Career Advice for those without one!
“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle…
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” — Steve Jobs. Stanford University 2005 commencement speech.
It seems like every time I make new friends these days who happen to have teenagers at home, sooner or later the topics of college major choices and careers come up. More often than not, they ask my opinion and I always find myself offering exactly the same advice so I finally decided to write it down in the hope that it may help others as well. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a boy or a girl, artist or science nerd, introvert or extrovert, bookwork or athlete: my advice is always the same.
None of what I say is rocket science nor is any of it new. Most, if not all, of it is common sense and many others have given much the same advice in the past. It always amazes me, then, how many of us make career choices for the wrong reasons knowing all this and then are surprised when the results don’t pan out.
I was lucky enough to retire from the software industry a few weeks before I turned 52, after a successful 35 year career. I was also lucky enough to have stayed healthy and active so I can actually enjoy my retirement years; sadly, unlike most people out there who get to spend their golden years sick and tired, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Much of my advice is geared toward avoiding such an outcome.
First and foremost: The criteria you use to make your career choice is as, if not more, important than the field you choose to pursue. I don’t care if you’re going to become a doctor, a pastry chef, a psychologist, or an actor. My first rule of thumb is: Study what you’re passionate about. Work on what you love. Conversely, if you pick a career because of expected financial gain, as many do, you will almost certainly be disappointed and unhappy.
Ignore your parents if they’re telling you to be a doctor or a software engineer or lawyer because your financial future is more likely to be secure with one of those careers. I guarantee you that, regardless of where you live, you will end up regretting it for a very simple reason. There are already thousands of others pursuing that same field and some of them actually picked it out of sheer love. Every one of them will be better at what they do than you will ever be.
You may be smarter than them and you may be more hardworking, but your heart won’t be in it because your motivations were wrong. You started on the wrong foot. You’ll take shortcuts, you’ll work reluctantly, you’ll be depressed and angry, while they wake up with a smile, enjoy every minute of every day, get promoted, and make more money. You’ll come out the other end tired and resentful, old and spent. Do what you love, pursue what moves you, and the rest will come. Steve Jobs studied calligraphy, for cryin’ out loud (albeit briefly)!
But, and this is a big “but”: Understand that some careers, usually the ones in the humanities, naturally lend themselves better to older practitioners with more life experience. I know how much you want to be a psychologist or social worker, a writer or lawyer. But, older people almost always do a better job at those careers.
I studied psychology before turning to computer science but, even though I aced all the tests and possess a bachelor’s degree in the subject, I will readily admit that the words and concepts meant little to me as a young college student. It was only decades later, as I managed and worked with thousands of people, had children of my own, and experienced the vicissitudes of life that I was able to add empirical first hand evidence to the theories. It was only then that the labels and categories, the symptoms and the root causes of human behavior started to make sense.
They, it, psychology, hadn’t changed. I had. I’m sure I would have been no better than a mediocre psychologist had I chosen to pursue that career. Not because I was a bad student or didn’t try hard but because I simply lacked the requisite life experience at the time to recognize the symptoms and behaviors I was witnessing in people.
The same can be said for most majors in the humanities. I’ll take a sixty year old journalist over a twenty year old one or a fifty year old therapist over a thirty year old one any day. They’ve just had more life experience so anything they say and do is infused with more data.
So, we have a conundrum on our hands. “But I’m passionate about writing and journalism,” you might say. “You just told me to work on what I love but now you’re contradicting yourself and saying not to do so if it’s in the humanities. What am I to do?”
Fair question. Thankfully, there’s a simple answer: Assume you will have two careers and not just one. As average life expectancy increases and as the pace of progress accelerates, it’s no longer reasonable to assume you will spend your teens and twenties in school and then spend the next forty or fifty or sixty years in the same field of endeavor.
If you happen to be one of the lucky ones who pick the right career and are in love with what you do, you will most likely be successful at it. Great for you, stick with the current one career model.
If not, assume you will go back to school at some point later in life — maybe in your thirties or forties or fifties, depending on your circumstances — and prepare for a second career that will engage you for the rest of your life. Let that career be in the humanities. You’ll be a far better therapist, journalist, teacher, politician, or lawyer in your fifties than you could ever be in your thirties. I promise.
“Why don’t I just declare a double major and study both in my youth,” you may ask. That’s a fine answer if you’re sure what you want to be and do half a century from now. Most of us don’t. Nor are we equipped to make that decision in our teens or to see what the world will look like so far ahead in time. Far better to wait and see what you gravitate towards and what the future holds before making that decision.
Your mission, should you agree with my logic, is to keep your mind and body healthy and alert enough so that when the time does come to change careers, you have the physical energy, mental stamina, and financial wherewithal to do so. That means: Keep reading (and learning in general) once you get out of school to keep your mind sharp, stay up to date on social and technical topics, exercise and eat a healthy diet, find a good work-life balance, practice yoga and meditation, save some money… see, like I said: common sense. It’s amazing how many of us don’t do any of these things and then blame everyone and everything but ourselves for the results.
