Several years ago, I was approached for advice by someone facing what he believed was a career-defining dilemma. Earlier in the week, he’d received some especially grim news about his mother, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was not expected to survive the year. We were deployed and actively engaged in combat. He was in a key leadership position. And his peers – and some more senior leaders – were telling him that if he left to care for his mother, it would damage his career.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said to me. “Look,” I responded, “I’ve been where you are today. I got the same advice you’re getting and followed it. I put my career first and my family second.” I paused for a moment to collect my thoughts. “It was the worst decision of my life. You only get one chance to say goodbye to somebody. After that, all you have is regrets.”

I didn’t offer any advice, just perspective. I shared my own “been there, done that, got the t-shirt” moment and left him to make his own decision. Years later, I ran into him again, and he thanked me for that conversation. He’d left combat, left command, and spent his mother’s final days with her. His career survived.

THe Path Less Traveled

Much of my career is like A Tale of Two Paths: the one I should have taken (if I actually ever listened to anyone), and the one I ultimately took (because I am stubborn and like to make my own mistakes). I didn’t always make what might be considered the right career choices, but I made the ones that I thought were the best at the time and that took into consideration all the other factors at play in life – what was best for my family, what postured me best for the future, and what I thought I would give me the highest career satisfaction.

Mine was a path less traveled – one that gave me a unique perspective on the traditional career paths that most people follow. I learned early on that you can deviate from that path as long as you don’t lose sight of where you need to be, and that you work hard and bring your A-game when it matters most. You have to be careful not to stay on those side paths for too long, because people take notice. The kinds of people who often determine whether you ever get promoted again.

When I chose an ROTC assignment over becoming an aide-de-camp – a decision to be closer to family following the death of my father – there were more than a few people second guessing me. But that choice sparked a love of teaching that eventually spawned my second career. When I chose to purse a position leading a strategic communication directorate – a job only tangentially related to my specialty – it helped me to better understand how to communicate ideas, something that proved vital when dealing with publishers in more recent years. And when I accepted a job as a three-star general’s chief of operation – something that wasn’t even remotely related to my career field – I found a new gear in my work ethic that I didn’t know existed.

Calling Your Shot

Ask me about my career choices, and you’ll find a long list of lessons learned. I didn’t always follow the schoolhouse solution, sometimes by my own choice, other times not. Most importantly, they were my decisions. I owned them. Even if they threatened to derail my career aspirations, I took responsibility for them. I made the most of them.

Those lessons, though. Oof. Sometimes they left a mark, other times I was able to make note of them without too much pain. But I learned… a lot.

1. Be smart about how you communicate with people who have influence over your career trajectory.

During my first professional school after returning from the Gulf War, I had a brief argument with the career manager responsible for assigning me to my next job. I caught her in a lie, called her on it, and never heard from her again. In the last six weeks of that school, I had five separate sets of orders that bounced me between Korea, Kansas, and Kaiserslautern. An eleventh hour set of orders sent me to a completely different country than the one to which I was ultimately assigned. That was fun.

2. Don’t kid yourself about your career choices.

You have to be honest with yourself when you choose certain jobs. Choosing a string of jobs where the talent pool is stagnant might make you feel good about yourself, but it probably won’t help your career. Choosing jobs where a lack of credentials limit your competitive potential might not be the best thing. Choosing to side-step the jobs required for progression, no matter how well you do in your alternate universe, will eventually catch up with you.

3. There are jobs that won’t help you, but that can hurt you.

This was a sage piece of advice offered by a two-star general that I had chosen not to work for. I had good reasons, and he respected them. I instead chose an assignment that was fraught with potential career risk, and he wanted to convey that risk to me in the simplest way possible. When I left that assignment two years later, it was with a sincere appreciation for how right he was.

4. Don’t waste time pining about the job you didn’t get.

I lost count of the number of times I didn’t get the assignment, job, or school that I wanted and ended up with what was left over. When that happens, you have a choice. You can Eeyore your way through every day or you can hit the ground running and let a positive attitude and work ethic speak for you. Create your own luck with a reputation that makes people want you on their team.

5. There’s a silver lining in every cloud, but you might have to search for it.

Every job, no matter what it is, offers opportunities for broadening and development. You might have to dig around to find them, but they’re there. Seize those opportunities and put them to work for you. Your career will thank you.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.