After speaking on a panel at last week’s National Society of Collegiate Scholars Convention about entrepreneurship, graduate degrees, and internships, two students came up to me to ask the question we’ve all asked at some point in time.
“How are we supposed to figure out what to do with our lives?”
I told them that even though many people will pretend they know all of the answers, the truth is that those of us who are not natural musicians at the age of 4 will grapple with this question for the rest of our lives. And it’s not because we’re never going to be good at something, but it’s because our career paths are organic and will constantly change as we try and figure out what we’re good at and what we enjoy doing. Instead of searching for some type of ultimate mission, you should try and figure out what makes you happy and where your skills lie. The days of climbing the corporate ladder for one company or working for 40 years on a monotonous task are over, and the knowledge worker has to constantly evolve and retool if they are to succeed.
For better or worse, we’re all going to have to ask this question more than once throughout our lives, and here are some quotes from Paul Graham, Peter Drucker, and J.K. Rowling that might help to guide you along on your ever evolving career path.
Paul Graham on Finding Your Path
“Just pick a project that seems interesting: to master some chunk of material, or to make something, or to answer some question. Choose a project that will take less than a month, and make it something you have the means to finish. Do something hard enough to stretch you, but only just, especially at first. If you’re deciding between two projects, choose whichever seems most fun. If one blows up in your face, start another. Repeat till, like an internal combustion engine, the process becomes self-sustaining, and each project generates the next one. (This could take years.)”
“Don’t worry if a project doesn’t seem to be on the path to some goal you’re supposed to have. Paths can bend a lot more than you think. So let the path grow out the project. The most important thing is to be excited about it, because it’s by doing that you learn.”
When my brother, Ryan, was given the task of creating some fake database software in his C++ class, he wrote the software and received an A for his work. But instead of just passing the boring class, he decided to test if he actually enjoyed programming by creating a video game where some ugly robot looking creatures would walk around and shoot at one another. The task was appropriately difficult, and there was a decent chance for failure, but Ryan ended up learning that while database software wasn’t his thing, programming was fun when the projects were stimulating. If he had only looked to the college curriculum for his education, he may have never become a programmer.
You’ve got to find out what you enjoy doing, but unfortunately, the tasks that you’re assigned in life are oftentimes painfully boring. This not only applies to students, who usually only do what is required to pass, but also to adults, who usually only do what is required to receive a paycheck. In order to figure out what you enjoy, use every chance you’re given to learn if you actually like doing a particular task rather than just fulfilling the minimum requirements.
Peter Drucker on Specialization
“A person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weakness, let alone on something one cannot do at all.”
“Discover where your intellectual arrogance is causing disabling ignorance and overcome it. First-rate engineers, for instance, tend to take pride in not knowing anything about people. But taking pride in such ignorance is self-defeating. Go to work on acquiring the skills you need to fully realize your strengths.”
“We all have a vast number of areas in which we have no talent or skill and little chance of becoming even mediocre. In those areas a knowledge workers should not take on work, jobs and assignments. It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.”
Once you have an idea of what you enjoy working on, it’s important to hone in on your strengths in order to become an expert. In an advanced economy, specialization is where the most value is going to be created, and money, prestige, and success usually relate to how much value you generate. A lot of people in business and web development take pride in becoming a “jack of all trades” and an expert at nothing. According to Drucker, it’s important that you’re knowledgeable about all of the subjects related to your area of expertise, but it’s absolutely critical to actually have an area of expertise. Rather than dabbling in programming, design, and business, become a great programmer that understands why design and business are equally important to achieving success.
J.K. Rowling on Failure
“What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.”
“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.”
I think that most people, especially those who are out of college and have worked in the “real world”, have a general idea about what they’re good at and what makes them happy, or at the very least, what they’re bad at and what makes them unhappy. The problem is that even when we’re armed with that knowledge, we’re still afraid of what might happen without the safety of our current jobs and social circle. I agree that it’s usually the fear of the unknown or failure in itself, rather than poverty or money, that truly scares us. Whether it be in public speaking, switching jobs, talking to the opposite sex, or karaoke, leaving our comfort zone is terrifying and avoiding that fear is easily rationalized. I know we’re still amazed that it took us so long to start a company when there was really nothing to fear all along.
There is a slew of practical advice on how to succeed in life including managing your money, finding the right friends, and getting things done, but as Warren Buffett said, “success is really doing what you love and doing it well. It’s as simple as that.” Now all you have to do is find out what you enjoy and have the guts to pursue happiness.