If at all possible, try to pick a field in its infancy. Study neurology: We’ve barely begun to understand how the human brain works. There will be decades of fascinating revelations and interesting (not to mention lucrative) applications as we decipher the mysteries of this most complex supercomputer in existence. Study genetics: Unlike the brain sciences, we’ve at least deciphered the vocabulary of this field (DNA) but it’s still early days. Much remains to be done as we figure out the grammar and linguistic rules of how genes work and how we can use all that information to cure diseases and improve our lives. Study geriatrics: As the population ages, many opportunities will arise for the care and wellbeing of the elderly. Study psychedelics: I’m convinced this class of plant medicines holds the key to healing our psyches. Study green tech: It’ll take us decades to clean up the environmental mess we’ve gotten ourselves into and there will be plenty of monetization opportunities along the way.
Another rule of thumb when picking careers is to pick one that will last decades. Plan at least thirty years ahead, not for your twenties but rather for your fifties. Don’t pick a career just because it’s hot right now. Chances are it’ll be obsolete by the time you become senior enough in the field to enjoy the fruits of your hard labor. A friend mentioned recently that her daughter wanted to be a journalist and eventually an editor. “Has she ever heard of ChatGPT?,” I quipped.
I no longer even encourage people to go into computer science, one of the hottest fields today. Thirty years from now, most software will be written by other software. We’ll still need software engineers, but just not as many and not with the skills we teach today. The computer science topics I studied in college (operating systems, databases, compilers, finite automata theory, and the like) are rarely even taught these days because most of the interesting work in those subfields has already been completed and there aren’t too many jobs that require those skills.
Don’t get me wrong. They’re foundational and extremely important to learn if you want to understand how computers work at the lowest levels but the industry has moved on to much higher levels of abstraction: just like most people don’t study pure mathematics any more and opt instead for applied mathematics in fields like economics or statistics. If you’re going to go into computer science, I tell people, study artificial intelligence and big data, distributed computing and peer to peer networking.
Be a generalist, not a specialist. Put another way: Pursue the consilience of science and humanities. If you have a choice between getting a master’s degree in your favorite field of study vs. a second bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, opt for the latter. What the world needs right now are not more PhDs in esoteric fields but rather people who duel at the intersection of academic fields of study.
If you study neurology, also study psychology. Understanding how neurons work is great but the utility of that knowledge is vastly amplified if you also understand what makes us tick as humans at an emotional level. If you study genetics, also study social anthropology. Learning how to read the alphabet of the genes becomes so much more meaningful when you do it in the context of how environment and culture influences human development. If you pursue green tech, also study political science. The technical problems are interesting and necessary but many of our challenges in this space can only be solved through governmental policy changes.
Create value. “What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.” I could say the same about MBAs. I’m not saying don’t study law, I’m saying don’t become a litigious attorney. I’m not saying don’t study business, I’m saying don’t work on Wall Street. What the world needs right now is not more litigation and money management. What it needs are more artists, more scientists, more humanitarians. Pursue a career that adds value to society, that creates something new and innovative, or one that helps others, not one that charges money to handle money nor one that benefits from the suffering and misfortune of others.
Learn a second language. Here’s a controversial one: If you’re studying anything in the scientific or engineering disciplines, you’d be better served to seek your education in one of the top few languages used to study that field. It will do you no good trying to compete in, say, computer science if you learn it in Turkish or Arabic, Swahili or Tagalog. You’ll have access to a small subset of the literature in the field, will have to wait years for translations of new books, and you won’t be able to compete at a global level with those who learned it in English.
I always get pushback when I offer this last piece of advice from people who are afraid of losing their cultural and linguistic heritage to the forces of globalization. But this is a red herring. Nothing is stopping you from studying literature, politics, history, business, psychology, or a dozen other topics in your own language. It just doesn’t make sense to handcuff yourself with the same restrictions when studying quickly evolving scientific fields, especially now that anyone anywhere in the world can work remotely for any company.
Note that that language doesn’t have to be English. I’d be happy if we can standardize on a few languages and stop insisting that every topic has to be translated into and taught in every single language in the world. It doesn’t. Note also that this forces students to learn a second language more rigorously than taught in most schools today. That’s a good thing.
I can’t tell you what to study without sitting down and learning more about you and your interests. What I can tell you, however, is that how and why you pick what you study is of critical importance in that decision. It’s just the rest of your life we’re talking about, after all. You better choose well.
Author’s note: I’ve deleted all my social media accounts and now depend exclusively on the kindness of strangers to pass the word around about my blog posts. Please share this post on social media if you liked it. Thank you.