In his 2005 Commencement Speech at Stanford, Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.” When I first heard this quote as a college student, I felt excited – I wanted to see how the next few years of my life would unfold so that I could connect the dots looking backward. Now, almost a decade out of college and reflecting on my experiences in the last several years, I can confidently say that my life has been a testament to this quote.
To share a distilled version of my story – In 2011, during my senior year of college, I landed a job with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the major consulting firms. Around the same time, I also landed a one-year fellowship that would enable me to study intensive Mandarin in China and Taiwan. After some back and forth, I decided to pursue the fellowship and was fortunate enough to defer my start date at PwC by one year. My semester in Taiwan, to this date, proved to be one of the most memorable and happiest periods of my life.
In 2014, there was a call for applications for individuals to represent the U.S. Pavilion at the 2015 World Expo in Milan, Italy. In particular, they were seeking bilingual individuals because the World Expo draws in people from around the world. Having spent a year studying intensive Mandarin in China and Taiwan, I was able to present a case for my language skills and was selected to represent the U.S. Whilst working at the U.S. Pavilion, I decided to volunteer as a blogger for the Pavilion, documenting different events and profiling guest speakers.
In 2017, two years after the World Expo, an opportunity opened up on a cruise ship that had been on my radar since college. In 2011, I wanted to work for the cruise ship; however, I wasn’t qualified for any of the positions. However, in 2017, they were looking for a reporter, someone who could write articles, interview individuals and take photographs to document activities onboard and in destinations where the ship docked. At this point in my career, I had roughly 4 years of work experience split between consulting and a startup, neither of which had anything remotely to do with journalism. However, because I had volunteered as a blogger at the U.S. Pavilion, I was able to demonstrate that I can fulfill the duties of a reporter. I landed the reporting gig and sailed around Southeast Asia and Oceania.
In 2011, when I made the decision to study abroad in China and Taiwan, I could not fathom where that decision would eventually lead me. Steve Jobs was right – you can only connect the dots looking backward. With these experiences, I want to share with you all the lessons that I’ve learned along the way –
- Listen to your intuition and do what feels right to you, despite the naysayers
Despite receiving a fellowship to study abroad, I was hesitant to accept it because my family didn’t think that it was a good idea – they thought it was frivolous to spend a year studying Chinese due to the opportunity cost of forgoing one year’s worth of salary. I also felt a responsibility to come back to NYC to support my aging grandparents, the people who raised me. My head was telling me to do the practical thing by taking the job offer. My heart was telling me to go abroad. It then dawned on me – What’s one year in the grand scheme of things? I’m going to spend the next 50 years working, but a one-year fellowship is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
- Seek support from those who have come before you
For both the fellowship and the reporting gig on the cruise ship, I reached out to people who had successfully navigated the process – previous fellowship winners and a former reporter who had worked for the cruise ship. These people were more than happy to pay it forward by sharing their experiences with me and tips on how I could strengthen my application.
- Do things out of pure enjoyment (without expecting anything in return)
When I decided to study Mandarin in China and Taiwan, it was because I loved learning the language. (If it’s any indication, it was 4 hours of classes, 5 days a week, with 4 students max. in each class. You couldn’t hide, even if you wanted to!) When I decided to volunteer to blog for the U.S. Pavilion, it was because I wanted to be more involved in what was happening at the Pavilion and have a deeper understanding of the global issues that the Pavilion was addressing. In listening to my heart and doing the things that I enjoyed, unbeknownst to me, at those times, I was laying down the dots that I am now able to connect, looking back.
- Focus on and highlight the transferability of your skills
When I applied for the reporting gig on the cruise ship, my consulting and startup experiences did not present a strong case for the position. Instead, I focused on my experience at the U.S. Pavilion – how I blogged for the Pavilion and how I was accustomed to handling a Pavilion with upwards of 50,000+ visitors a day. I made a case about how if I could manage that, working on a cruise ship with 1,000+ passengers would definitely be something that I could handle.
In the moment, when we are listening to our hearts, finding our cheerleaders and doing the things that make us happy, it may not seem like we’re doing much because the results aren’t immediate. However, one day, you’ll look back and see that you were becoming all along.
Angela Choi is an International Life Purpose and Career Coach. She helps driven professionals who feel stuck and unfulfilled to discover their purpose so they can have both the impact and income that they want. Sign up for her FREE guide, 6 Steps to Living Your Purpose here and learn more about her coaching program at www.angelachoi.co
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