Letter to new graduates. And how about a braided career?

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Are you switching jobs every two years? Are you draining your savings to start companies with no business plan? Are you hiring a headhunter to find you a spouse? These are things you should be doing to find the success you’re looking for in the new workplace. Sure, they create instability, but what else are you going to do? Work for IBM until you get a gold watch?

The most important thing in your life is the people you love, so you need to figure out how to create a work life that will accommodate that. Do you love your dad? Tell your new boss that before you even start working, you need a week off for your dad’s birthday cruise. If your boss says no then thank goodness you learned ahead of time that you don’t want to work there. Do you love your girlfriend? Pack your sleeping bag and follow her to Costa Rica to save a village. You can get a job saving the rain forest, or, better yet, spend the six months making a plan for how you two are going to do shared-care parenting.

The best way to make sure you will have time and money to create the life you want is to have what I am going to start calling a braided career. Intertwine the needs of the people you love, with the work you are doing, and the work you are planning to do, when it’s time for a switch. This way, when you run out of money you can get a corporate job for a year. If life as a stay-at-home mom is unfulfilling, you can start a side business from the cafe on the corner. If your COBRA runs out, you can get a hard-core job that involves a lot of travel, pick up the free miles and the international experience and once you’ve earned the ability to do COBRA again, take a trip around the world with a backpack and sleeping bag. And don’t forget to use those upgrade miles. Who says you can’t store a sleeping bag in the first-class cabin?

Does this sound unstable to you? It’s not. The voice inside your head that’s screaming about instability is your mom’s. She’s saying, “I lived through the feminist movement so you can quit your job to follow your boyfriend? I didn’t raise you to do that.” The voice inside your head is your dad’s saying, “You want to have fun? You have one minute’s worth of experience. Who’s going to pay you to have fun?” And, unfortunately, the voices might also be at your dinner table, because you might also be living with your mom and dad.

But tune them out. Because you’re on the right track. And really, it’s a track. It feels like you’re all over the place, it feels like you have no plan, it feels like you’re always about to spend your last cent. But you are learning to create stability through transition. You can become a master of transition and you are achieve the thing you want most: A work life that supports the values you hold dear – time, family, friends, community, passion, and fun.

So look, this is what you need to do. You need to stop thinking that the transitions are going to end as soon as you grow up. This is not reality talking, this is your uncle talking — to your dad to console him that you just quit grad school. What is going to end is the bad feeling about transitions. You’re going to get great at them because you are not the first person to have a quarterlife crisis. You’re not the first person to quit a traveling sales job so you’ll be home to have sex when you’re ovulating. You’re not the first person to run out of money and have to take a 70-hour a week corporate job – for awhile, just to catch up on bills. Lots of people are making these sorts of decisions, and they’re great decisions, in the context of good transition skills, and a good understanding of the new, braided career.

54 replies
  1. Sam Davidson
    Sam Davidson says:


    I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now and I think you continue to be right on regarding the quarter life crisis and the professional dreams of many 20- and 30-somethings. Thanks for your insight.

  2. Anon
    Anon says:

    Honestly, as a well-paid (finally), but overworked attorney who has done things as she “should” – this is my dream. One of my friends quit a successful job in her early thirties to sail around the world and eventually settle in South Africa for a while to live with her then boyfriend. The relationship didn’t last, so I met her while she was doing temp work back in the states to make a little extra cash. This was 10 years ago. She was happy. I should have learned from her, but now am feeling completely stuck in the save money for retirement, buy a house life. What good is money and a career, when you have no life or time for building one (not to mention no time for a relationship). People who live this “braided” type lifestyle tend to be happy.

  3. Eric Pennington
    Eric Pennington says:

    Brilliant! This advice can help many who’ve either begun to ignore their own voice, or have been doing it for years.

    We all will have to answer for the life we’ve led (our legacy). Better make sure it reflects our choices not somebody else’s.

  4. Amy
    Amy says:

    I think it’s wonderful that we are experiencing a job market that allows employees to do some job hopping and find the flexible career path that will not compromise all other areas of life.

  5. Suze
    Suze says:

    Well, I did it, back when it was not popular, in the mid-eighties.

    Everyone else was career-driven. I switched jobs every three years, traveled a lot, hung out with my boyfriend for a few months while unemployed. I dumped a lucrative career for a meh one to help raise step kids.

    Some was good, some was bad.

    From the perspective of a forty-five year old, I can say this: I had a great time, the step-kids are great, and I have great memories. The not-so-great is that I have lower retirement savings — and savings in general — than my peers and now I have to redbouble my efforts to build it up. I am working darn hard now.

    Nothing is perfect. I don’t think you have to be a career driven blinded idiot striving constantly for more and better material things, but you do have to think of the future when you’re “braiding your life”.

  6. Erin
    Erin says:

    Interesting post.

    I think it’s a great idea to have multiple interests that could evolve into other opportunities. I also think it is completely ridiculous to quit your just-out-of-school job just because it doesn’t fit your idea of the perfect job.

  7. Greg
    Greg says:

    Planning is the key to making it work.

    * * * * *

    Yes. So true, Greg. It’s all about planning. A long-term commitment to living the values we believe in.

  8. Hiro
    Hiro says:

    Amen, Pen. Great post. For most of us work is what we do so that we can live, we just can’t forget or be afraid to actually live.

  9. Rise
    Rise says:

    I am sold to the idea. But still little skeptical. From Suze’s experience it seems that a balance is needed for a secure and healthy life now and in future. I want to take a 3 weeks vacation after graduation to go on a road trip. But my international status might not allow. Thanks for the reminder anyway.

  10. Adam
    Adam says:

    C’mon, that was fantastic…that was like a call to arms. Great post that really hits home.

  11. Marc Backes
    Marc Backes says:


    First off, I will confess to you and to all who are commenting and may read this comment that I would not be one of your “normal” readers. For those who will click over to the blog, you will discover that I am A) Christian B) Male

    That kinda takes me out of the normal readership of a blog such as yours. However, I’ve been lurking for a few days checking out some posts believe it or not because I think they provide interesting sermon material.

    To my point, and I’m sorry to take this long.. In many ways (beliefs about God, etc aside), I agree with you (in a few regards) about your advice to 20 – 30ish people. That may surprise you as it will some of your readers because most will caricature Christians. However, it may surprise some that Jesus encouraged his followers to a) not get hung up on materialistic stuff b) invest in the lives of people that you care about.

    So in that sense, I can appreciate your sentiments in many of your postings. Obviously we would have our differences on the method you prescribe and the definition of true “happiness” but reluctance to conform to the world’s “wisdom” is something that both you and authentic Christians would share..

    Either way, interesting reading. I apologize for the length of the post. Have a great day!


  12. Alice Bachini-Smith
    Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    Yet another fantastic post, Penelope.

    I’ve been doing it for 20 years, and the main issue for me has always been Fear. My inner feminist still scoffs most days and accuse me of being a failure- for not being as successful in one career as I would have been after 20 dedicated single-minded years.

    Whatever: it’s worth it. You only get one life, if the choice is living it or sacrificing it to your career, that’s no choice at all.

  13. Bruno Afonso
    Bruno Afonso says:

    It’s funny to read this today, being in a specially good mood. It’s easier to talk the talk, than actually walk the walk.

    Anyway, I’m not sure it is only the family pressure one feels. It’s also the peer and society’s. Why? Because the pressure makes you feel special because you have gotten a really good education or a very good talent for something, etc. And it pressures you to make the most of it, even if it involves sacrificing your own personal happyness. The tough part is being a tiny bit selfish about your happiness and not letting anyone tell you how to be happy.

    Nice to see an american make this post.

  14. Richard
    Richard says:

    Don’t use this article as a career plan. The more you jump around the harder it will be to get one of those corporate jobs, or any job. Getting a corporate job isn’t as easy as Penelope describes it to be. Hiring a full time employee is expensive and time consuming. It could take 6 weeks or more from your first interview to receive your first paycheck. Also, companies are less likely hire you if you have a history of jumping around.

    If you want a braided career then go into consulting or freelancing full time and plan accordingly. This means having funds to be out of work for 6-12 months. Be honest, and only take a full time gig if you are willing to stay at one place for a couple of years. I recommend staying longer than two years if you have been jumping around for a while.

  15. Chris
    Chris says:

    I’m another forty-five (OK, 44.5) year-old who has lived my life like this since I graduated. If I started getting that knot in my stomach on Sunday night because Monday meant going back to work, I quit and traveled. Changed careers. Did software development, teaching, management, consulting. Had kids. Stayed home, worked from home, worked P/T, am now back to work F/T.

    My point: I have NEVER done anything because someone told me it was the right thing to do. I have always done what felt right to ME and my family.

