Career Detours – For Good, Better, or Worse

by | May 19, 2019 | 0 comments

This article is about career detours. The good, and sometimes not so good. How to recognize when you are on a good ‘detour’; when you might be stuck, how to find your way back? It builds on a previous article I wrote (Put Some Zig Zag Into Your Career). Takes about 11- 14 minutes to read (it’s a longer one that usual!).

Have you ever been on route somewhere and found yourself on a detour? Maybe you got lost or intentionally saw an interesting ‘curve off the road’ and decided to check it out. Sometimes detours turn out to be the best part of a trip or excursion. Oh look, home-made apple pies just a few miles around the bend. Or, wow, who knew about this pristine beach hidden away. Or, that was the sweetest, quaintest little town I’ve ever seen – so glad we checked it out.

Then there are detours that don’t work out quite as well – or we’ve stayed too long. How the heck did we get here? How do we get back to the road? Lost? Time wasted? Frustrated?

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

Well, detours happen in careers too. For good, better, or worse.

I’ve had conversations with clients and friends who told me they ‘fell into a role’ while they had initially intended to do something else with their career. Many years later, here they were. For some, things worked out for the better. But for others, they were wondering how they got there and if that’s where they should still be.

It’s great when your ‘detour’ serves your career – or in some cases, becomes your career if the fit feels right. But when it doesn’t, that detour can end up creating a whole bunch of career confusion, doubt and confidence breakdowns, and stress. 

Courtesy of Pixabay

A few examples of good, better, worse detour experiences (not real names and stories modified):

Joe: Joe was a middle manager working in operations for a large company. He had an opportunity to try out a role in sales. The company encouraged their people to diversify within. It was a great experience for him. It gave him more insight into a key area within the company. He built new relationships and learned new skills. But ultimately, he felt operations was a better fit, so he eventually headed back to where he felt more ‘at home’. The sales experience however gave him a leg up towards a more senior role in operations. His deliberate detour provided him with a broader skillset and perspective that gave him an advantage over other candidates.

Agnes: Agnes lost her job in pharma research. While job searching for a new role in her field, a friend of a friend told her she was starting up a new company specializing in nutritional meal delivery and could use some help in getting the company going. Agnes took the opportunity thinking it would be just for a short bit while she searched for a job within her ‘real career’. Turns out she loved the experience so much she decided to not only stay with the company but to invest in it and become a part owner. Her supposed temporary detour from her ‘real career’ landed her in a dream career that she could never have imagined.

Fred: Fred had a thriving career in marketing. At some point he got burnt out (careers can sometimes do that to you). He took a break. He loved fitness and decided to get certified as a personal trainer. It was a refreshing change. He thought he’d go back to marketing at some point but months passed and before he knew it, it was a couple of years later. He enjoyed the personal training for a while but eventually started to experience doubts this would be a fit for the longer career haul. He was working long hours (weekends/nights) and making less money; he also missed the thinking and creative side of his marketing career. He wondered if it was time to go back. But by then, so much has changed in the industry he was no longer primed to enter at the level he left. His skills were outdated, his network had gone ‘soft’. He started to feel stressed and lost and wondered what the heck he did with his career and where he fit in.

Time goes by fast and spending too much time in a detour when it’s not the right fit for the long view can indeed create those feelings of confusion and self doubt. To be transparent, not only have I served clients in this area, I’ve experienced my own ‘detour’ moments – and have learned a lot from these experiences (we’ll save the details for another post😊).

When we zig far away from a career base we knew so well, it might be wonderful for a while, or even for the long-term (like Agnes). But sometimes, a zig needs a zag back. The zig – albeit lovely at times – isn’t always meant to be a ‘destination’. If we stay too long in a detour (zig) — or get too comfortable — we might miss hearing/feeling the internal ‘signal’ that it might be time to zag back ‘home’.

(I can’t help but think of this image: a young surfer who takes a gap year to ride the waves in some beach town and 20-30 years later is still at the beach scraping by barely making a living or a life. No offence to the happy, older surfers who chose well for themselves)

Btw for clarity — “Home” isn’t necessarily the precise same role we left. Rather ‘home’ might be the career ‘place’ that meets us in a way that more fully aligns with the bigger picture of who we are; who we want/need to grow into; and honours enough of our needs, core values and aspirations.

Making Sense of the Career Detour – Relief on its Way!

As you can see from just three little stories above, career detours come in all shapes and sizes and with different outcomes. Some work beautifully and some can create some havoc in a career and a life. Some are deliberate and others can be happenstance. As disruptive forces continue to impact our economy and the world of work continues to change (at a faster pace than ever before), more and more people may find themselves making changes more frequently.

When is a change a “detour” — or simply a change for the better? How do you recognize if you are in a ‘good detour’ or stuck and perhaps overstaying a ‘zig’ that needs a zag back to….somewhere else? 

Here are a few thoughts to help make sense of career detours.


Adding a little zig zag to your career can be very healthy and wise. I wrote about the idea of career Zig Zag for the Globe and Mail some years ago (see it here on my blog).

