CEO Sarah LaFleur on Finding Your Career Calling
June 25, 2014
I’ve had the opportunity to speak at a number of events over the past year about entrepreneurship and how I started MM.LaFleur. Women in the audience often come up to me afterwards to talk about starting their own businesses, but a few weeks ago, a woman in her mid-20s approached me to ask: “How do you think I can find my calling?”
People ask me this question more than you’d expect, but it still sometimes catches me off-guard. In the moment, I rambled something about “doing what you love best,” yadda, yadda, yadda. But I’ve been reflecting about the woman’s question ever since, and I finally feel that I have some tangible, actionable advice to offer.
First of all, just being an entrepreneur doesn’t qualify me to answer this question. The reason I have some advice to offer is because I, too, struggled with career uncertainty for most of my 20s. If I ever write an autobiography, the chapter about that decade of my life will be titled, “In Search of the Perfect Job.”
For about seven years—from the time I neared graduation to a year into deciding to start MM—I spent hours thinking, searching, and even crying about what I should do with my Life, or more specifically, Career. (As I’m discovering in my 30s, Career is part of—but not all there is to—Life.) I toyed with being a refugee camp logistics officer, a doctor, a city planner, a strategist for an insurance company for the poor, a bar owner, a book store owner, a private equity investor… Yes, I thought of it all, and I was momentarily serious about each option.
When I was 25, I actually made an Excel spreadsheet of “Life Scenarios” where I laid out eight different potential career paths for the next ten years. Surprise, surprise: None of those scenarios came to pass. Being the owner of an ecommerce fashion business was not even on my radar at age 25, but I started this business just two years later, when I was 27.
This is not to say you should just go with the flow and let your career plan itself. I respect those who are earnestly trying to figure out what to do with their lives/careers, and I believe it’s that earnestness that will set them apart.
Here is my advice for how to manage—and make the most of—those years when you’re questioning, envisioning, and planning.
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1. Get philosophical. Read a lot. You are not alone in this journey to lead a meaningful life, but rather than read another Buzzfeed article on “20 Ways To Find Your Perfect Job,” go offline and be inspired by true thinkers. Philosophers have struggled with this question for ages, and they know a thing or two. I spent a lot of free time during my 25th summer reading thinkers ranging from Schopenhauer (somewhat of a Debbie Downer) to pop-sociologist Alain de Botton, all of whom have differing and insightful things to say on the topic.
2. Get comfortable with “sitting in your dark place.” Of all the philosophers I read that summer, my favorite was Kang Sung-Jung, a Korean-Japanese philosopher who is still alive and is president of a Japanese university. He wrote a wonderful book called The Power of Wavering, in which he says that it’s okay to be afraid. This is your life, and he would be concerned if you were not somewhat afraid about your future. What a relief it was to hear that! Be okay with not being okay.
3. Take walks alone. I do some of my best thinking when I’m walking, and I’ve heard other people say similar things. Something about not being stuck at your desk or on a sofa frees the mind and lets your thoughts travel to places you didn’t think were possible.
4. Whatever you’re doing now, do it really well. Opportunities present themselves to people who are acing whatever they’re doing right now. I didn’t love my job as a management consultant, but I tried my best to be a good one. Some of my biggest supporters in starting MM have been my supervisors and mentors from my previous jobs.
You’ll notice that most of my advice requires being reflective and introverted, rather than exploratory and extroverted. It’s not that I think networking or actively seeking guidance aren’t important. But sometimes, what you really need is to go into your dark place and build your own critical-thinking muscle so that you may better “know thyself.”
I will also add that, while I love my current job as the CEO of a company I founded, the pursuit of a meaningful life is something I struggle with on a regular basis. And while it has certainly gotten easier than it was in my 20s, it’s a never-ending, wonderful, and scary challenge.