March 15, 2023 | By Joe Hayes

An image of a traffic light.

TAGS: career development, member voices,

Commuting into the office is rarely fun, especially when you inevitably hit that darn red light! Trust me, I know all about this from personal experience.

For nearly a year, my commute has been halted by the same traffic light. I’ve begun to anticipate it to the point that my arm senses the stop from a football field away and unconsciously begins reaching for my blue travel mug to take a strong morning sip of coffee. It has gotten to the point that I even recognize the same cars in the Starbucks line to my right and I notice the smallest progress on the buildings under construction emerging to the left. And without fail, I get the same question from my youngest school-aged child behind me: "Are we going to be late again?” The answer is always yes, and it’s because of that light, which stays red far longer than needed (at least in my opinion).

But one day, the light was red from a distance—meaning green was in play. My body was unsure whether to speed up or slow down. 

“We’re going to make it!” I hollered like a deranged parent determined to defeat the almighty-engineered traffic system. 

And sure enough, we did! We zoomed right on past that light and avoided the delay, and the exhilaration continued after we made it through two more lights just before they changed from yellow to red. I was on top of the world. We were not going to be late! 

But then it all changed.

All the green lights I normally passed through suddenly were red—including lights that I didn’t realize even existed. One. Two. Three. Four. Five consecutive red lights. 

Lateness had returned. The exhilaration had faded.

In the silence of the fifth red light, the back seat voice emerged again. “I can’t believe we made that red light!”

Suddenly being late didn’t matter. We had defeated that red light. And that was enough for the moment. 

Truthfully, I’m not wise enough to really know if there is a lesson to be learned, but I know I told everyone I encountered the day this happened (Sorry to those that innocently and out of habit asked about my day. I understand if you never ask again.). 

But maybe: In life and careers, that pesky, blame-filled red light is worth appreciating. After all, it’s there for a reason. To protect you. To force you to look around. And to provide you with worthy adversaries and bite-sized opportunities for growth. 

In the world of finding your first job or internship, it’s human nature to fall victim to putting too much and often unneeded pressure to find the perfect opportunity when in reality, unless we’re able to experience and live in alternative timelines (the likes of which only Marty McFly in Back to the Future has experienced), we’ll never know what is beyond that red light.

Yes, the outcome still matters (i.e., being on time, accepting a new job), but it’s not the thing that matters all the time. If you can’t embrace the current situation—one that’s providing reflection, meaningful skills, connections, and worthwhile experiences—you’ll always be finding a new red light around the corner.  

TL;DR: Green light: Good. Red light: Also good.

Joe Hayes is an assistant director with the undergraduate business program at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. His current responsibilities include career coaching and working with a portfolio of employers to connect them to business students.

Faculty Attitudes and Behaviors: The Integration of Career Readiness Into the Curriculum NACE's NEW Coaching Certification Program