The Accidental Career: Planning for the Unplanned

Like so many, I came out of college with absolutely no plan for my future. What could I do with my degree in French? I didn’t want to teach, and I certainly couldn’t morph into the doctor or engineer that my parents wanted me to become. But I trusted myself to absorb the lessons from each job I took, each credential I earned, every skill I mastered along the way, and fashion a successful career. Biotech executive Denise Mueller told me she also grabbed the first job that came along after graduation. Her advice to others who think they must map out an impressive path by age 22: It’s okay if you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up.

If You Don’t Have a Clear Path: Follow Your Curiosity

It’s with chagrin and pride that Denise Mueller spells out her “zero-plan” approach to her career. She was the smart girl steered away from an engineering degree. A math major who didn’t want to be “stuck in a closet doing statistics.” She followed a boyfriend for one job. Quit another to move closer to her ailing mother. Dared to apply for a job while seven months pregnant. Juggled three young girls as a single mom.

Now, as the Chief Business Officer for Affimed, a German biotechnology company, she can laugh about the rocky road to success. “I’ve always been driven by curiosity, but not by a plan,” she says.

Hard work was a given when she was growing up in Schenectady, N.Y. as the daughter of a General Electric executive who brought that “cutthroat” GE mentality home with him. When she was in high school, her dad transferred to Milan, Italy, and so she had to leave her life in the US behind mid-year and enroll in the American school there. She took on the challenge and completed the full International Baccalaureate degree.

She didn’t have a short list of colleges she longed to attend. Instead, she applied to 15 schools and got into all of them, including Columbia. She chose Virginia Tech for its low tuition and its connection with GE and enrolled in the engineering department. As a little girl, she had wanted to be a veterinarian and then a lawyer doing pro-bono work on behalf of Native Americans. But she entered college with no career plan, just the knowledge that she was good in math and science. It wasn’t enough to overcome the skepticism and poor grades handed out to her by the old-school male professors left over from the days when VT was a military school.

“STEM for girls is still a challenge,” she says. “Imagine what it was like some thirty years ago. I was told I was just there for an ‘MRS’ (i.e., find-a-husband) degree. I didn’t have a plan because then I didn’t think I deserved one or would be successful with all the negative feedback that I had been given.”

There’s Potential in Every Opportunity 

Mueller switched majors and graduated as a professional mathematician. Her parents’ only command was that she support herself, so again, without a plan, she took a job with a travel assistance company simply for the paycheck. From there, she jumped to the firm of physicians who worked with that company. She started building up her business skills and getting her first taste of the medical services field.

Challenges Come with Opportunities

She was living in Washington, D.C. when she was hit with her mother’s diagnosis of cancer. No longer willing to be hours away from her, Mueller moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia, where she still lives, and started to build her career there. She “accidentally” found her way into procurement (“I had no business doing procurement!”) at Unisys, the IT giant. She learned the sales side of the business and how to negotiate a contract. When it was time for a change, she was seven months pregnant.

Wyeth Pharmaceuticals took a chance on her and put her into marketing. She took away an important lesson about hiring: Pick the smart person who can learn new tricks. “I did not fit the profile of the pharmaceutical marketer; I wasn’t a sales rep or pharmacist. But I loved it and I thought: Oh! This is what I was meant to do!” After years of wondering what she would be when she grew up, she had found her calling. Focus on what brings the most value and joy.

Next came the challenge of juggling an exciting but time-consuming job with three very young daughters—including a set of twins—at home, and then her father sick and dying.

She found out it was impossible to do everything. “I asked myself, ‘What happens if I just do half?—I’ll probably get fired.’” She decided to do less, focused on the things that drive the business, and got promoted. “I learned to ignore everything else,” she says, “because everything else is noise, pick the things that are sure to drive the business, and do those things incredibly well.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

She admits that she spent a lot of time being embarrassed that she didn’t follow a carefully constructed career plan. Without a plan, however, she found the freedom to build a portfolio of skills and experiences. It’s the advice she now gives to her daughters and two stepsons, who are in college and high school. She can imagine herself five years from now as a CEO of a biotech, the founder of a non-profit dedicated to building self-confidence among young women, a restauranteur, a life coach, a personal trainer.

With the right attitude, failure teaches you resilience and can lead to career success. “I’m not afraid of failure,” Mueller says. “I have failed at a ton of things in my life, but it opened doors and taught me something about myself that allows me to always take the next step.”

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