news director Gary Elion due to her strong ability to tell a good story.

As Oprah used this skill to report night after night, she found that she couldn’t stop emotionally investing in her subjects – although she was told repeatedly not to. Due to this and other factors, she was fired from the job just after 8 months. Later that spring, she was “demoted” to host a small-time talkshow. From then on, she built a cult following, was invited to go national on A.M. Chicago, then eventually launched The Oprah Winfrey Show. And we all know how that turned out!

What You Can Learn

Oprah has stated in several interviews that having the anchor job and being fired from it was one of the best things that ever happened to her. One, because it showed her very clearly what she didn’t want to do; and two, because she was moved in the right direction to meet her destiny. After all: while empathy is what got Oprah fired from her TV reporter job, it's also what built her such a strong following as a talk show host.

"From that first day, I knew instantly this is what I was supposed to do," she says. "I felt like I had come home to myself."

The main takeway? When you’re deciding to do your career pivot, trust your gut enough to know when it’s time to walk away. If your experience tells you it doesn’t feel right, then trust that there's something better out there. Knowing what you don’t want right now brings you a step closer to what you do want down the line. Just focus on taking “the next right step”, as Oprah says.


That Pivot Moment

Vera Wang was always an achiever. In her teens, she competed at the national level as a professional ice skater. Though she tried out and failed to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, she bounced back and followed her passion for fashion in Vogue. Promoted at age 23, she became the magazine’s youngest-ever Senior Fashion Editor and held the position for 15 years.

After her job at Vogue, she ventured as the design director of accessories for Ralph Lauren. Two years after, she got engaged and immediately started planning her wedding. While she loved fashion, she found that the market for the wedding dress industry was so outdated. So she sketched her own simple, elegant dress and commissioned a dressmaker to make it for her herself.

Inspired by this turn, she decided to open up her own bridal boutique of curated brands a year later – featuring other designers and with funding from her father. She eventually launched her own signature line, and today has built the Vera Wang brand as a billion-dollar lifestyle behemoth.

What You Can Learn

By the time Vera Wang resigned from Ralph Lauren and pursued her business venture full-time, she was 40 years old. She had undergone 3 career pivots (professional figure skater to magazine editor to design director) before finally becoming a fashion designer – and now, the head of her own empire. As with anything, she’s proof that it’s never too late to find your calling.

Another thing we can take from Vera is the fact that sometimes, perhaps your true calling is right around the corner. She was already in the right industry, but it took her 3 tries to finally get the job right. In this case, your unique experiences could very well set you up for fulfilling your destiny. It’s helpful to start thinking of your career trajectory in the same way.


The Pivot Moment

Arnold Schwarzenegger had always wanted to go to America. While born in Austria, he had always wanted to pursue an acting career there. But before he could turn out to be the action star we know today, Arnold was first known for his bodybuilding.

He started out training at the age of 15, won the Mr. Universe title at 20, and proceeded to win Mr. Olympia 7 more times. He then migrated to the US to pursue his acting path. While there, he learned a lot from his aspiring peers: since they didn’t have any savings, many of them were forced to take any acting jobs they could get – even if they didn’t pay well or were value-adding to their career. With this, he decided not to rely on acting to make a living – investing his hard-earned bodybuilding money into Santa Monica buildings instead. By the time he was 30, he made his first million – all before coveting his breakthrough role as Conan the Barbarian.

What You Can Learn

There are two traits that Arnold exhibited that you can emulate: having foresight, and being deliberate. Arnold knew he didn’t want to be in bodybuilding forever – he had an endgame in mind: go to America, have a successful acting career. But in order to get there, he mapped out the steps to his path.

Secondly, being deliberate means he had an honest assessment of his dream job: it wasn’t stable, and it could easily be derailed by external forces. In order to secure his personal cushion, he made his income dependent on something else more controllable; this allowed him to have the luxury of holding out for roles he really wanted, and to eventually carve out the career path we all know him for today.

When it comes down to it, these stories are meant to illustrate that no matter which point you are in your career, there is a strategic way to change course – if that’s what you really want. It’s all a matter of learning from what people before us have done successfully – and applying a lot of action on your end to make it work.

Time for your own career pivot? Click here to visit the jobs you can shift to!

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