    My only regret: not selling YHOO at 500. Then I’d really have some choices.

  16. Tim
    Tim says:

    I think it’s important to note that a “braided” career is not for everybody. I’ve interviewed tons of freelancers who crave stability (yes, it’s a relative term in today’s volatile work place). What I mean is they crave a regular work schedule. That doesn’t, by any means, say those who crave a regular work schedule want to stay in one job, company or career for their whole lives. What is does mean is they can still pursue their passions and have happy and fulfilling lives. Bottom line: you can still do what you love and be happy without pursuing a “braided” career.

    Also, what should be noted–and as mentioned above–is that companies are less likely to hire you if you have a history of jumping around. Remember, companies are investing a lot in you. All things being equal, they are going to hire the person who they believe will get them their money back and then some. Why train you, why develop your talents if, when you get up to speed, you leave them?

    “Braided” careers, as Penelope describes them, are not so easy. It’s pretty to think so, but reality can be a bear. It’s not that “braided” careers are not possible, they are just not so easy for everyone to accomplish–nor are they right for everyone.

    Braided careers for some is the right choice. For others, a somewhat more traditional work schedule fits in to what is important to them–and what is right for them.

  17. Darlene
    Darlene says:

    Good Stuff!! I enjoyed reading this post, and the comments were equally good. As a 43 year old VERY young woman, I grew up doing for the most part what I was suppose to do, rather than what was in me to do.

    I did jump around work wise about every 2-3 years and built a very good career for about 12.5 years and then 9/11 happened and I got laid off. After 5 years I am back in corporate america but now, not making the money I was making then and a heart that is sick – from the stand point of wanting to be out on my own running my own business. It is in my heart to do – and I WILL do it. (I believe in declaring what you want.

    I think there is something to this braided career path. I agree that is is not for everyone. But I tend to believe that many people are doing what they do out of obligation rather than passion and I truly believe that is sad. What if for just a minute, every person (good, bad or otherwise) was doing what they do out of passion, and sheer enjoyment. I betcha we would not have as many angry, mean-spirited people out there.

    My two cents! Thanks for provoking me and inspiring me and challenging me to stop pressing my nose to the glass window looking outside at where I want to be and get my butt moving!

  18. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    Penelope, thank you SO MUCH for this post. I graduated nine months ago–with my Ph.D.–and while I have a pretty good job, I’m pretty sure it’s not what I want to do for more than a couple years. At the same time, I’m having a hard time choosing my next move. Your braided career concept–along with Marci Alboher’s “slash” concept–really helps to focus my thinking.

    Thanks for a terrific metaphor.

  19. LaDawn
    LaDawn says:

    Love the post. I have been getting your posts via RSS feed after Lisa Cullen over at Work in Progress (Time.com) referred to you in one of her posts, I believe. Most of the times I love what you write and find it very relevant. I’m sending my blog audience over based on this post alone. The message is dear for young and old alike. It’s never to late to change your career trajectory.

  20. Dale
    Dale says:


    I love Suze’s comment, particularly, “Nothing is perfect. I don't think you have to be a career driven blinded idiot striving constantly for more and better material things, but you do have to think of the future when you're "braiding your life". ”

    I think that your advice in this post can be so easily misunderstood. I too am a 45 yr.o. christian male (I hope that I’m authentic:) and I have always found your comments insightful and thought provoking. But in this one, all sorts of red flags start waving in my head.
    It seems to me that the planning part of the formula you laid out, just isn’t emphasized enough.
    Sorry to be a wet rag in the face of so many positive comments, but I’ve read your work for so many years that I feel that I have the right to speak my mind:)

  21. Jessi
    Jessi says:

    Your post ring true….so true.

    The part about the parents fearing my instability when I got out of of college. The world is so different and fast-changing then when they started out.

    Graduates….don’t be afraid to make your own moves and be proud of them.

  22. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    I needed to read this today, what perfect timing! Your posts almost always hit home with me…I love it! Keep it coming,

  23. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    I like the overall idea of this, but have also noted the comments posted by other readers. It does seem that there is some tradeoff between flexibility/time with loved ones vs. money. Again and again, people give up flexibility and hours of free time (via 70-hour corporate work weeks) for money, or vice versa. The point of Penelope’s post seems to be that you don’t have to pick one and stick with it your whole life. Makes sense so far.

