How to Weave a Career by Seizing Opportunity

Education and career choice options - student thinking of future. Young Asian woman contemplating career options smiling looking up at thought bubbles on a blackboard with different professions

It’s wild to think that despite going to high school and college in the middle of the recession, that I made it out okay. Over the past decade I graduated from high school and college in a combined five and a half years, lived in seven cities, assisted in launching four companies, and now I’ve found my niche in the college access space working to assist young adults in paving their own pathway. A nontraditional, DIY path helped me launch an early career, have the ability to travel and be creative with how I spend my time!

Through this journey, I’ve cultivated a drive to work to reimagine how the K-12 education system prepares students for college and career in an accelerated pace. It would be my dream to see all students working on business plans in high school, traveling each semester, and trying new ways of learning weekly. While that may not be reality for everyone, there are ways that you can hack your education and career. Below are a few ways to start.

Know Your Options

In Washington State where I attended high school, they have a state funded program called Running Start, which allows students to enroll in courses at a local community college starting their Junior Year of high school. Knowing that I was ahead of mandatory credits to graduate from high school, I took a full year of in-person and online Running Start courses and used those same credits to skip my senior year and transfer them to Loyola Marymount University. Most out of state schools will not accept credits like this, so I knew to look at small private schools that would be more flexible with the transfer. LMU accepted all of my credits and I was able to graduate from high school and college in a combined five and a half years.

Each student learns different and each state has different resources. What’s important is to choose the path that fits your learning style. For me it was this accelerated route. Here is an outline of basic standards for high school graduation from all 50 states. Be sure to know what is required on a district, state and national level currently and align your general coursework with what is necessary for potential college and career training programs that you are applying to. Putting in the time and research will allow you to make creative choices in your coursework later on instead of falling in-line with what is mandatory.

Passion vs. Purpose

I am passionate about many things – I love cooking, sailing, music, exercise/healthy living and traveling. All these things do not necessarily relate to my day-to-day work. Last year I read Aaron Hurst’s The Purpose Economy and it completely shifted my thinking about “finding your passion.” Hurst describes the Purpose Economy as, “An economy where value lies in establishing purpose for employees and customers – through serving needs greater than their own, enabling personal growth and building community.” We dove into Aaron’s macro community based theory at The Purpose Cities Summit in Dallas, TX last year. See the published report from our convening for more information on how they primarily believe no matter the size (personal, professional, community), purpose (not passion) changes “I” to We”.

On a more personal and micro level another resource that I have found extremely useful is my friend Adam Smiley Poswolsky’s book the Quarter-life Breakthrough. His resource guide has a step-by-step guide that walks you through exercises to define and find meaningful work. It is an extremely powerful combination to determine your larger purpose combined with near-term action oriented steps in how to make impact in your career.

With that being said, it’s imperative to not lose sight of what you are passionate about. Jessica Semaan launched the Passion Co. after leaving her job at Airbnb and the organizations’ philosophy is that finding your passion may assist you in finding clarity in your job, experience new industries, and assist you in serving your community. You may find passion in your work but remember to narrow into what your larger purpose may be!

The Purpose Economy

Pull the trigger

Life is a string of decisions and opportunities. What will separate the good ones from the bad ones is learning when to pull the trigger. Below is a picture of me working in India in 2010 while on a three city, 10-day business trip to India. While I was there I met a woman who was running a national nonprofit and by the end of our trip, she offered for me to stay through my six month visa, live with her and work for her and I accepted. Living in India was not on my to-do list but it allowed me the experience to live and work internationally, which was on my list.

A great example of a young millennial pulling the trigger is Alex Banayan who felt like he was not on his path, he left his pre-med program at USC in 2010, won the Price Is Right, sold the sailboat that he won on the Price Is Right and used his earnings to fund his obsession of interviewing the world’s most successful people. Through his interviews he met Ernestine Fu of Aslop Louie Partners – the firm shortly after offered him an Associate position and he became a VC (Venture Capitalist) at 19. Alex recently posted his recent talk at this years IBM Amplify Conference and while the talk is relating to Customer Engagement, he outlines his story and what drove him to chase his dreams. If you pulled the trigger, won a sailboat and sold it to fund chasing your dreams, what would you do?

APS India

Your career pathway will look different than your parents

I have been consulting on and off for seven years. When I made the move to New York after my stint in India, I wanted to assist in starting, building and launching a company. The company that I ended up taking my job at was not able to pay me full-time salary, which meant that I had to continue consulting on the side to make up my income. I took the position because it was an amazing experience to be on the ground floor of a startup at 23, building my professional experience that lacked in my educational background, and I was living in New York! It checked my personal and professional boxes.

This type of work experience may not be the career pathway that our parents were raised with as there are increasingly more opportunities for students while still in school or recently graduated to learn-as-they do. According to this 2015 Pew Report, 21% of Millennial men vs 18% of Gen X men and 27% Millennial women vs 20% Gen X have completed at least a bachelor’s degree. We are more educated than our parents but our employment numbers have decreased since Gen X. This UpWork report states that 58% of millennials will leave their job in three years or less. With the job market not in our favor and our increased desire to be driven by purpose in our careers, it is likely that we will take multiple positions at once, start our own company or freelance our expertise.

Version 2

Trust Uncertainty

After spending two years in New York, I was offered the opportunity to work with a company based in Las Vegas and funded by Tony Hsieh, CEO of, and the Downtown Project (DTP), a $350M project that invested in real estate acquisitions, small businesses, technology startups and community/education focused initiatives. I took the leap from a small startup in NYC to a “City as a Startup.” Morgan Spurlock spent several months filming the revitalization of the city, spotlighting small business owners that were supported by the project and sharing what happens when applying lean startup methods to invest in a city.

I admire DTP and their efforts to revitalize Las Vegas. It is a massive undertaking, and the DTP team knew the possible positive impact was greater than not attempting a project of this scale at all. I personally had to trust the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome of the project because the outcome would always have a positive lesson embedded in it. Margaret Atwood said, “When nothing is sure, everything is possible.”

Building your own education and career pathway can be an unsettling feeling, but I feel very strongly that trying new experiences is what helps you grow the most. I hope my suggestions are helpful in assisting you in launching your own journey of lifelong learning and a self-directed career!

Zappos Tour

About “GenDIY”
Young people are taking control of their own pathway to careers, college and contribution. Powered by digital learning, “GenDIY” is combatting unemployment and the rising costs of earning a degree by seeking alternative pathways to find or create jobs they love. Follow their stories here and on Twitter at #GenDIY. For more on GenDIY, check out:

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Katie Vander Ark - Getting Smart

Katie Vander Ark

Katie is an education and innovation enthusiast.

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