Early in my career, I used to think about career growth like a school kid would about getting straight A’s. Work hard, show your smarts, check all the boxes, and you will be rewarded. I used to say my eventual ambition was to be CEO; because it was the corporate equivalent of being at the top of my class.
A mentor once told me that book-smart students often think that way. Like me, he had grown up in a typical working-class Asian household, and the pressure to succeed academically was huge. There’s a brilliant parody of this by Goodness Gracious Me:
It wasn’t just inside the home; it was societal. When neighbors and parents’ friends came to visit, their conversation would revolve around “Mr. Sharma’s son is now in MIT. His life is set!” or “Mr. Goel’s daughter got into Electronics at IIT. She has such a bright future ahead!” Followed by a lament about my lack of seriousness about my future. It got ingrained into me: get good grades => get into a good college => get a good job => success.
What that success looked like, no one mentioned. Whether I wanted that form of success, no one cared. At some level that’s understandable. The parents’ job is to ensure your future is safe. Finding happiness and meaning in life is your job. But nobody tells you that. Nobody tells you that finding success (whatever that means) is much more like this:
I do believe that parents do their kids a disservice when they paint success as the straight line on the left. Maybe they didn’t know any better. Nowadays everyone knows that you should praise kids for effort, not for smarts (and Carol Dweck says even that is missing the point.)
Smart kids are especially vulnerable to this. As Avdi Grimm says in a wonderful reflection:
If you really believe in yourself, and if you have a lot of experiences which confirm your confidence, it’s easy to become inflexible. You start to believe that absolutely any obstacle is the universe challenging you to square your shoulders and push back harder.
But when life throws you a curveball that you simply can’t dodge or deflect, it becomes hard to accept modifications to your dreams and ideals. You can’t construct new, different dreams. You try to find ways to force your reality into your original plans, and hurt people in the process. You’re a system that has only two modes: 100% and crashed. No degraded availability modes in between.
This is a pattern I have seen over and over in young grads: big goals, an expectation of early success and recognition, then frustration as reality fails to meet expectations.
I did see a couple of hints along the way that helped set me straight:
- In my first year of undergrad I met a 4th-year Senior who was in the top 5 (by GPA) in the university. And yet, he hadn’t found a job yet. Right then I decided that I wouldn’t follow the tune of “academic achievement”.
- At a career fair in grad school, I met one of the partners at Deloitte. He mentioned all the sacrifices one needs to make to get to Partner: the majority of partners were divorced, or their spouse had to give up their career, or had no kids, or had waited until later in life to have kids. They were workaholics. Right then I decided that I wouldn’t follow that track.
- At this company I worked, the Chief Architect was highly admired and sought after. A bunch of junior developers openlly stated as their career goal “I want to be like Tim” (name changed for privacy). Tim flew around the globe, spoke at conferences, could essentially name his own schedule. And it had all started with his open-source contributions… so they all wanted to get into open-source. But if you look deeper; open source maintenance is not fun. On top of which; the specific individuals were code junkies, whose idea of relaxing at home was cracking open Visual Studio. When they saw that reality, they went “Oh.” And quickly re-evaluated their goals.
- I used to be a mentor for Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Mentor 2.0 program. The program’s goal is for mentors to encourage their mentees to go to college, and help them prepare them for it. Problem was: my particular mentee was totally not interested. He came from a poor household, barely spoke English, was near the bottom of his classes and was not really into academics. However he had other amazing qualities. In his spare time he fixed used cars and sold them for 3x profit. He worked at an uncle’s catering business on weekends: 5pm to 2am on Fridays, 10am to 2am on Saturdays, and an “easy” 10am to 3pm on Sundays. Looking at the evidence, I decided that advising him to go for college wasn’t really doing him any good. So against my mandated role from BBBS, I chose to cheer his entrepreneurial spirit. And to that, he responded beautifully.
The point of this rant is: your goals in life shouldn’t be set by parents, or school, or popular culture, or your corporate hierarchy. Meaningful goals will take time, energy, dedication and sacrifice. On top of which, life will throw you unexpected challenges - so you have to be flexible about the goals too. Goals should be a means to happiness, not the source of them.
And you owe it to yourself to be damn sure you’re not chasing something that won’t eventually make you happy. After, all, as Groucho Marx said: