Should you follow in the footsteps of your idol?

When it comes to choosing a career, the options can feel infinite and yet non-existing, as though we are navigating through a dense forest, with endless paths stretching out in front of us.

As we scramble through the thick undergrowth, armed with hope and guided by experience and intuition, we ask ourselves: which path is the right one for me? How can I get to that coveted position? How did that person make it? Why can’t I be like them?

It can be tempting to emulate the career choices of our idols: after all, the decisions they made led them to where they are now. So following in their footsteps could be the way out of this forest.

So we trawl through online bios and CVs to see what it is that got them to their current role, increasingly feeling inadequate and underprepared for the careers we hope to follow.

But the funny thing about idols is this: they’re not real! An idol is a fictitious, airbrushed image of someone residing only in our minds. No career path is without bumps in the road and even though it might not appear so at first sight, our idols will have felt them too. So whilst our idols inspire us to do better, this doesn’t mean we should follow and imitate their every move.

The trailblazers in our field are, and should be, a key source of enthusiasm and information when pondering over our future, but following their career path step-by-step may only lead us deeper into the forest.

Every career path is unique since it arises from a set of circumstances unique to each individual. Try as we might, we will never be able to replicate it turn by turn. What’s more, it is often the case that our role models carved out their own particular niche determined by their particular passions, rather than following someone else’s idea of a career.

Few people arrive to the same position by following the same road, and there is no magic map we can use to lead us down a path and create a fulfilling career. The set of circumstances that facilitated a particular career in the past is likely to no longer be in place. For instance, the need for renewable energy research is more pressing today than it was 50 years ago, resulting in a greater number of jobs in the sector.

What options make you the most happy and fulfilled? What choice is best suited to your abilities and interests? What do you see yourself doing when you wake up in the morning? These are just a few of the questions we should be asking ourselves when faced with a career choice. It’s all about making informed decisions.

The truth is that when thinking about career paths, following in someone else’s footsteps may well leave you as lost as you were when you first started. Of course, whenever we are feeling demotivated or lost, the importance of idols in shaping our choices can’t be underestimated. Thinking of those people who, through their achievements or actions, we have come to admire so much, is sure to add an extra spring to our step.

Setting out on your own adventure, guided by the inspiration provided by others, is far more rewarding and fun. Don’t be afraid to wander off the beaten track and to follow your instinct as you make your way through the brambles. Just don’t forget to smell the flowers along the way.

By Dr. Anthea Lacchia, postdoctoral research fellow at University College Dublin and freelance science writer. 

This post, reproduced with permission, was originally written for the Naturejobs blog as part of the 2015 Boston Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition.

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