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Moments That Matter

How Pivotal Experiences Change Us and Our Careers

December 1975. A woman in her fifties and her twenty-something-year-old son sit down to lunch at Ma Maison, a popular restaurant in West Hollywood, California. The meal is exquisite: fish soup, warm lobster salad, poulet à la moutarde, and crepes with chocolate and chestnut puree.

As the two enjoy their meal, something remarkable happens. The family is greeted by the restaurant’s owner, who recognizes the woman from previous visits, pulls up a chair, and begins to chat. After several minutes, the woman says to the owner, “I’d like to become a good French cook. What do you think I should do?”

A cartoon woman in front of the Hollywood sign ripping open her shirt to show a chef's uniform

The owner answers, “Come to work in our kitchen three times a week. We won’t pay you, and you’ll basically be our slave. But after a year, you’ll be a real French cook.”

To her son’s surprise, the woman says, “OK.”

Over time, Judy Gethers, once a housewife with no professional cooking experience, rose from the crucible of Ma Maison to culinary stardom: teaching alongside Julia Child, mentoring Wolfgang Puck, and publishing seven cookbooks before her death in 2016.

“That turned out to be my mom’s LC Day—Life-Changing Day,” writes her son Peter in his memoir, My Mother’s Kitchen, published earlier this year.

For the rest of us, such defining moments can be just as book-worthy, but with their own unique flavor. Career-defining moments—those points that substantially alter our trajectories—can influence our decisions, affect our organizations, and shape our lives in extraordinary ways.

So how can we better recognize these moments, cultivate them, and thrive as a result? There’s no secret recipe, but research from BYU Marriott School of Business offers clues.

Momentous Metaphor

If you happen to be reading this article inside the

N. Eldon Tanner Building, look up. BYU Marriott’s campus home rises seven stories to a sprawling lattice of metal and glass. Notice the angles, the clean lines. Now scan the interior supports—smooth white beams running vertically, horizontally, and diagonally around its bright and bustling atrium. Let your eyes travel up the massive staircase toward classrooms, offices, and study spaces all designed to guide, assist, and inspire tomorrow’s business leaders.

For a student, it’s a comforting sight. No wrong turns. No dead ends. Only clear trajectories.

Now take a look outside. The mountainous horizon is craggy, uncertain. Paths diverge, loop back on themselves, or crumble away completely. Figuratively speaking, it’s an untamed landscape that every graduate must eventually navigate.

Associate professor Troy Nielson gets the metaphor.

In 2007—the year before he joined BYU Marriott’s faculty—the management professor published a textbook, Career Trek: The Journey Begins, with the image of a wind-tattered alpinist on the cover. A decade later, that comparison still holds true.

“Most people today don’t join an organization out of school and stay there for their career trajectories like they did thirty years ago,” Nielson says.

Instead they pivot and shift, experiencing career-

defining moments as they go. These could be peaks. These could be valleys. But they are all transformative.

Hoping to learn more, Nielson teamed up with Professor Ellen Ensher from Loyola Marymount University and Wesley Kading from Santa Clara University. Together they identified five broad categories for career-defining moments: (1) unanticipated events, (2) anticipated events, (3) personal insights and reflection, (4) relationships with others, and (5) spiritual experiences.

Dealers and Duels

Behind those general categories, their research, published in early 2017 in the Journal of Career Development, unearthed tales of trial and triumph that only real life could turn up. One interviewee’s story, for example, gives new meaning to the idea of “career-defining.”

In the 1980s, a U.S. crackdown on illegal drugs included sting operations in Miami, New York, and Los Angeles that intercepted millions of dollars in cash and put the nation’s most-notorious drug traffickers on the run. At the heart of this drama was the Grandma Mafia, named for its cast of “middle-aged, middle-class ladies, some of them grandmothers, who wanted to make a lot of money,” as one U.S. prosecutor described them.

Tony, a criminal defense lawyer whose last name was withheld to protect his anonymity, represented the Grandma Mafia in court—and almost wound up on trial himself.

As Tony tells it, he was tipped off by a friend that his key contact at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, a man named Garcia, was stealing millions of dollars from the agency. To make matters worse, Tony learned he was being set up by corrupt agents on a litany of charges, including obstruction of justice. After doing some research, he decided to kill Garcia in a duel. According to an obscure law dating back to the 1800s, that wouldn’t technically constitute murder.

The plan was set. Not even Tony’s pastor could deter him.

Tony left his church one night and found Garcia at a bar in downtown Los Angeles, slid a loaded handgun his way, placed a second in front of himself, and said, “You’re going to have three seconds to go for that gun, because I’m going to kill you or you’re going to kill me. Because I know what’s happening now. All your agents and you are testifying against me.”

Just then, the barmaid, wiping down the counter, knocked the second firearm to the floor—it’s unclear whether the act was intentional. “[Garcia] got up, put his hands up in the air, and backed right out of the bar,” Tony says. “I didn’t shoot him. That moment in my life obviously changed everything.”

