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MailChimp CEO: This realization is essential to your success

MailChimp CEO Ben Chestnut on his nonlinear path to success

Years before Ben Chestnut became co-founder and CEO of email marketing platform MailChimp, he was just another college student who didn't know what he wanted to do with his career.

During his junior year at the Georgia Institute of Technology, he realized he'd selected the wrong major. Pursuing physics, which he had done for half of his undergraduate career, no longer felt like the right choice. Neither did a career in the sciences.

"Physics taught me that I'm really bad at physics," he tells CNBC Make It, "that I really needed to find a new calling."

Choosing the wrong major is one of "a lot of mistakes" the Chestnut says he made in an interview at CNBC's iConic conference in New York. Those missteps, however, helped him get closer to figuring out how to take control of his work life.

"Your career, it's never just a linear line. It's usually something more like this —" he says, making a zig-zag gesture with his hand.

Ben Chestnut, co-founder and CEO of MailChimp, at CNBC's 2017 iConic conference in New York.
Richard Washington/CNBC

He decided to study industrial engineering, transferring schools in the process. It took him an extra two years to obtain an undergraduate degree, but he finally felt like he was interested in what he was studying.

"My parents always taught me, 'Hey, you're the only one who's going to put food in your mouth, it's all about you,'" he recalls, "'You've got to take care of yourself. You're in control of your life.'"

While changing college majors might be less stressful than changing careers, the CEO says that learning that missteps are a part of the journey to success is crucial.

You've got to take care of yourself. You're in control of your life.
Ben Chestnut
co-founder and CEO of MailChimp

When you realize your career is not a straight line, he says, you'll be able to appreciate the skills your current job is teaching you, let yourself try new opportunities and seek advice from a variety of mentors.

"I would encourage people to not be afraid of changing your path," he says.

Many successful people have made well-researched, smart career moves. Jeff Bezos was a computer scientist on Wall Street before launching Amazon at age 31. Food Network star Ina Garten, the "Barefoot Contessa," was an analyst at the Office of Management and Budget under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Fashion designer Vera Wang was a figure skater, dancer and journalist before making her foray into the fashion world at age 40.

If you're looking for ways to start re-imagining your career, try visualizing your interests, writing down your skills or making note of all the different contacts you have.

"As long as you keep your sights up high," Chestnut adds, "it's going to work out."

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Video by Nate Skid.