Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: The Death of the Linear Career Path

Giancarlo Toledanes, DO


October 19, 2021

The arrival of autumn signals several events: cool weather, pumpkin spice lattes, and football, just to name a few. In my profession of academic medicine, fall also means the start of residency interview season. Each year, thousands of men and women apply to programs in their chosen specialties in the hopes of receiving a golden ticket to interview.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing prospective resident applicants for a categorical pediatric program. Many of the applicants shared interesting nonmedical experiences. The tapestry of stories they spun made for enjoyable interview conversations. After meeting with so many remarkable individuals, I realized that my early years were driven by the myth of the linear career path, and I saw how it continues to hold many individuals from truly reaching their full potential.

The Myth of the Linear Career Path

When I think of a linear career path, I think about Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. You start out at the beginning of the yellow brick road and follow it, never straying from the path to your career's Emerald City.

When I started on my own journey, I was dissuaded from exploring other areas of study outside the required pre-med curriculum if I wanted to graduate "on time." My sophomore year I struggled with the workload but was pushed to continue despite making subpar grades to "complete the requirements." I would later take the MCAT twice to try to increase my chances of a medical school interview. My initial application cycle was unsuccessful, and I graduated with little idea of what to do for the future.

For individuals who find themselves in a similar scenario, the prospect of having to veer off the yellow brick road can seem like a death sentence. In a LinkedIn article by career strategist Shauna Cole, she states, "In our careers, we're making the dangerous assumption that our end destination will be there when we are scheduled to arrive...this assumption isn't safe." In medicine, where 42% of physicians are experiencing burnout, the myth that fulfillment will be achieved once we have reached the Emerald City makes our perspective of a linear career path consequential.

A Paradigm Shift

A Harvard Business Review article by psychologist Tania Luna and Weight Watchers executive Jordan Cohen states, "This vision of career growth no longer matches reality. We no longer need to be good at predicting the future; we now have to succeed when the future is unpredictable." Rather than a linear or ladder career path, Luna and Cohen advocate for a more interwoven career progression similar to a jungle gym or a web.

For many in medicine, however, this could mean precious time wasted in a potentially unrelated industry. Luna and Cohen argue against this and encourage trying to see opportunity in the obstacles. "Every job you've held and every relationship you've forged is a kind of key that can unlock a future opportunity," they write.

Paving Your Own Road

In rewriting your narrative from a linear to a more interwoven story, it is especially helpful to have a plan. The following steps helped me at a time when my future was anything but certain.

  1. Build your career capital

    Computer science professor Cal Newport is a prolific writer and blogger on career development and technology. On his long-running blog, Study Hacks, he writes about the Career Capital Theory. He postulates that "follow your passion" is bad advice and that successful careers are more carefully and intentionally crafted. He encourages people to build their "career capital" — the rare and valuable skills that can be used to shape your desired career. Not only will these skills make you much more desirable but they may also make you feel more fulfilled.

  2. Learn transferrable skills

    After I graduated from university and failed to matriculate into medical school, I pursued a job in a genomics laboratory as part of a research pipeline. I ended up being hired and it was the best experience for me at that time. Along with more technical skills involved with bench research, I learned transferrable skills such as multitasking, self-management, and triaging. These skills carried over to medical school and I continue to use them now as an attending. More important, these are skills that are applicable in any setting or role I may have chosen to pursue.

  3. Don't put too much pressure on yourself to know the next step

    The stress of uncertainty can be discouraging and overwhelming. Taking the time to plan your next step can help provide clarity and perspective as well as respite from the stress. When I was working in the genomics lab, I continued with MCAT preparation but I also embraced the 8-hour work day and the steady paycheck. I spent time with my girlfriend and my best friends. I went on a Caribbean cruise and attended NBA games. All of this helped me to relax and helped me with my MCAT preparation, medical school applications, and finally matriculation into medical school. Was I ever scared or doubtful of my medical school prospects? Absolutely! However, I also realized that once I did start medical school, all of that free time would no longer be there.

It is time to ditch the linear career myth and embrace the opportunities that lay before us. Who knows what we will discover about ourselves if we dare step off the yellow brick road.

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About Dr. Giancarlo Toledanes
Giancarlo Toledanes, DO, is an assistant professor of pediatrics and a pediatric hospitalist at Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. His professional interests include quality improvement, health equity, faculty development, and social psychology. When he is not in the hospital, he is a cook and a handyman to his wife, an amateur LEGO builder to his son, an aspiring unicorn to his daughter, and a walking burp cloth to his baby daughter. Connect with him on Twitter: @ ToledanesGian


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