How To Think About Your Career

If you are coming out of college, how do you start thinking about your career? Or, if you came out of college a few years ago, and have dawdled through various things you don't like, how do you re-think about your career all over again? Indeed there could be numerous variations of this scenario, each person having an individual one, and the key question to ask is whether there are any general rules to think about careers at all. And, if you want to get really deep, you may start musing what's a career anyway.

Let's start with the philosophical one. My favourite story about this is the story of the young man who was fishing in a pond middle of the day when he got accosted by a busy type, may be some distant uncle. Horrified with this young man's laziness, the older man advised him to abandon leisurely pursuits and get some productive engagement - education, employment or training whatever. The younger man asked him what would happen if he did that: The older man told him about all the good things that could happen - the pursuit of happiness thing. The younger man asked him what would happen if he got rich: He would be able to do whatever he liked, like fishing in the afternoon, the older man answered. But, then, asked the annoyed younger man, was he not doing that already?

This is an old story and indeed we can start picking the argument quite easily. But the broader point is that there is little point talking about a career without thinking through why one should take the trouble. For many people in the developing countries, this point is really so simple that it does not need any elaboration: They have to strive hard to get a better life in terms of money, and all the other elements of happiness. From that vantage point, deliberating what a career is for may indeed not make sense. However, from another, empirical, standpoint, when we see millions of people feeling wasted mid-career, with lives no better than they started with, this whole pursuit of happiness thing may look quite phoney. The more obvious likeness is with the fateful ride of the six hundred, this one unsung.

Becoming the canon-fodder isn't a smart career strategy, and this is why starting with the philosophical question, even if that leads to practical answers, such as job and money, may make abundant sense. In fact, what a career is for isn't a philosophical question at all, but a guard against buying too much of the self-serving emerging middle class rhetoric, particularly when middle classes, for all practical purposes, are submerging. Raising a question such as this should lead one to the core issues of careers today, that it is ever changing, and that stereotypical dream of a job after school is actually well past its sale-by date as far dreams are concerned.

One is much better served, whichever country one is in, to think about their objectives in the face of the two dominant forces shaping our lives: Globalisation and Automation. An understanding of what globalisation is doing to their lives, professions they want to be in and the dreams they have shaped for themselves, is enormously helpful to get started on career thinking. Ditto for automation as it reaches some kind of tipping point, changing the terms of engagement for most jobs and work. 

This may sound like a tough ask - to ask twenty year olds to think about such mighty topics - but it is really basic. Globalisation and automation is really everywhere, and an appreciation of them should lead to one key understanding: That the future isn't going to look like the past. The first problem with our career thinking, that assumption that life will continue to be exactly as it is, should go away if one develops an understanding of the forces shaping the change. They may reach different conclusions, but they may also get closer to general principles, such as one may have different careers through his/her life, and that one needs to keep moving everyday. They may also discover their strengths, they may be forced to think what they are good at, something that really gets obscured in the business of buzzwords that career gurus unleashed on us.

So, here are my five questions to make you think about your career:

1. What are you really good at?

2. What do you love that you can be really good at?

3. How do you make someone pay for what you are really good at?

4. Can you be the World's Best in what you are good at?

5. How can you harness technology to become even better at what you are good at?

My argument is that these questions will focus one's mind on 'core competencies' - at an individual level - and allow him/her to think about various strategies to build a career around these, once s/he is clear about the objectives. These questions will take into account the twin forces of globalisation and automation, and hopefully allow people to think of 'development' seriously. These would also take the discussion beyond the buzzwords and allow some serious thinking around 'benchmarks' - what is being good at means or how to define world's best - which makes career discussion more real than ever.

Such thinking is a design exercise, and if done well, it can have unexpected results. One may discover some of the things one had strengths on but nearly forgotten: How many people have suddenly remembered that they were good at drama/ music/ writing when forced to think what they are really good at? They may also discover the inevitability of certain things - that you can't really hide from the internet, for example, or that learning another language may be one of the best career investments one can do. They may also discover opportunities to build their strengths, traveling being one example. In short, if one could be jolted out of thinking their fathers' careers to be their own, lots of unexpected things may happen.


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