[Forks in the Career Road] An Early Thanksgiving

I had lunch with Littler Mendelson’s Lindbergh Porter today, an early Thanksgiving of sorts.

Seeing him reminded me that career choices and life opportuniities come to us in all sorts of ways and at times both convenient and awkward. Each choice you make has some consequence, both foreseen and unknown.

Lindbergh and I had worked together in the ’90’s when I was his client as an SVP of Human Resources. Though our paths have diverged professionally, we’ve stayed in touch: along with my friend Lee Paterson (both a labor attorney and now co-founder of Kona coffee company Hula Daddy), Lindbergh is one of the best attorneys I’ve ever seen – smart, hardworking, and blessed with the unique “trusted advisor” ability that most lawyers frankly lack.

He was witness to one such critical career juncture for me 13 years ago. One option I had was to stay with McKesson, at that point a large, Fortune 50, not-so-innovative and mostly traditional corporation, or take a different path and strike out to some unknown future.

Like Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, would I leave behind close colleagues from over a decade’s worth of work and the perceived “security” of the big company to take some path to a murky future or stay put and continue along the road I’d followed for over 13 years ?

Instant clarity of career decisions is rare for me: I seldom know in the moment the “right” call to make. This decision to stay or go was an exception.

Sometimes a career is marked by the choices and decisions you’ve made. Sometimes, though, it’s about the choices and decisions that you did not make. I have lost track of the jobs or roles that I wanted and did not get only to realize later that the choice would have been wildly wrong, the decision one that would have been regretted.

In this case I took the fork in the road to the path less traveled in the 90’s and left McKesson.

Had I stayed my life would likely have continued to be one of travel and airports, and meetings too important to miss: lots of work but probably not much joy. That world would have been a “you could have been more than a name on the door on the thirty-third floor in the air” sort of life. (Though my office was on the 34th floor.)

I am certain that I would not have become a parent to my son J. Traylor, something that gives me occasional heartache combined with boundless joy. And hundreds of other things small and large that are now part of me would have been missed; no South Park start-up, no eight AIDSLifeCycle rides from San Francisco to Los Angeles, no working in the asset management business, no staying close and taking care of my dad in his dying days, and likely not even getting married.

Lindbergh took his own notable career fork in the road as well: he was one of 17 students who were recruited to attend the the University of Illinois from a rural county in and around Lexington, Mississippi as part of a university diversity outreach program.

As Lindbergh noted in a speech in 2007, he had “known what you would call abject poverty first hand. To Winston Churchill’s offer of blood, sweat and tears to his countrymen, [his] my parents added for us abundant love.” He attended racially segregated, unequipped, ill-equipped from the 1st through the 12th grade. He “sat in a classroom with a white student for the first time in September 1968.”

Though Lindbergh’s father ran a funeral home in Lexington, my hunch is that Lindbergh’s thoughts of becoming a well respected, highly regarded attorney from San Francisco was off his radar. A move to LA after college, law school, the career and the accolades that followed, his life with his wife Mary and their two kids might never have happened.

And what helps when you get to make those types of decisions and choices?

Most people suggest taking your time (slowing things down) and distilling the merits of each choice as best you can. Some suggest that you pray or meditate. Songwriter Joni Mitchell recommends some heart and humor to lighten up this sort of heavy load.

And I’d add, be thankful for the gifts those choices gave you.