Sunday, February 1, 2015

Charting Our Careers - Why, When And How

We've made it. We're set for life. Such is the thought that races through our minds, once we adorn the robes and toss the scrolls high up into the air triumphantly. The job market may be competitive and unemployment fluctuates, but how badly can it affect skilled graduates?

Quite bad actually, if you don't keep your eyes open and mind your step. Wrong choices and missed chances may haunt us forever.

Every career is an investment

Choosing a career is a serious investment. It consumes money, and more crucially, time. Time - if what Einstein says is true (and there's no proof so far to disbelieve him) - is irreversible. Once passed, time is gone. No one can travel back in time. Likewise in life, the paths that we tread and choices that we make cannot be altered.

Time, unlike money, can't be multiplied. Some may live longer, but we all generally age progressively the same. If we have a million bucks, we can diversify our portfolio into different company stocks. But there's no way we can study more than two degrees simultaneously - universities don't allow it, and rightly so, as the human brain can only process so many things at once.

How Einstein feels about "Back To The Future" and "Interstellar"

Hence, chose your vocation wisely. Don't take up a degree and doctorate in Mesopotamian Literature, only to realise ten years later that your ancient wisdom holds no value in the present-day world. Sadly, many of us do make the common mistake of studying hard and obtaining a professional degree, only to realise later that work sucks. Just because you find John Locke's social contract theory fascinating and have fond memories of Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Balls Co, doesn't necessarily mean you will excel or enjoy in the cut-throat capitalistic legal industry where the rich employ the best lawyers. Worse still, an entire industry can crumble, leaving its workers all squeezed and fighting for scraps of a shrinking pie.

But hey, even if we make a mistake, we can always retrace our steps and start afresh, can't we? Easier said than done, because...

Every career is a game

Every vocation is a game. With its own set of rules and referees. Made by humans, managed by humans. And if we treat a game seriously as our source of livelihood, we better know how the game works inside out.

Take chess. Professional chess players, even child prodigies, spend hours every day practising with computers and reading up books on strategies. Physical sports are no different - talented kids are groomed in sport academies. Messi might be a champion in scoring goals in the global arena, but he's certainly no champion in scoring grades in astrophysics.

We all have our own childhood dreams. But such dreams never materialised, because we're too caught up with the game of academics - speaking up in tutorials, flipping pages away in the library, padding our resumes with internships. And once at the workplace, it's a different ball game altogether - tapping in office at nine and tapping out at midnight, kowtowing to bosses, keeping an eye out for backstabbing colleagues.

Starting afresh is never easy. Trying to join professional sports at a late stage is close to impossible, due to the fitness and skill gap (even for less physical sports like golf, billiards and darts). Reality talent competitions has offered the chance for the likes of Susan Boyle to rise to the centre stage, but she's a rarity. Nowadays, Hollywood draws resources from film schools. Want to achieve stardom at mid-life? Hard luck. Life's fair. People who have devoted their entire lives and souls into sports and entertainment from young are way ahead of you, and deservedly so.

Same principle applies to starting a business. The Richard Bransons and Mark Zuckerbergs in the world didn't muck around college and office for long, if at all. They leapt straight into entrepreneurship at an age when most of us were still frantically jotting down lecture notes. Their success owes to hard work and tunnel vision, as much as skill. They are experts in their game now. Your MBA and decades of corporate boardroom experience is no match to their excellence. Not because they're smarter than you, but simply because they're champions in a game you have barely trained for. Basketball legend Michael Jordan flopped at baseball - this alone shows how skills are not easily transferable from one game to the other.

Not so hot on the diamond pitch, better stick to kicking interstellar butts on the court.

Charting Our Destiny

Unless we're super wealthy, most of our careers span a lifetime. Like it or not, our careers defines who we are. Doctors save lives. Lawyers uphold individual rights. Entertainers delight and inspire. Our career is our destiny. But nothing is set in stone. We can still change the course of our careers and destinies. All we need to do is plan ahead, and plan wisely.

Why - The further you walk down a path, the longer it takes to track back. The more time and energy you spend on a dead-end job, the less you have left to spare on the things you truly care about. The opening narrative already explains most of the "why".

When - Plan as young as you can. If something doesn't feel right midway along your studies or early in your career, don't be afraid to change lanes and search for new peaks. Don't look for answers at your elders above you (they thrived at a different era under different conditions), or your peers beside you (they know no better). Think for yourself, keep to your own timelines. If in doubt whether to stay or leap, just leap. For the longer you wait, the higher you will climb and the weaker your knees will get. So leap while you still can pick up yourself from the fall.

How - No one can predict the future with absolute certainty. Neither can one tell what skill set will be invaluable in years to come. Perhaps one day super-computers will replace accountants and lawyers, or clean nuclear fusion technology will leave a glut of oil rig engineers jobless. But what we can do is to never stop learning - about what we know, and about what we don't. Never put all your eggs into one basket. Weave more baskets, hatch more eggs. When the right opportunity comes, you'll be in good position to grab it. Always ask yourself: "If tomorrow I lose my job and everything I've ever learned in school and on the job becomes irrelevant, can I still start afresh with the knowledge and skills that I have left?" If the answer's no: good luck, you're as good as fucked. Keep doing on the side what you love, even while you're stuck full time doing something that you don't (just like how John Legend juggled gigs between his management consultant job before making it big). Never settle for less, always strive for more.

Silly birdie sitting tight looking all smug, but Farmer Joe's coming and all the eggs are as good as fucked.

Your career is your destiny. You only live once. Time can't be reversed. Neither are humans equipped with a "save game" option that allows us to reset our lives. Invest wisely, play the game well. 

Take control of your own destiny - sooner, rather than later.

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