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NOT LIKE THE OTHERS

Your unconventional career path does not reflect a lack of focus

Reuters/Steve Crisp
Embrace the things that make you different.
  • Shalini Govil-Pai
By Shalini Govil-Pai

General manager, Android TV

Growing up in Mumbai, India, I had no idea how my career would unfold. All I knew was that I loved movies—Bollywood movies, in particular.

The first chance I got, I joined the cast of a feature flop so epic that it was already out of theaters by the time I was able to watch it. No one even bothered to digitize it. Though the end result was a bit of a disaster, I still have immense gratitude for the experience, because it awakened me to the theme of my career: my fascination with media.

Since that brief foray into acting, my career has taken a lot of twists and turns, as I fully embraced new opportunities as they came, even when it became apparent that my career was not on a linear path. I’ve worked as an engineer, a product manager, an operations expert, an evangelist for creators, and now as a general manager at a global tech company.

Throughout it all, my love of media was the one shining light that pulled everything into focus. It was this clarity of vision that enabled me to thrive at companies like Pixar, YouTube, and Android TV at Google.

An unconventional, multi-faceted career does not reflect a lack of focus—quite the contrary. Success is not linear. You have to take charge of your career, own your differences, and cultivate habits that will allow you to succeed in any environment. Here are a few ways that I maintained focus and perspective, even when success seemed a long way off.

Identify your career’s “theme”

Even if you are not sure what you want to do, pay attention to what you love.

Even if you are not sure what you want to do, pay attention to what you love. If you have an expansive curiosity, don’t feel pressured to whittle it down. At the same time, you will need a clear vision to guide your career and give it forward momentum. For me, finding a core unifying theme was the answer. As I mentioned, the theme that defined my career was my fascination with media. That instinct (and my love of Pixar movies) is what guided me to pursue a degree in computer science. Once you’ve found your own theme, try to get exposure to every aspect of that industry or process. Even if your career path seems unclear, your varied talents and interest could one day coalesce into something truly amazing.

Rewrite the established metrics of success

When you are on an unconventional career path, it may take you longer to hit those classic success benchmarks. Life is a long marathon. Be patient.

In the meantime, rewrite the definition of success to reflect your values. Perhaps accumulating wealth doesn’t feel like an authentic goal for you. For you, success may mean being a great leader or leaving a mark in your field. It could even mean getting your name, and maybe even your daughter’s, in the credits of a movie (like I did, in A Bug’s Life!).

Once you’ve established your definition of success, check back in periodically to see if you’re on the right track—the right track for you.

Be your own advocate

It’s essential to be your own career advocate. Set your sights high and build the conviction that you are the person to get the job done. When I first fell in love with Pixar’s animated shorts, I knew I had to be a part of that creative process. When I applied, this small studio didn’t have a role for me. So I was persistent. I kept in touch with the Pixar team, and over time my conviction landed me a job as technical director.

At the team level, you must also have conviction in a shared vision. When I joined Pixar, the team was at an inflection point. They had a grand vision to release the first animated computer-generated imagery (CGI) feature movie—Toy Story—but the industry was full of naysayers. Our team had the conviction that computer animation would evolve into a popular and profitable medium. Without that conviction, this and other brilliant stories may never have made it to the big screen. Pixar paved the way for an animation revolution.

Conviction is especially crucial for women in technology. I speak from experience, as a woman who worked in the computer science field in the early 1990s. When I was at university in India pursuing my bachelor in computer science, I was the only woman in my class.

The ladies’ hostel was located a mile away from the men’s hostel. Each night the boys would socialize and get to do their homework together, and I would do mine alone. Despite the fact that I had support, the experience was still incredibly isolating. If you are the only woman or the only person of your ethnicity in a meeting, it’s easy to succumb to feelings of isolation. Even if people are very supportive, they will never comprehend your experience.

But if you allow those feelings to overcome you, you may lose out on life’s most challenging and inspiring experiences. During all those years as the sole female student in my class, I kept telling myself that I belonged in the computer science program. My conviction was my life raft. Without conviction in myself and my ideas, I would not be where I am today.

Take ownership of your obstacles

I was working at YouTube around the time that Google acquired it. As a part of the transition, they created a new role for me in an area in which I had little experience. Suddenly, instead of creating, I was sitting across the table from the creators. As the senior director of technology solutions, I was asked to manage technology relations with global media partners across entertainment, music, and news channels—none of which I particularly knew how to do.

Even though this new role was unfamiliar territory, I recognized this moment for what it was: another inflection point. YouTube was a rocket ship, ready to launch, and I was on board and all in.

Owning and solving obstacles is the jet propulsion that can cause a career to take off, often when you don’t expect it to. I embraced this attitude throughout my time at YouTube and carried it into my current role at Google, where I’ve strived to create a culture of ownership and accountability.

I encourage my team to view our company’s problems as fresh challenges, awaiting our solutions. I like to think of it in terms of this metaphor: If you don’t take the trash out of your house, who will?

Stay curious

My call to action to anyone with an ambitious career vision is this: Stay curious. Having an abundance of interests and a full breadth of experience is what makes someone equipped for a leadership role, and for success. You have to go there to have been there. Lean in, ask questions, and listen.

When it comes to defining your career trajectory, don’t be afraid to explore, reach, grow, and above all else, embrace the unconventional.

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