In choosing a career path, pursue what you enjoy the most
What are some of the biggest misconceptions undergraduate students have about working in the real world? I asked this question to several business professors, to which they frequently responded with things along the lines of, “they’re unprepared for the drudgery,” “unprepared for the difficult feedback,” “unprepared to just put their head down and work.”
From the minute we step onto campus, we’re told to find our passion. We’re told to explore the varied course offerings and discover which subject areas most speak to our skills and interests. That’s what I did. Until declaring my major in philosophy at the end of sophomore year, I took courses in everything from Economics and Psychology to Creative Writing and American Studies. And I ended up as a business minor looking for jobs in finance and consulting.
I appreciated my scrambled-eggs course load. In many ways, the breadth of a liberal arts education is empowering because it creates people who are broadly knowledgeable about how society functions. But I also wonder whether I was a flake — whether I stuck around just long enough to get enough information from each department before waving farewell at the increasing difficulty.
Instead of searching for our passions, maybe we’d better build them ourselves. That’s what Carol Dweck, Paul O’Keefe and Greg Walton argue in a in Psychological Science. They seek to dismantle the widespread adage that we’ll find what we love if we only and instead replace it with the more realistic trope that developed passions are the result of lots of investment of time, energy and resources over the long-run. In his 2008 book , Malcolm Gladwell posits a similar theory: that it takes the enormous dedication of ten thousand hours to reach expertise, whether we’re talking about The Beatles practicing in underground German clubs or Bill Gates coding since high school.
All of this seems to beg the question: Should we go deep or wide? This was the question I posed to Gary Gensler, former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. “Go deep at the beginning of your career to prove yourself,” he said, “then you can become a generalist.” He exhorted me, and us, to differentiate ourselves early on with subject-matter expertise, then, if we’d like, advise on more general issues.
Of course, developing a passion is hard work. Professor Linda Stoller said she often notices a disconnect between how meaningful students expect their work to be and how much commitment that takes. “It’s rare,” she said, “to find an interesting, empowering, challenging high-paying job where you get to come in at 9 and leave at 5.”
But even if an employee works longer hours, does that guarantee a more satisfying role? I’m not so sure. As Americans from traditional communities — organized religion, social clubs and local organizations — it seems that we are increasingly looking to other areas of our lives for meaning. With the ,” maybe work is becoming one of those areas. Many of us who have had the privilege of studying at top universities expect more from our livelihood and work experiences than just a paycheck. We expect work to be fulfilling, important and even transcendent. First we called them jobs, then careers, now callings, Derek Thompson in a February Atlantic piece.
Are students deluding themselves? Can we realistically expect work to satisfy our hunger for meaning? It’s an interesting question, since for much of history, the very thought would be absurd. Except for the lucky few creative types who fused their imaginative instincts with capitalist demand, the role of work was to pay the bills and . After a stressful day in the office or factory, people returned home to their spouses and children, where they fulfilled their need for human connection.
But now the question of whether we can expect more from our job matters. A common thread among the advice I garnered from professors is to be invested in your career over a long-term period of time. In the words of Professor Grace Zimmerman, a frequent misconception is that “junior professionals will be heard and have a say in the strategic choices of a company or division.” It’s unrealistic to expect to make significant impact early-on, she says.
Just coming out of school, there’s going to be a lot we don’t know. And for most of us non-science majors, much of what we learned at Brandeis won’t translate directly into our careers. “But your academic studies have taught you how to learn quickly,” Professor Zimmerman says. Professor Stoller echoed a similar sentiment: that despite all of our studies, someone who’s been on the job for 10 to 20 years will always be more expert than those of us in entry-level positions.
But that’s not to say our work shouldn’t matter. Professor William Kahn of the Boston University Questrom School of Business says that work must serve more functions than just a paycheck. Otherwise we have a utilitarian relationship with our work, in which both the company and employee use each other only to maximize earnings.
Sadly, it may be the case that this is more common than we think. poll, 87 percent of employees worldwide are not engaged at work. And in his landmark 2003 essay, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” anthropologist David Graeber that an enormous percentage of the modern workforce performs what are in essence useless jobs, from corporate lawyers to public health administrators.
Of course, there may be valid financial reasons for performing such jobs. But the degree to which we perform such work for the status alone is concerning. For one, we seem more now than before to align our job title with our identity — just take a cursory scroll through Linkedin profiles. It’s an attractive idea: to be passionate about what you do. But perhaps it’s too elusive, and has the negative effect of placing too much pressure on students to “find what they love” when, in reality, all that’s important is to be challenged and engaged.
I’m guilty of this myself, opening nearly every one of my cover letters this year with, “My name is Andrew Jacobson and I am passionate about socially-responsible investing” — articulating not only my interest in using money to do good, but also my burning passion.
David Graeber writes, “There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely (one or t'other?) Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.” This is revolutionary, and what’s happening is, according to Graeber, an act of “profound psychological violence.”
Another thing is our aversion to adversity. Older age groups call us the “trophy generation.” We’re supposedly fragile and coddled, disinclined to challenge and instead drawn to projects of minimal effort with high levels of praise and support. But work will bring difficulties, failure and negative feedback, says Professor Kahn. The key is to persevere and build resilience.
Carol Dweck might add the importance of having a “growth mindset.” As opposed to a “fixed mindset,” which dictates that our intelligence and capabilities are fixed, we must believe not only that growth is possible but attach ourselves to the learning process itself. With such an outlook, mistakes and failures become opportunities for growth.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from the overwhelming job-hunting process, it’s to remain focused on who you are and what you want. If I may offer a celestial metaphor from the Netflix show Shtisel, we see that the planets revolve around the sun. Now what would happen if the sun were to suddenly decide to circulate around the planets? The whole solar system would be thrown to chaos. Similarly, I believe it critical for students searching for jobs to hold their ground — just like the sun — and not lose their intentions amid a galaxy of opportunities.
“The most important thing,” says Professor Kahn, “is to be surrounded by people who will challenge you.”