Recognize that today’s careers will inherently have a lot more ‘zig zag’ then in previous generations. Our whole paradigm of work has changed and ‘job for life’ is a notion long gone. Being nimble and pivoting to new kinds of roles and experiences can – if done right – add tremendously to your career success.

But the key is to be doing this in a mindful and intentional way. Trying out a new direction; mining the experience for new learning and broadening one’s network – these are fabulous opportunities that a career detour might provide.

But equally important is to know when to stay; when to move on; or go back to some career earlier ‘roots’. To do that discernment, you need a ‘compass’. Read on.


Photo courtesy of Pixabay

What’s a compass in career navigation? Your compass is knowing yourself. Identifying your most salient core values, needs, aspirations, and strengths. It’s an indispensable body of self awareness that can help you make better decisions; assess and evaluate experiences – and more.

When clients come for career counselling – no matter what stage they are at, we always start with checking in on their compass. Many people haven’t done that kind of self reflection or to the depth that we might dig into to elicit insights that will help them see their career dilemmas and choices with new eyes. That ‘compass’ may reveal itself over time and in stages but as a start I would recommend to everyone take time for some self reflection to take stock of the ‘inner game’:

Discover your core values (and more): What values are your must-have’s for work and life for you to feel engaged, authentic, and ‘at home’? Often people make career changes that over-focus on only 1-2 values that are amiss in their current experience. E.g. for the overworked, exhausted careerist, their value may be shouting loudly: “I want some balance!!” This need might be important, but you will have other values equally important that need to be heard. For instance, your work values may also reflect needs for: growth, financial stability, meaning and contribution, relationships and community, empowerment – and more.

You may not always have a role that meets all your values, all of the time. The key is to make sure you are meeting enough of them (enough of the time) and that you are aware so you can discern and decide how to navigate.

Ditto on strengths – working without using your best strengths, superpowers, and character virtues can make for a tired career after the honeymoon is over. There’s much more to deconstruct here but the point is to get clear on the plethora of needs, values and prioritize the essentials with the negotiables.

Then there’s the external part of the compass: What’s happening ‘out there’ – in your industry, the world of work, the economy, etc.

Let’s face it, times are a ‘changing’ and faster than ever.  As important as the inner game is to finding meaningful work and a good fit, it’s equally important to understand the ‘outer game’ — i.e. understanding the landscape. Do your research, network to connect and learn, and make sure you are on the ball otherwise you may find yourself like Fred. His industry moved forward but he didn’t.


Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Sometimes the early days of a new opportunity will feel shiny and new. And over time, we might settle in and not recognize that our current situation has stopped serving our growth and career-ability. We might get a little comfy. The advice here is to continually take stock. Careers have their ups and downs and things shift. It’s important to regularly check in with yourself with questions like these:

How am I growing?

How are my values, strengths, and aspirations being met/expressed?

What is changing in the world of my work (my industry, other)?

What am I gaining in this role — and what might I be missing that might be a hindrance down the road?

And more! See more questions in the Zig Zag article here.

4. STOP WORRYING. START WONDERING. (if you think you’re in a bad detour)

If you feel like you might have veered off and stayed too long in a detour, don’t panic and don’t worry. Instead, ramp up your ‘wondering’ and get curious. Worrying is a negative emotion and will shut down your resourceful, creative mind – which you will need to discern and potentially navigate to your next career step. Curiosity is positive emotion and asking yourself important questions from a more ‘aspiring mindset’ can put the fuel in your tank to make changes — and look forward.

Go back to those earlier questions and add the gentle phrase and tone of “wondering”:

I wonder….is this role going to continue to help me grow? I wonder if it’s time to explore other opportunities. I wonder what values need to be more fully expressed? What skills do I need to ramp up?

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay



Courtesy of Pixabay

If you are feeling a little lost, unsure, and need to find your way ‘back’ or ‘forward’ to a better place, don’t do this all alone. Tap into supportive help to get some perspective. If you have a network to connect with and safely explore and talk about your career, do this.

Likewise, having a collaborative, supportive – and objective – partnership with a coach can help you accelerate your clarity and efficacy in making whatever plans you need to make to ensure you get back on track with right path for you.

With this clarity you might even discover you are in the right place but maybe the wrong mindset or in need of just a few tweaks. Or you might realize indeed it’s time to zag back ‘home’ or to another career opportunity that will allow you to more meaningfully contribute, grow, and self express.

I hope you found this article helpful……if you are curious about how to make sense of your career detour (or goals, hopes, aspirations!), then please get in touch. Read on…..

Need some help making sense of your zig zag career? Get in touch. I’ve worked with hundreds of people over the years and supported many very successful ‘zig zaggers’!

Eileen Chadnick (@Chadnick) is a certified coach specializing in career, executive and leadership development and a communications pro (20+ years of experience). Principal of Big Cheese Coaching and Chadnick Communications in Toronto, Eileen draws from the disciplines of positivity, neuroscience, emotional intelligence – and Conversational Intelligence®(C‐IQ®) in her work as a coach, consultant, trusted advisor, and facilitator. In addition to authoring the book, Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of Crazy Busy, Eileen is also a contributing leadership and careers columnist with the Globe and Mail




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