The Wall Street Journal Hire Education blog recently featured a post about "How Successful People Get That Way". I particularly liked the following excerpt, which I thought was highly accurate: "Oftentimes, people’s paths to success are neither linear nor
particularly efficient. Many don’t even start out with so much as a
plan." The writer then gives several examples of trajectories that were, shall we say, rather convoluted.
Case in point: Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who delivered the Commencement address to the blog author and her classmates at Wesleyan University. Hickenlooper is a Wesleyan graduate himself; he received a BA in English in 1974 and a master's degree in geology in 1980. The mayor's website describes him as "a
geologist-turned brewpub pioneer who had never run for political office".
This point is also emphasized in a New York Times article from October 2009, "Helping Teenagers Find Their Career Dreams". A child-and-psychologist comments: "I see many teens who jump on the first career track that someone
recommends just to avoid being directionless, only to find themselves
miserable a few years later." The journalist also writes: "as adults, we often reinvent ourselves more than once, moving among
While I was lucky enough never to change fields completely, I can relate to convoluted trajectories - I studied pure math early on in college and then control theory (the math part of robotics) my last two years, came to MIT for a Master degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science because I didn't want to start working (in France once you start working you usually don't go back to school), then I switched to the PhD program after I realized I liked research, and graduate school, and the Boston/Cambridge area; I ended up with an advisor in the business school, working on operations research problems.
I only decided to go into academia three years into the doctorate, after insisting in college that I would never, ever become an academic. (Back in France, when the time came to take the various written entrance examinations to the grandes ecoles, I declined to go to the one for the Ecole Normale Superieure - the main school preparing future French academics - on the grounds that I was interested neither in research nor in teaching and preferred to take a week of rest after three intense weeks spent taking the other entrance exams.) And what is my job now?... Life is funny sometimes. Oh, and I am now a tenured faculty member in an industrial engineering and systems department, while I have very little knowledge of manufacturing.
To best explain my career path, I am reminded of a quote by E.L. Doctorow about writing novels: "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." When you decide on a career in your twenties, you only have a very limited amount of information (what your headlights let you see), and take action based on this information.
The action doesn't have to be significant - often it starts as almost nothing, just like when you're driving on Route 81 to get back to Bethlehem from the Harrisburg area: if you stay on the right, Route 81 becomes Route 78-East, which will bring you straight to Bethlehem or even New Jersey and New York City, but if you stay on the left, you'll end up fifty-ish miles north of Bethlehem in Hazleton, a former coal centre now better known for its stance against illegal immigrants. And you adjust your aim, little by little, based on the information you glean along the way.
Probably because of the exorbitant cost of college in the US, students are under a lot of pressure not to waste time - they have to figure out early on what they want to do in life; otherwise, what is the point of spending so much money on an education that won't even be put to good use? But, in Hickenlooper's words: "Bliss often doesn’t start out as bliss; passion often doesn’t start out
as passion. It’s more likely to begin as a quirk or nagging awareness, a
nagging idea coming in from left field."
Balancing one's passion with the need to pay the bills is a difficult act, and too often, the choice is presented as an either/or situation: parents want their children to pick a well-paying career path; plenty of life coaches and just about every single New Age guru will advise students to "follow your bliss" (echoing Joseph Campbell, who was neither a life coach nor a New Age guru but a highly respected scholar on mythology).
People are impatient; they don't want trade-offs. This is apparent in this other WSJ Hire Education blog post, which starts with: "Too many people commence a career early in life only to later discover
that the selected path is much less gratifying than they imagined or
hoped. This is the fate career development experts yearn to help clients
avoid when extolling the importance of following one’s passion."
The thing is, turning one's passion into a financially viable scheme takes time. For instance, starting a business requires market research, website design, supplier selection, a crash course in the legal and tax ramifications, and more, before the company has even launched. The key, I think, is to align what you do with you like to do, find a connection - however tenuous - with your passion (if the day job from hell pays the bills so that you can spend the weekend working on a business plan, then the day job does have a positive side after all).
People who haven't figured out what their passion is can start by contacting alumni from their alma mater in industries that interest them, take them out for coffee in exchange for their insights - most people enjoy giving advice and sharing stories; while it's important to keep in mind that people value different things, and what is a good job for one might be awful for another, it can't hurt to gather anecdotes from the front lines and make contacts. In addition, for my readers out there who might be looking for a job, any job, yet another post from the Hire Education blog provides helpful - and original - advice on resume writing.
The full transcript of Hickenlooper's address at Wesleyan is available here. It's a great speech (funny but full of wisdom too), and I highly recommend that everyone reads it. I particularly liked what he had to say about entrepreneurship, and his mother, and the mention of Chase Parr '10, who died in 2007 in a car crash with her parents (he mentions he was a good friend of the Parrs - Parr's father was a political consultant), and the mention of Johanna Justin-Jinich '10, who was murdered in 2009 on campus at the bookstore cafe where she worked.
"[T]he entrepreneur is in each and every one of you. Feed your dreams; not your nightmares. Persevere against the naysayers. Be ready for luck, but don’t wait for it. [...] As the talented Wesleyan graduate Brad Whitford once said, “At the end
of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not your stumble.”"