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An unlikely degree choice got me my dream job

June 25, 2015, 6:15 PM UTC

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Why is it important for women to take risks in business? is written by Lori Bailey, global head of special lines at Zurich Insurance.

Insurance, by its very nature, is about taking risk. Those who work in the industry know that taking risk is a fundamental part of the job and crucial to success. We often think of this concept in terms of customers, accounts, and investments, but seldom do we think of it in terms of managing our own careers. For women, this may be the greatest risk of all.

Several years ago, I took a risk when I decided to obtain my master’s degree in Spanish — a degree which, on the surface, had nothing to do with my career in insurance. Although I took night classes and did not leave my current position, it was a substantial risk on many levels. It was a financial risk to take on student loans to pay for classes; a personal risk to my confidence to jump back into an academic setting; but perhaps most importantly, it was a job risk because it created the perception that I was not serious about advancing my career. But the passion and desire to learn far outweighed the potential downsides.

The truth is, that degree has helped me more in my career than I could have ever imagined. Not only did I advance my language skills, but I learned to appreciate cultural differences and communication styles. For instance, I learned how to effectively structure a presentation and understand the importance of language and word choice – particularly in a language that is not your native tongue. I also enhanced my public speaking skills, as nearly every assignment involved oral presentations in front of large groups of people. I quickly realized that I could apply each one of these skills to not only my current role, but any position I may have in the future.

When I interviewed for a global position at my company a few years ago, I used this example as of one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever faced. It was likely this experience that put me ahead of the other candidates, ultimately leading to the position I have today. I often ask myself whether I would be where I am if I hadn’t taken this risk many years ago. While I’m not sure I’ll ever fully know the answer to that, there is no doubt taking this risk has paid dividends beyond what I could have ever imagined.

Mark Zuckerberg once said, “The biggest risk is not taking any risk” and I believe that holds a certain truth for all of us. Life is about choosing a certain path — we can simply allow the path to lead us in a certain direction, or we can choose to direct where the path will go. While the latter may be filled with more uncertainty, if we never take risks, we will never realize our full potential.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question:Why is it important for women to take risks in business?

Why getting too comfy at work is the ultimate career killer by Krista Bourne, president of Houston Gulf Coast Region at Verizon Wireless.

Would you risk your job to move abroad? by Mary Beth Laughton, senior vice president of e-commerce and digital marketing at Sephora.

Why it’s okay to break the rules at work by Susan Coelius Keplinger, entrepreneur.

Why recent graduates shouldn’t plan their careers by Teresa Briggs, vice chair and west region managing partner at Deloitte.

Is gender bias a reason to quit your job? by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

The one way to guarantee failure at work by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

Why starting my own business at 25 was a huge mistake by Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Market Mentor.

Build-A-Bear CEO: Why women need to take risks in business by Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.