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“To be” vs. “To do”

A friend of mine recently sent around this quotation.

“We shouldn’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. We should ask them what problem they want to solve.”

I love this. It’s an exhortation to think about problems from first principles, directed specifically at students.

Here are some reasons this seems like great advice:

  • The mere idea of a job is in flux. The gig economy is transforming what employment looks like. Technology is causing entire categories of jobs to spawn or evaporate on the decade timescale. It’s way more likely that the problem a job tackles (e.g. “improving human health”) will be around in 20 years than the jobs associated with it (e.g. “pharmacists”).
  • It encourages an “MVP” mindset. If your goal is to make a big impact on a problem, choosing a career path before fully understanding the problem is putting the cart before the horse. Once you’ve hypothesized that you want to solve a certain problem, you can try it out on a limited scale through smaller projects, internships, reading and discussions with those already solving it — before you commit your whole career to it. In the process, you’ll probably try out a bunch of problems before you find one that really fires you up. Once you have, you can work backwards into a strategy to solve it. That strategy may require getting professional training at some point, but by working backwards you’ve ensured that a) it’s indeed necessary and b) you are tailoring that training as exactly as possible to your chosen problem.
  • You de-risk your eventual job selection. It’s common to see people who are indifferent to the problem they’re solving, and hate their jobs. It’s rare to see people who care passionately about the problem they’re solving, and hate their jobs. How much you love your problem space has a big impact on how you perceive your work. This is important, because in my experience it’s nearly impossible to know what a job is really like until you’ve been in the industry for a few years — the learning curve for most things is just too steep. What you do as a pre-med student, as a med student, as a resident and as a doctor are extremely different — without a passion for human health, you might like one but hate the others. What you do as an intern, as an analyst, as an associate and as a VP at a bank are extremely different. If you are attracted to the perceived lifestyle of a particular job, you’re rolling the dice. If you are utterly fascinated by your problem space, you’ll find something to enjoy in each role.

More than anything, this advice lends itself to a life spent experimenting, exploring and taking action, rather than waiting until adulthood to see whether your blind childhood career guess was the correct one.