10/12/2012 09:37 am ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

Embracing Serendipity on Our Personal Journeys

The years leading up to my 40th birthday were a piece of cake for me, and I glided past that milestone birthday on a high note, feeling confident, secure and ready to continue conquering the world.

Somewhere after the last slice of my 40th birthday cake, however, things changed. I would laugh (or cry, or shudder) as I read about one actress or another joyfully commenting that she had "found" herself after 40 and had truly become comfortable in her own skin! The years between that birthday and my 45th, just a week away, were far more unsettled for me. I was anything but comfortable in my own skin. I did not exactly come "undone"... but came fairly close. To be certain, I began feeling ever more uncomfortable in my own skin. Or so I thought.

In fact, as I think back on these past few years, I realize this has been a time of searching and deep reflection. I have, as I often advise my students and colleagues these days, become comfortable with being uncomfortable. My doubts and questions have pushed me forward down roads and paths and to people I would never have otherwise come across. During my journey these past few years, I have had the good fortune to meet people at various times, quite serendipitously, that have had a tremendous impact on me. They have either helped me find an answer... or, equally as important, define a further question.

For example, a wonderful career coach, who offered much guidance and support at a particularly difficult professional transition, introduced me to the insightful work of Gail Sheehy's New Passages, in which I was encouraged to "stop and recalculate" and to think of my 45th birthday as "the infancy of another life... a second adulthood." From the moment I read that phrase, I began anticipating that day and wondering how things would play out. Just by remembering that line, I became less anxious, and truly more excited, about this next birthday I am about to celebrate -- a new beginning.

Another example of serendipity along my journey is a particularly transformative mandatory graduate course in research methods, which I had anticipated I would absolutely hate. Yes, during these past five years I have completed a graduate degree, doing "homework" alongside my young son and now toying with the idea of pursuing further post-graduate work.

During this course, a wonderful professor (who happened to be teaching this last class before he retired -- lucky me!) introduced me to the concept of "arts-inspired" qualitative research methods. For the first time in years, I saw academic work creatively -- I used paints and brushes and searched poetry, combining these tools with my love of photography and family histories. I stepped out of my comfort zone, which was exactly what the professor had hoped we would do. It was during this course that I was also introduced to a superb book about multicultural leaders written by a former student of my professor.

Being so moved by her book, I took a chance and followed up directly with the author... and she and I subsequently collaborated on a successful leadership seminar. As a third example of serendipity along this journey, during these years I surprised many (including myself) by leaving a stable workplace, position and colleagues I had come to know and love for over twelve years, with some hesitation but much excitement. In my new role and environment, however, I found a world of opportunities and areas I had not even contemplated before, forged new ground, made new professional and personal contacts, and developed an inspiring team of colleagues with whom I learn from and laugh with daily.

Reflecting on these past few years, I begin to see certain themes or trends that I could not previously have recognized. First, taking chances (no matter how small or big they may seem) is important to me for continued development and growth.

The known and comfortable feels secure, but it can often lead to stagnation. Serendipity means allowing yourself the chance to go down that unexpected path or through that unknown door -- scary perhaps, but more often it leads to wondrous adventures! And if it does not, that's okay as well; you will not wonder "what if" at some later time. Second, I have come to appreciate that journeys are important to me -- my own, those of my family and close friends, and those with whom I work daily.

Arianna Huffington's recent post about defining success on your own terms resonated strongly with me at this time. I used to think professional success meant a better title, a greater salary, a bigger team, a bigger office. I was ambitious, always planning the next great career move (after all, I was that fifteen year old walking home from high school who emphatically declared to her girlfriends that I wanted a "career" not just a "job")! Truth be told, I am still somewhat swayed by others' definitions of success and beliefs; but that draw is lessening more and more.

As I approach this next birthday, what I have come to realize and appreciate is that what truly is important to me is being a part, in some small or large way, of other people's journeys; creating new opportunities for myself and others; and encouraging both myself, and others, to take "that chance." I continue to be ambitious, but my sights and goals have re-directed my ambition and energies. Truly, my sense of personal and professional accomplishment and success now comes in the form of a note or visit from a former student or colleague or friend (sometimes months or years later) that updates me on where they are at in their journey... and suggests that I made a positive impact on them in some way, along the way.

So as I get ready to blow out my 45 birthday candles, I cannot and do not claim that I have it all quite figured out yet. But I think just maybe I am getting there... on my own terms!