The Controlled Burn of a Successful Career

My father has three pieces of advice he routinely provides my brother and me.

  1. Watch for critters (by this, he means deer and other wild animals one might accidentally hit with a car in rural North Dakota where I grew up).
  2. Wear a jacket. Usually stated as “after the sun goes down, it gets cold out there.” Yes, Dad, no matter the time of year, it is always colder when the sun goes down.
  3. Don’t burn bridges. His consistent and steadfast piece of career advice.

I’ve heeded these three pieces of advice my entire life. I’ve never hit a deer, I’m rarely cold, and I have lasting good relationships with almost every boss I’ve ever had. In large part, I’m proud to have left jobs with grace and dignity, preserving relationships and avoiding burned bridges as I moved on.

Last summer, in a career transition I wouldn’t wish on anyone (except maybe our current President), I found myself standing on the edge of a proverbial career river, watching bridges across it burn. I wondered where I went wrong. What could I have done differently? Which parts were my fault? Which weren’t? I pondered what was in and out of my control. And it was that question of control the gave way to a clear vision.

This, my friends, was a controlled burn of my career. Those two words conjure a very specific feeling for a North Dakota girl like me. Farmers burn to manage weeds and unwanted growth. Not only does this process reduce hazardous wildfires that could severely damage crops, the ashes from the burn restore nutrients in the soil and in many cases make the following year’s harvest more plentiful. Burning your field can quite literally make it healthier and stronger.

That vision began to turn my head toward the light instead of the darkness and gave me a new sense of hope and determination. Beneath those burned bridges, I now see the black soil beneath. Healthy, renewed, stronger and ready to take on the next year’s harvest.

After my summer of burned bridges, I’m re-examining my dad’s lifelong advice and it still rings true.

  1. Watch for critters. This time, not for deer in the road but for red flags in your transition and search. We all deserve a career that fulfills us. It’s a little cliche, but it’s true. We spend more time at our job than we do in our bed or with our family. We deserve for it to fill us up, not drain us. If you just aren’t sure about a job offer or you’re continuously unhappy in your role, listen up! Your compass is screaming at you. There’s a deer in the road. Don’t hit it.
  2. It definitely gets cold out there when the sun goes down. When everything is going wrong, surround yourself with those you love. Ask for support. Tell people what you need. During one particularly trying week, one of my best friends sent me inspirational quotes via text every few minutes for an hour. Another week, out of town for an interview, friends had a bottle of champagne delivered to my hotel room. When it’s cold outside, some people will abandon you. But most want to help. Take the help!
  3. When bridges burn, let them go. Focus to on building new ones. Dig your hands deep in that black dirt and let it nourish you and build your path forward.

It’s timely this vision of a controlled burn has lingered in my head as 2019 began. All of these lessons learned were put to good use the last few months. Instead of jumping too fast into what could have been yet another bad decision, I took a short-term consulting project that has turned out to be everything I want in the next phase of my life and my career. After consulting here for a few months, I’m now proud to join the team at Mission Measurement officially as Managing Director for Corporate Market Development. Coming into the office after the holidays, I felt truly energized for the first time in a very long time. I found myself looking forward to a year of possibility and new adventures ahead.

And for the record, the view of that beautiful black soil is pretty fantastic from this side of the river.