    I would just say that in view of how money works over time, maybe your 20’s IS the time you should work for a paycheck – chase every last dollar you can, and live like a monk. You get that out of the way while you can, and the earlier you do it, the longer your investments have to just sit there and grow, on their own. Every extra hour you spend working now is ten hours you won’t have to work later. As one reader mentioned, sowing your wild oats early can leave you at a financial disadvantage later on. Of course then you can’t sit and feel sad because of all the backpacking trips across Europe you didn’t take. Go ahead and take them when you’re 35 or 40! There’s no statute of limitations.

  24. Suze
    Suze says:

    Pirate Jo makes an excellent point about the time value of assets. Keep it in mind.

    I sometimes feel as if I’m the wet blanket on the Penelope party, when I’m actually agreeing with what she says in this post. I agree that you should put your family and life first. This is it for this earth, you won’t get a chance to do it over.

    It’s just that if you choose to change jobs frequently and opt in and out of the workforce it makes sense to plan your life around it. By that I mean: Save some money. Invest early and leave your investments to grow over time. Most important: spend less than you earn.

    Then when you aren’t employed in a traditional position you will have money and resources to fall back on.

    You also won’t hit fifty and be fearful of retirement costs, medical insurance and getting your kids through college.

    But it was a good post, Penelope. Thought-provoking.

  25. Laura Davis
    Laura Davis says:

    I was one of the many Rotarians laughing their ass off at this weeks program. You were absolutely wonderful and right on track. I am at the tail end of the boomer generation but found that “job hopping” was the only way I was going to get continued respect and appropriate compensation from employers and it worked. Now, as an employer (9 years) I pride myself in running an office with a lot of flexibility and fun activities for the employees. Rarely does anybody work more than a 40 hour week, including the owners. We are a productive, innovative and cohesive team that has fun with our jobs. Generation Y has it right and more power to them for being the generation to stand up and make these important changes!

  26. Vincent
    Vincent says:

    If you want my opinion, don't change jobs every two years, be performant, get some sales skills too, and get promoted internally or externally every 4 years.

    Once you leave corporate America and start your own business, you'll see how useful it is to be performant and competitive.

  27. James Guske
    James Guske says:

    There is no longer lifetime employment. We all have to learn to be more flexable or braided in our careers. It’s not really an option.

  28. Brian
    Brian says:

    Being an aging late boomer, I understand and agree with some of your assessments and suggestions. However as a parent, the whole part of post collegiate life spent at the parent’s home scares the hell out of me. I’d prefer all of my kids’ experimentation be done on their own without all that extra “support”.

    We’re seriously thinking of retiring in Australia or some really far off place just to make it harder for any of our kids to find us :-).

    I think you should how the fully engaged/involved parenting style of the boomer (soccer moms, et. al.) generation has extended beyond the school years to include the first 10 years (or more) of adulthood and how that effects the workplace and lifestyle choices today’s young adults make. Truly scary how those ramifications ripple through our lives.

  29. Lexie
    Lexie says:

    I understand that you have owned your own businesses but I think you should focus on ‘advice for entrepreneurs.’ Your lack of experience working in Corporate America and the infrastructure of Human Resources and Salary Negotiations is obvious. You are doing more harm with your column than good.

  30. Dale
    Dale says:


    I disagree with the logic of your comment. Today, the nature of employment is becoming increasingly entrepreneural in nature. Employment for life is history, and in my experience, issues like salary negotiations, etc at the level that this column addresses, are appropriately addressed. A typical example is the post that focuses on managing one’s boss. This is great advice for any one in corporate America.
    You really shouldn’t suggest throwing the baby out with the bath water because a train of thought does not sit well with you. Rather address the area/post in question and stimulate conversation about the topic and the author’s take on it.

  31. Andrey
    Andrey says:


    The idea is interesting. Even more interesting – to see people, who succeeded in their lives preforming this way. Can you name them?

    But I’m sure, and agree with comments above, that one should make a plan of his life, if wishes to be successful. It doesn’t matter what’s one’s aim – good family, career or memoirs for retirement, but planning provides aims and ways to achieving them.

    The ‘braided career’, comprises A) enjoying the life obsessions and B) getting a good family, if possible. That’s it.

    There might not be a possibility of C) building career, affording material things, long-time and long journeys or happy retirement if the ‘breeded career’ is applied.

    The consequences might be not funny for one who didn’t plan that :)

    * * * * *

    Example of a person who runs their life this way: Me. I write about it all the time on this blog.


