8 Questions To Ask Yourself When Mistakes & Detours Take You Somewhere Scary Or Unexpected

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detour sign in the sand

If you find yourself making mistakes, you may not believe it, but you're actually stepping closer to success.

Think about what important professional choices have you made based on what’s available, what others think or expect, or what feels familiar. How have such decisions accommodated personal relationships? 

My story from diplomat to entrepreneur shows ways you can transcend related tensions between personal and professional motivations and interests. You’ll get insights and options to convert making mistakes and life's detours to take you closer to the success you really want. 

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While exploring colleges, a savvy, caring neighbor who knew me better than I knew myself at the time, suggested the Cornell ILR (School of Industrial and Labor Relations). 

When I finally got in after sitting on the waiting list, little did I fully appreciate how its interdisciplinary range would be a great match for me, then and now.

As an undergraduate, I got a little distracted by friendships with older students from other countries. I had to to navigate through making mistakes and taking detours, and you can, too. 

Reflect on these 8 questions if you find yourself making mistakes and taking detours.

1. What social connections usurp your main professional focus and interests?

Believing I was in love with a Turkish graduate student, I hatched a plan for after graduation.

I would take the Foreign Service test and get posted to Turkey to be near him!

2. How beneficial are your accommodations to other people’s situations and your own aims?

Working for a year in human resources at the Book-of-the-Month Club, I saved money to travel to Turkey on a Greek freighter to be with him and his family in a small town near Istanbul. 

There, I learned about the wider Turkish culture and took the Foreign Service test in Ankara. After several months, it became clear that my attraction was not well-founded, given his values, behavior, and motivations. 

Happily, waiting for me were other possibilities when I returned to the U.S. since I had passed the written test to become a Foreign Service Officer.

3. How does attraction to what's new and fresh influence your choices?

Back in the U.S., I squeaked through the oral examination with a less than stellar performance at 23. After further vetting, I started a varied diplomatic career that spanned 20 years. 

With assignment changes every two years, I learned how to better match my own interests, inching into management, human resources, and professional development work. 

I also completed a master’s degree in government, behavioral science, and human resources at night, and started teaching part-time. Semi-consciously at least, I stayed true to topics that always had meaning for me.

4. How can you sustain clarity and commitment to your interests as you move ahead and make progress toward more authentic matches in what you do?

To make a longer non-linear story shorter, I decided I wanted to leave the Foreign Service, especially since my naïve assumption that I could help improve its management proved misguided. 

With the temporary security blanket of a leave of absence, I could scurry back if my plans to teach, do management consulting, and start my doctorate were not viable.  

After seven or so years of consulting and teaching as well as making incremental progress with my Ph.D. course work, I discovered a dissertation topic that finally inspired me to act: how people discover and express their capacity for courage. 

Believe it or not, the topic came to me in a vision of a movie marquee with the word "courage" in bold letters while I was lurking in a university discussion group on organizational development.

I wondered to myself why organizations were often mediocre or ineffective if so much is known about how to manage and lead them. Then, inspired by my vision, I stood up and talked briefly about how the lack of courage explained such limitations and failures. 

Sitting down again next to the head of the doctoral program, I whispered to him, "That’s what I want to do my dissertation on — courage!"

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5. Where can you participate beyond your own or institutionally imposed boundaries? 

After another extended period of time mulling around and doing a variety of consulting and teaching at several universities, I finally converted my dissertation into a user-friendly book, the first of seven now published. 

These days, I’m enjoying the progress I'm making through my fourth, fifth, and sixth careers concurrently. 

All of them have the common goal of helping people realize their true capacities.

6. How will you integrate your interests and goals for self-sufficiency, meaning, and satisfaction?

If you're not sure about your vision for your future, be patient as it unfolds when you combine action and attention to what is often directly in front of or within you. 

Gather patience from film director Sidney Lumet’s quote: "All good work requires self-revelation."

Maybe an early imprint from a children’s book inspires you. Mine was "The Story of Ferdinand" by Munro Leaf. Ferdinand is "A short story about finding happiness via doing your own thing, even when it might go against perceived social conventions and norms."

7. What early and later clues come to your mind that open doors from your past to your future?

As author, journalist, and commentator, Fareed Zakaria just offered in a tribute to his mother these words about how her recent death moved him: "It’s not what you do in the external world, but how you feel within."

8. What one mistake or detour have you made that provides insights and options for moving toward what you really want?

Let my story, and more importantly, your responses to these 8 questions, simmer in your mind for a while. 

Ideally, discuss them with a few people you trust and enjoy. That will also help you hear yourself and imagine how to convert making mistakes and detours to take you closer to the success you truly want over time.

RELATED: Forget Everything You've Been Told About Success, And Have This Mindset Instead

Ruth Schimel Ph.D. is a career and life management consultant and author of the Choose Courage series on Amazon. She guides clients in accessing their strengths and making visions for current and future work viable.