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Triangulation: Embracing the Circuitous Path to Career Clarity

I often use the term “triangulation” to describe my approach to career. I borrowed the term from David Epstein, author of “Range” after listening to him on the Rich Roll Podcast.

Triangulating is a concept used in orienteering. In a nutshell, the explorer must use multiple points (dare I say, multiple, seemingly disconnected paths?) to reach a destination. I’m not involved in orienteering. At all. I get lost running on well-marked trails. So I consulted the internet to be sure my use of “Triangulation” was accurate. I love how this article on a compassing website has a section titled “Finding Yourself”. Just perfect.

When working with high-achieving professionals, I’ve noticed “being on the right path” is a common theme. There is so much fear about straying from the straight and narrow career path that our lives were destined to follow.

But what if there never was a straight and narrow?

Or, what if the straight and narrow was headed in a very different direction than your 22 year old brain could have ever imagined?

In the ninth grade, I decided I would become a biology professor. I didn’t know any biology professors. I didn’t really know what a biology professor might do all day. I simply knew that I was smart, enjoyed biology class, did well in biology class, and being a professor sounded cooler than being a doctor. And that level of sophistication launched the next 10 years of my life. Yikes!

Where are you now? Has the path been exactly as you planned? And, if it has, are you content? Fulfilled?

Embracing triangulation allows the bright, high achiever to break out of the expectation of specialization (whether self-created or externally applied) and begin to delight in the natural curiosity that often accompanies a brilliant mind. Yes, you have a brilliant mind, and it’s time to start seeing yourself that way. We are so quick to assign the term “genius” to the specialists around us without appreciating the mental agility required to maintain breadth of focus.

My own triangulation has involved several key points - the watchtowers, if you will. First, biology, specifically molecular biology, genetics, microbiology, and microbiome. Second, psychology (with a bit of neurology). This second path has taken many turns and I’ve rejected and embraced this area of interest over and over again. Only when I found the concept of triangulation was I able to connect watchtower two with watchtower one.

The third watchtower, maybe obviously is veterinary medicine, specifically clinical practice. I’ve spent fifteen years in small animal general practice, so this has ostensibly been the most important of the three, and yet, it was so unfulfilling until I was able to draw in watchtower 1 and watchtower 2 to move forward. In other words, I felt stuck in general practice. Because I bought into the idea that to succeed, you must specialize, I wasn’t sure how to grow without starting from scratch. Doing a residency. Pursuing a postdoc. Going back to a PhD.

While there would be nothing wrong with any of those three things (and I did, in fact, spend some time in a part-time post doc), specialization isn’t the only path to career fulfillment for high-achieving, driven professionals. When we realize this, we can embrace our own version of brilliance and move away from imposter syndrome.

I want to be clear, though. Defining these three watchtowers does not bind me to them. As I move forward in my career, currently hopping between a few seemingly disconnected paths, I may decide on another goal and that may require another watchtower.

Currently I’m investing time and energy in both watchtower 1 (learning as much as I can about microbiome and canine genetics) and watchtower 2 (actively coaching and teaching concepts related to mental well-being in the veterinary workplace) while I take a break from watchtower 3 (general practice).

Finding balance, finding time and energy to engage in multiple disciplines can be a challenge. It takes time to learn how to triangulate well – knowing when to pursue an interest without being pulled off course by every distraction. It’s easy to understand why some would choose to pick one area and go all in. Nevertheless, if you are naturally curious about seemingly unrelated disciplines, beware of the trappings of specialization. It isn’t the only path. You can learn to triangulate and become a better, stronger generalist even though it may feel challenging at first.

Where you are now is exactly where you are supposed to be. The past, the path you took to get here, will not change, no matter how much you argue with it. Instead, embrace your circuitous history! Then, consider the possibility that there are many paths forward and exploring more than one may be the key to your unique version of brilliance.

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