Dangerous Ideas: Beware of People Who Tell You Traditional Career Paths are BadAugust 1st, 2008 · 14 comments
The Drone Army
Self-help blogger Steve Pavlina recently published an article titled: What If You Have Many Different Interests and Cannot Commit to Any of Them? Among the many ideas in this piece (several of which I agree with), were the following arguments:
- “The notion that you have to commit to a single trade for life (or even for a decade or two) makes sense if you want to live like an industrial worker drone.”
- “Hmmm… for some reason the people that said I should specialize got a lot quieter when my eclectic interests started paying off financially.”
- “The next time someone tells you to settle down and pick just one thing for your career, your college major, or your source of income, I recommend you reply as follows: ‘I appreciate your concern, but since I don’t share your dream of becoming a prized poodle, I must reject your advice as being utterly stupid.’”
The basic message lurking here — that traditional, long-term career paths are for unoriginal, unhappy drones — has been gaining ground in the self-development blogging community. I guess this is not surprising, there’s something appealingly contrarian about the message. Think Different! Make your own path!
But is it right?
Good Intentions Pushed Too Far
Arguments like those above are born of good intentions. They aim to prevent arbitrary social conventions from pushing people into career paths they don’t like. The problem, however, is that these arguments often go too far. Instead of making the point that there are other options out there, they begin to demonize the traditional options as always being bad. Instead of freeing people to make their own judgments, they slander an entire direction as being for “drones” or “prized poodles.”
The Reality of Careers
Here’s my experience with young people entering the work world. For many, a so-called “traditional” career path is probably the best fit. Not because they are somehow damaged or unoriginal, but because for their particular set of interests and talents, a traditional path comes closest to giving them what they need to be happy.
For example, the following are all traditional career paths that match up with someone I personally know who is really engaged and happy with their life:
- Journalist: The adrenaline of scoring the big scoop and the excitement of jumping from story to story is addictive to some. The quickest route here is a good college, lots of writing for the best possible student publications, journalism school, then working yourself up at a professional venue.
- Professor: Everyone had at least one college professor who seemed to just absolutely love his life. The path here is as traditional as it gets.
- Technology Entrepreneur: Stupid consumer web businesses started by 19-year-old college dropouts capture our imagination, but the vast majority of successful tech companies are started by engineers who innovated some new and needed technology. They are either professors, grad students (like the Google guys), or product team managers at an existing tech company. All require a long-term, traditional path.
- Management Consultant: Some people love this lifestyle: see the world, never stick with one project for too long, work with brilliant people. The path here requires top schools and top grades.
- Teacher: If you want to make a career of teaching, you’ll want a Masters of Education from the best school possible. If you want to do Teach for America, you better be one of the top students at your school; their recruitment is more competitive than most investment banks!
There are, of course, hundreds of other examples of traditional career paths that yielded, for some people, a rich, fulfilling life. On the other hand, there are also hundreds of stories of people trying to construct “alternative lifestyles,” who end up spinning their wheels for years, unhappy, bored and aloof until finally they figure out what fits their real interests and they end up buckling down, working hard, and constructing a life — though not always a Tim Ferriss wonderland — that they respect. The point being that there is no answer that is automatically good or bad.
How to Decide What’s Best For You
The decision of what to do with your life after college remains complicated. My advice is to start with the desired lifestyle, then work backwards. That is, visualize the feel of your ideal lifestyle, then decide what specific near future path will move you closest.
The key to a lifestyle-centric approach is to take nothing off the table in advance. Don’t let bloggers who are self-satisfied with their microbusinesses, or serial entrepreneurs with a fear of ties, try to convince you that some options are only for losers.
Do you really believe that everyone would be best off be making their living off of blog advertisements, eBook sales, and paid product reviews? Think about it for a moment. There is just no way that such a highly specific, somewhat unusual career path is some general cure-all for post-grad ennui — no matter how strongly we rant against “societal expectations” and the “liberating” power of “lifestyle design.”
What fits your talents might be different than what fits that talents of Steve Pavlina. Or it might not. The point is that only you know that answer. Don’t let anyone else try to convince you otherwise.
(Photo by Meditatejack)