Tony says divine providence saved him from the gallows or the grave. A pastor’s prayer, it seems, had been answered. Of the eighteen participants in the study, Tony was one of ten who attributed a career-defining moment to God.

It was “jaw-dropping” for Nielson to hear Tony’s story of violence and corruption. “It was so different from the kind of career-defining moments I’ve had,” he notes.

Tracking Transformations

How do you categorize a story like Tony’s—and the ninety-six other accounts included in research? With plenty of thoughtful analysis.

A cartoon man and an arm

“The interviewees in our sample were no strangers to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” wrote the researchers in their article. “Interviewees often spoke of being ‘gobsmacked’ or completely surprised by unanticipated transition events that became career-defining moments.”

Layoffs. Cancer. The death of a child. In the typology, unexpected events of both a personal and professional nature composed the first type of career-defining moment. Career changes, relocations, and other anticipated events composed a second.

Surprisingly, the researchers recorded twice as many unplanned events as planned ones—a subtle argument for resilience, among other leadership qualities.

Take the story of Denise, the president of a major interior design firm. After expanding her business into China, she discovered that her trusted partner in Beijing was embezzling funds. Stunned and betrayed, she made the painful decision to close her Chinese operations. In her interview with the researchers, she said she had learned valuable lessons and that her business was thriving as a result.

As participants’ stories grew more personal, they also shifted inward, revealing individual perceptions of meaningfulness and purpose.

“9/11,” says one participant, “led me to a defining moment as I realized my entire identity was about work—and I wanted a child. So I decided to adopt a child and become a single mother.”

The researchers categorized these career-defining moments as insights or reflections. Developing gradually over time or in a flash, these moments provide “an important sense of clarity and truth for an individual,” they write.

Finally, the fourth and fifth types of career-defining moments—influential relationships and spiritual experiences—proved wholly transformative for many in the study. “I don’t think any of us really get to where we are in our careers without a lot of people influencing us and practically helping us in certain situations,” Nielson says.

School of Life

Here’s some universal advice: learn from the bad guys and move on. That’s what finance alum Britt Berrett did when he left a bad boss early in his career, a relationship he still describes as horrible, painful, and life-changing.

Today Berrett is a member of BYU Marriott’s National Advisory Council. When he was in his twenties—a married and aspiring health-care executive with two kids—he worked for a woman who disparaged her employees to the point of tears.

“When I got another job, I went down to her office, popped the name plaque off her door, and took it. I keep it in my den,” he says. “Throughout my career, I’ve looked at that and asked myself, ‘Am I inspiring? Am I motivating? Am I encouraging? Am I allowing people to become better, or am I treating them as I have been treated?’”

After nearly three decades in healthcare, Berrett says he hopes he has made a difference. His book, Patients Come Second: Leading Change by Changing the Way You Lead, became a New York Times best seller in 2013, laying out his argument for cross-functional teamwork in healthcare facilities. He has also coached executives, lectured abroad, and—thanks to his latest career-defining moment—mentored students.

After more than twenty years as a hospital president, Berrett is now a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. The shift came with an “ah-ha moment,” as he describes it, where he felt he was being directed into education.

During office hours, he sometimes hears bad-boss stories from students. “What are you learning from this? What’s the story to be told here?” he asks them. “Are you taking notes?”

And it turns out, they are.

“Millennials are desperate for that kind of mentoring. And I love it. I think that’s a calling in my life,” he says.

Preparing to Pivot

A man in a lab coat with a chisel and hammer

Nielson and his colleagues agree. In a discussion of their findings, they write that people can prepare for and recognize career-defining moments by taking certain steps.

Recommendation number one: Carve out time to reflect upon your career circumstances.

Nielson says it’s helpful to have a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan Z, an idea that LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman and coauthor Ben Casnocha suggest in their book, The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career. At a minimum, have a three-year plan, Nielson says. Update your LinkedIn profile regularly. Assess yourself annually—or more frequently if you’re just starting out.

Recommendation number two: Get a mentor or two and discuss your career progress regularly.

“Good mentors are really good at asking questions that cause us to think, such as ‘Do you know what you want?’” Nielson says. “If we haven’t really asked ourselves that question, we may just keep rolling along with whatever we majored in or whatever career path is paying us decent money. We may not have really thought about what brings us joy or where our skills might make a difference.”

As for his own plans, Nielson says he’d like to pursue more research on the role of inspiration in career-defining moments. “I certainly feel like the Lord’s hand has been in at least a few of my important career decisions,” he says.

Like the housewife-turned-chef, we all have a higher calling. If you haven’t yet found yours, keep looking. It may only take a moment.


Article written by Bremen Leak
Illustrations by Michael Byers

About the Author
Bremen Leak studied journalism at BYU. He is a communications officer at Yale University, where he has déjà vu each time he sees a blue and white Y.

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