We’ve all heard variations on this standard graduation speech message: follow your dreams and don’t let anything stop you. The problem with this is that it’s bad advice.
It does of course contain valuable messages about perseverance and empowerment, but it ignores an important reality: in a world where new job roles are constantly created, the ability to predict what you’ll like and where you’ll end up is virtually impossible.
Additionally, if you’re young, it’s impossible to “know” what really happens in most job roles. I remember feeling like that when I was taking upper-level marketing, accounting and business classes as I pursued my International Business undergraduate degree. At that time, I could tell you any number of facts concerning channels of distribution and currency conversion, but during the times when I would be on a train platform or in a city surrounded by all sorts of professional people wearing business attire and carrying briefcases (it was the ’80s) I was always wondering to myself: what do all these people do?
Hermina Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, has studied how people advance in their careers in reality, rather than in theory. Her finding was simple: we learn who we are only by living, and not before.
In his recent book Range, David Epstein writes the following about Ibarra’s insights:
Ibarra concluded that we maximize match quality throughout life by sampling activities, social groups, contexts, jobs, careers, and then reflecting and adjusting our personal narratives. And repeat. If that sounds facile, consider that it is precisely the opposite of a vast marketing crusade that assures customers they can alight on their perfect matches via introspection alone.
The irony in all of this is that it runs against the grain of “think before you act”. Perhaps the better phrase for those seeking the best path is “act before you think”.
I have experienced these insights. My own career has followed a series of forks in whatever road I was traveling. Making the right decision at each fork was important, but whatever path I chose at each fork inevitably led me to new and unexpected opportunities, which in turn led me to new forks and new opportunities, and so on. I never would have predicted the career I’ve had so far.
My Mom (RIP) grew up in South Dakota in the 1940s and early ’50s. For a Catholic girl like her at the time, there was a short list of defined roles should could realistically consider:
- Housewife (e.g. get married directly following high school)
- School Teacher
Obviously there are a few others, but within her world at the time those were the options most available to a young girl. In my Mom’s case, she went on to college to get her nursing degree.
For my Mom’s granddaughters however, the range of options are completely different and less defined. With this amorphous range of options comes a stressor. How do you select something from a list when you can’t see or understand the list? In a way, it’s easier to pick from a list of five or ten possible job roles than it is to launch yourself into the great unknown of the modern economy.
All this demonstrates that thinking of your future in terms of “predicting” and “selecting” is a bad way to spend your time. “Learning” and “doing” are better words to occupy yourself with.
Here are two interesting excerpts from Epstein’s book that support this topic:
“What Ibarra calls the ‘plan-and-implement’ model – the idea that we should first make a long-term plan and execute without deviation, as opposed to the ‘test-and-learn’ model – is entrenched in depicting of geniuses. Popular lore holds that the sculptor Michelangelo would see a full figure in the block of marble before he ever touched it, and simply chip away the excess stone to free the figure inside. It is an exquisitely beautiful image. It just isn’t true. Art historian William Wallace showed that Michelangelo was actually a test-and-learn all-star. He constantly changed his mind and altered his sculptural plans as he worked…..Like anyone eager to raise their match quality prospects, Michelangelo learned who he was – and whom he was carving – in practice, not in theory……He worked according to Ibarra’s new aphorism: ‘I know who I am when I see what I do'”
“Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes flirted in the extreme via what she called her “Year of Yes”. Rhimes is introverted and was inclined to turn down every unexpected invitation that came her way. She decided to about-face and say yes to everything for an entire year. She finished the year with a deep understanding of what she wanted to focus on”
Whether you’re in your sixties and thinking about a new chapter, or in your twenties and trying to discern “what to do with your life”, I say relax, and put yourself in as many learning-by-doing situations as possible.