  32. Andrey
    Andrey says:


    You’re right, your biography is a good example for support of the given advises, though I don’t see mentioning of your education. Let me use another example that seems to be a success in a braided career – a story of a popular actress Charlize Theron.

    She grew up at farm in Africa. She had being training ballet for 12 yrs before her mother sent her to become a model in Italy. A year later she shifted her career and decided to move to NY to become a ballet dancer. After a trauma she shifted again, being well supported by her mother, to CA – to try chance of becoming an actress. Having 2 desperate years spent in CA, she run into someone very famous and rich who helped who to start her actress career with the first honorary of $ 10 mn. Good example, isn’t it?

    This is what the advise of a braided career about.

    I’ve written that I believe in luck.

    As you see, luck have not much in common with building or planning. Ch. Theron didn’t plan starring with $ 10 mn fee at the beginning of her career. It’s all of a luck. She’s confessed to thinking of coming back from CA to Africa wrapping bags at the farm, if not the chance.

    I’ve written that the case – ‘C) building career, affording material things, long-time and long journeys or happy retirement if the – €˜braided career' is applied’ – Might Not Happen, if a person has no plan.

    The braided career has nothing in common with building and planning, it’s mostly a matter of chance or occurrence and ability of a person not to miss the chance. It’s more similar to winning a jack-pot: everyone expect but few win :)

  33. Corey
    Corey says:

    I can see the logic in this post; however, it leaves me with a question. What if you are not the type that revels in accepting the burden in the name of a possible realization of your ideals a long a life path, but would rather trade that in for stability? What if you are risk-averse, but have less problem minimizing your expectations so long those of others, for you, are clearer? More generally, what if you find yourself in a postmodern world with modernist expectations/values, and are shocked by the instability of the breaches that others more palatably term “transitions”? Then, how does this resampling of individuals through indefinite transitions not seem like a collosal process of selection for which many of us may not meet on the other side of the divide?

    * * * * * * *
    Great question. We’re all risk averse. We all want assurance that our decisions are good and we’re protecting our families and choosing a comfortable life for ourselves. But there are no sure bets anymore. No one is offering stable jobs that last 40 years. And few people will truly feel happy staying in the same job forty years. So the old model of stability is not an option.

    Braiding a career is the new way to find stability. I came to it becuase I want stability for myself and my family so much. I find myself searching for a way to create stability in an unstable workplace. This braided career is my best answer.


  34. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    HaH! When I first started reading the questions at the top, I was like YES, YES (oh shit, am I doing it all wrong). A lot of people make me feel like a confused flake for frequently changing jobs and for belieiving in my side businesses. Thank you for validating what I am doing and helping me feel like I am on the path to success! You’re the best!

  35. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I came across this post after trying to figure out how to explain my resume. I’m the person you mention in this post. I’ve had 5 jobs in 5 years, quitting each job to travel or because it didn’t excite me anymore, finding a new job when I need to make rent.

    I’m finding it harder to get into interviews now because employees see me as a “flight risk.” I am. What advice do you give to people who follow this “career plan” when employers start to see a pattern on your resume and become hesitant to hire – and becoming a “consultant” isn’t an option.

  36. Darlene McDaniel
    Darlene McDaniel says:

    Hi Rachel,

    What an incredible question! My recommendation to you is that you evaluate what else you can do besides working for other people. Why not find a small business you are willing to work that gives you the freedom to move about the country at your leisure, yet provides you with the income you need to live, pay rent, bills etc.

    Continuing to find jobs for short periods of times does make you a risk. The cost to hire an employee is considerable to organizations, so why should they hire you, if you, and they already know that you will only be there for a moment.

    Surely there are some things you like to do that you can turn into an income generator and that will give you the freedom to live your life as you would like, on the go! Good luck! And Godspeed!

    Interview Guru

  37. Ms. No Single Mama Drama
    Ms. No Single Mama Drama says:

    I am a professional job-hopper and a serial entrepreneur.

    The longest period of time that I’ve held a job? Two years–and, forced myself to make it that long. The only thing that has been a constant are my sideline businesses, one that I’ve been doing for 10 years now.

    At first, I thought this “instability” would be held against me, when searching for employment. And, unfortunately, some companies still do, but, of course, there are some companies that don’t.

    When I interviewed for current high-paying, work-at-home position, I was surprised that they actually valued the breadth of my experience.

    I think when you’re in flow, and you’re authentically “doing you”, everything has a way of working out for the best.

    Maybe I’m too optimistic, but it has always worked out that way for me.

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