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Karen Ramstead, a former retail manager in Calgary, never imagined that one day she would move to a remote northern Alberta community to become a full-time musher.

Years ago, in a bid to persuade her to leave the city and move to Grande Prairie, her husband, Mark, bought her a Siberian husky as a bribe. It sparked a new passion, and Ms. Ramstead started breeding dogs, turning that one pup into several dozen, which she trained as sled dogs.

Eventually she made the leap from hobby to full-time career, moving with her husband to Perryvale, a hamlet with not much more than a post office, with the goal of competing in the Iditarod in Alaska. This year will be her 10th time participating in the 1,850-kilometre race from Anchorage to Nome.

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Her work, which involves the sale of trained sled dogs to homes and teams around the world, doesn't generate a huge salary, but along with sponsorship deals and supporters, it pays the bills.

Looking back, the Toronto native attributes her career satisfaction to her willingness to embrace opportunities as they appeared.

"Life is short and we need to grab whatever opportunities we can and take advantage of them," she said in an interview. "We all get so wrapped up in jobs we are not keen on that we forget to look around and see what great things might be out there."

As 2011 draws to an end, many of us will reflect on the past year and analyze whether we met our goals. For some, that tiny inner voice will start reminding them that they would really rather be doing something completely different. That untapped option may never seem practical, but the road to success is rarely comfortable.

In a recent survey, almost half of Canadians said they expect to switch careers over the next five years. Some will change jobs to earn a higher salary, but for many the goal is to pursue a new interest.

With the new year approaching, we owe it to ourselves to think outside the cubicle and contemplate our other options.

San Francisco-based Alison Levine recalls working for medical-laser company in the mid-1990s, where she described herself as a "horribly complacent employee." Her lack of motivation wasn't lost on her co-workers, and a sales associate once rudely confronted her about her job performance.

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Not long after, Ms. Levine decided to leave her job to pursue an MBA at Duke University in North Carolina. After graduating, she secured a job at Goldman Sachs and embraced her adventurous side. She climbed the highest mountain peak on every continent and skied to both the North and South poles, a feat known as the Explorers Grand Slam.

Ms. Levine now says she has the best job in the world, speaking to companies and organizations about the skills necessary to successfully lead teams in extreme environments.

"There are many similarities between climbing and navigating a career," she mused. "One of the most important keys to success in both areas is the ability to make decisions based on the environment and not based on your 'plan,'" she said, adding that plans quickly become outdated in fast-changing environments.

For example, she said that when she graduated from business school, the top students in her class wanted to work for Internet companies. But within 18 months, many found themselves jobless.

"What may seem like a great path on one particular day can change very quickly to become a path to nowhere," Ms. Levine observed. "The same goes for the mountains."

Pursuing a non-conventional career certainly comes with its own challenges, but the rewards can be extremely satisfying, said Lynne Cox, a California-based author, inspirational speaker and extreme open-water swimmer. She started out as a reference librarian but is better known for her Bering Strait swim in 1987, which opened the U.S.-Soviet border for the first time in 48 years.

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"If you feel bored or unfulfilled in your career, it's not your boss's fault – it's yours. You have the power to make changes in your life," Ms. Levine insisted. "It's never too late to reinvent yourself."

Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Thomson Reuters who writes about women, their careers and success. E-mail: leah.eichler@rogers.com

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