Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the President and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, spoke with Fortune‘s Pattie Sellers about how she landed her high-profile job—and as it turns out, she didn’t always see politics in her future.
When she was 17 years old, Jarrett “had no idea” what she wanted to do for a career. She attended Stanford because she “met this cute guy” who went there but says she “didn’t have a lot of foresight into what lay ahead.” From there, Jarrett thought she wanted to be an anthropologist like the university’s Professor Jane Goodall, but she lost interest in the subject.
Finally, Jarrett was persuaded to attend law school: “I had a very good friend who was two years older than I was, and she was in law school and she said, ‘It’s a great thing to do when you have no idea what you want to do.’ And she was right. I learned a lot, I practiced law for 10 years. I’ve never looked back once I stopped practicing law, but it was a really good experience.”
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Jarrett said it’s important to say flexible “because you never know what’s going to come your way.” Sellers agreed that important career shifts can often happen on a whim. “When I speak on women and leadership, I preach that,” she said. “Keep yourself open, don’t plan your career.”
Jarrett developed a more specific career plan while in law school but advised others against mapping out their lives in too much detail: “When I finished law school, I had a 10-year plan,” she said. “My plan was to go to a law firm, fall madly in love, have a baby by the time I was 30, make partner and live happily ever after.” But after a while on that track, she said she found herself sitting in her office in tears, asking herself, “Whose life is this?”
Read more: Planning Less Lets You Accomplish More
“I finally said, ‘I don’t care if you’re the first person in your family to be a lawyer,’” Jarrett said. “Everybody thought what I was doing was really exciting, but it was not moving me one bit. And that’s when I decided to join city government in Chicago, and that changed my life.”
Her new political career led her to meet Michelle Obama, who was Barack Obama’s fiance at the time. The future FLOTUS opened up more doors to Jarrett and ultimately led her to her position as a senior advisor. Jarrett reflects that her lack of planning and openness to spontaneity is what made it possible for her to find the right career path.
Watch the full interview below: