Jul 31, 2020 | How can you spot the signs that will lead you to the right choices?
THE TWO CHOICES
Are there any signs in heaven and earth that can tell us what we should eventually be doing in our professional lives? These little cues thrown to our feet along the way that we tend to ignore – until there are so many of them that the truth just becomes obvious? And, before that truth even comes to the surface, is it already locked somewhere in our subconscious mind? I like to think so. This concept is somewhat related to what Steve Jobs used to refer to as “connecting the dots.”
I was thinking a lot about whether or not the twists in my plans could be foreseen in some way. And, whether or not I could have navigated myself better. I also talked about this topic in the recent podcast that I have recorded for PhDCareerStories. As a matter of fact, to choose the right career, we need to know two fundamental things about ourselves:
(1) What our lifestyle, working style, and the optimal, natural role to play towards other people are,
(2) What topic we should work on, or rather, what problem we want to solve in this world.
YOUR LIFESTYLE/WORKING STYLE
Firstly, let’s talk about the lifestyle and the working style. When you are in high school, you don’t choose your lifestyle. You live with your parents and follow the rules developed in the family you belong to and in the school that you attend. Well, most teenagers attempt to break this status quo at some point 😉 I did too. But in general, you don’t have much room to try out other options. Paradoxically, defiant students might benefit from their bad behavior in a way, as they choose to bend the rules towards their own preferences — while the “good students” follow the guidelines closely and without question.
Most people also don’t choose their lifestyle as undergrad students to be real. They typically need to live on budget. So, they stay in dorms or rent some cheap apartments together with other students, cook by themselves, attend classes according to the agenda enforced by the university, and study and/or drink in groups after lecture hours. As an undergrad, you don’t really choose your working style neither. You need to attend classes as well as prescheduled mid-term exams and final exams. You need to fit into the frame. The only thing you decide upon is whether you diligently study every evening or rather, you spend your evenings on partying, and then increase the workload just before the exams.
Furthermore, once you are at school, you get particular classes of assignments. Most often, you are not stimulated to think out of the box and to attempt to solve about other classes of problems. For instance, when you study physics, you will get a lot of assignments in which you need to calculate a value of some quantity. You can then demonstrate that you know the laws of physics and you can apply them in practice. No one will ask you in the exam whether, e.g., you have ideas on how to further investigate the universe, how to improve the public understanding of the quantum mechanics, or what is your opinion about the string theory.
Lastly, once you study, your personal results is what matters at the end of the day. This is quite an individualistic setting. To put it simple, the lecturers broadcast the knowledge and you absorb it. If you don’t try yourself in multiple settings — as a teacher, as a mediator, as an advisor, as a leader or a follower — you will have hard time trying to predict what roles you should be playing towards other people in the future. As I mentioned in the recent post, “How would you like (them) to fell?“, this is a crucial bit of information you should get to know about yourself.
So, given all that, how can you possibly know what your preferred lifestyle or the type of problems that your mind is wired to solve?
Most people don’t know; in the first few years of their professional careers, they need to learn about their own preferences by trial and error. And, they typically need to switch jobs a few times to eventually find the right working environment for themselves. And, I like to think that in some ways, these initial missteps are inevitable. At the time when you are 18 or 25, you just don’t have enough information about yourself, or enough evidence, to tell how you should live your life to make an optimal use of your potential.
One advice here would be to observe yourself closely in free time — the rhythm of sleep, work and leisure that you naturally develop during vacation time is highly indicative of how you should plan your working time as well.
YOUR LIFE MISSION
Secondly, when you are 20, can you predict what problem you will be working on when you hit 40? As mentioned above, you get pieces of evidence along the way. But these pieces of evidence are just too tiny to draw your attention at first. And, things always look much clearer in retrospect.
When I look back at the times when I was choosing my undergraduate studies, I smile. At school, I was good at every school subject. Yet, I didn’t get awards in the olympiads for high school students even though I was trying really hard. I was asking myself, “In every single discipline of science and arts, I’m one of the best students in my school. Yet, at the same time, apparently I’m not talented enough to excel on the national level. I’m just always getting outraced. Which studies shall I choose?”
When I think about it now, I’m not surprised that I was so confused about the choice of undergrad studies. What could I know about how to build a professional career back then? I didn’t even know which school subject interests me the most. Not mentioning about the implications that this education will have on my future, the scope of careers that I can choose later, and how life looks like after I choose each one of these careers.
In the end, I chose my studies using some heuristic. I thought that given my multidisciplinary profile, interfaculty studies would probably be the best choice. I decided to go for it and share my time between studying Physics and Psychology. Then, during undergraduate studies, I fell in love with the idea of studying the human brain. I proceeded to do so, while at the same time changing my country of residency to the Netherlands. But in the end, after almost 8 years of doing neuroscience, I changed my scope of interests again to studying the job market. I also changed my working mode, from participating in the graduate school (which is, in a way, a feudal system) to developing my own company (which gives almost full personal freedom).
So, could I somehow predict early on that eventually, I would be independent? Namely, that I would have my own company, that I would work on helping people with jobs, or that I would be an author and write books?
As mentioned before, there were plenty of signs along the way but I tended to ignore them. For instance, ever since I watched “The Fight Club” by David Fincher, it has always been my favorite movie. And what is the movie about? The interpretations can vary. I guess everyone who has ever watched the movie has a different opinion about its meaning. But to me, it is mostly about the range of problems that the late capitalism brought to society. And about today’s young people’s disappointment from their professional careers. Namely, Millenials often feel that careers eat their lives and leave them feeling empty and unsatisfied. Well, tell me about this… To me, this is also a movie about how regaining control over your life.
Furthermore, while traveling, I used to pay attention to different things than most travelers around me. Rather than reading the prospects for tourists, visiting famous buildings, and trying to taste every local meal, I preferred to go drinking and dancing with the locals. I also used to bomb them with questions about their daily lives and their life priorities.
Altogether, I think that deep inside, I always had interest in people and their life situation more than anything else. Even when I chose to study neuroscience, I had a deep belief that my work would help understand human cognition. And, potentially, improve on the state of the public mental health. Unfortunately, the reality of this job was very different from what I had thought. Yet still, this was my original intention.
And, I was always writing a lot. Even in times when I was writing three Master’s theses at a time, I still used to write in free time. I was writing in many forms: blogs, diaries, and essays. Writing was relaxing to me, and it just made me very happy. Time was always flying so quickly while writing! Whenever I sit down to writing in the morning, I know it’s going to be a good day. And sometimes I feel that anything that happens in the outer world, only happens so that I have something to write about…
I also always enjoyed teaching and sharing knowledge. Even as a 7-year old, I used to teach my 5-year-old sister how to read and write just because it was so joyful to me. I don’t remember one situation when teaching didn’t deliver this internal feeling of joy. It was joyful even on the occasions when I was teaching a topic that I wasn’t the most passionate about. This view of faces of people who were surprised with something they’d just learned, was just too cool.
I also always had some strong tendencies to go my own way in life. I function best in situations when there are no clear rules of the game and you can find your own ways to navigate and choose projects and people. This is one of the reasons why I chose for interfaculty studies, and then, subsequently, for an academic contract. In academia, you have a lot of personal space by definition. I just didn’t spend enough time deliberating this simple fact that I should go my own way as early as possible. And probably, I also didn’t listen to my intuition often enough.
Now, once looking back at all these signs, I’m not surprised at the direction I eventually went for. If I could do one thing differently, I would have probably paid more attention to the process. Namely, I would have asked myself more often about the sources of everyday joy — not the joy that you experience when you succeed at something (e.g., when you pass an exam or when your work gets attention from a large audience) but rather, the joy that you experience while doing it. Plus, I would have been more systematic and methodological with self-monitoring. Whereas I often reacted to the situation only when I feel so bad that I knew I needed to drastically change something.
To sum up, almost no one finds the right job, or career, at the first go. This is because of the lack of associated evidence that this is the right direction. There are some exceptions. There are these people who are crazy about just one thing since early childhood and pursue their dream. But the nature of exceptions is that they are exceptional. Unlike these rare and lucky people, most of us need to take this cost behind self-discovery into account and give it time. This might take years and years of self-research, and testing oneself in many contexts and situations. And in that process, the truth about what you are here for, will come to the surface at some point as well.