My early 20s have felt like one long round of career speed dating. From graduating with an English degree and telling myself that I’ll surely be an academic in the discipline, to traveling to Japan to teach English as a foreign language, to writing copy for a public health research project, I bounced from one field to another while gaining skills, figuring out my interests, and moving on when the time felt right.
In a recent interview with Fatherly, writer David Epstein likens careers to dating when he states: “I always think if we thought of careers like dating, we would stop pressuring people to settle down so early.” For those who have read David Epstein’s recent work Range: Why Generalist Triumph in a Specialized World, this line of thinking should come as no surprise. In it, Epstein argues that those who get ahead are the ones who take their time discovering their interests and building a wide range of skills. Epstein starts the work comparing the lives of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer — two accomplished athletes in their fields whose life paths contrasted sharply.
Woods, according to Epstein, started out his career in golf at a young age with his father coaching and mentoring him to specialize exclusively in golf. His story is told ad nauseam as the justification for early specialization. If parents start their kids early on a certain life path, those kids too can become masters in their chosen field. Federer, on the other hand, did not start exclusively with tennis. In fact, he took time playing various sports. He became a well-rounded athlete and when he eventually did decide on tennis, he was able to zero in on the skills he needed to become an accomplished tennis player.
Epstein includes many anecdotal accounts and scientific studies on how early specialization may not be as effective as the pervasive myth proclaims. Epstein himself has a meandering and serpentine career path. First majoring in the sciences and working in a lab in Antartica, then becoming a late-night street reporter in New York, to later being a sports writer at Sports Illustrated and now an accomplished non-fiction novelist. Epstein followed his interests and eventually found a path that felt right for him.
Much of my life has unfolded in the ways in which Epstein describes. I’ve never been one to select a specific career path and follow it to its end. How could I? In an overabundant world of opportunity, careers are forming that could never be conceived of years before. How do I choose when the passage of time creates an entirely new landscape before me? In many of the same ways, we as people are also constantly changing. Who we are at eighteen is different than who we are at twenty-five or thirty-five or fifty-five. How do we really expect an eighteen-year-old to make a decision on the life they could not even imagine or anticipate?
Sure, some people do decide at a young age and they lead long and successful careers in their chosen fields. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. What is troublesome, though, is the assumption that all people should choose right away and that not having a dedicated and linear career path is indicative of an indecisive person. Or that if you don’t choose early, you’ll lag behind everyone else. Or you’ll lack the depth of knowledge and skills others have already. Or whatever else excuse and supposed fault is given to justify choosing a career path early in life.
But what I’ve found is that the more I follow my interests and build my skills, the more well-rounded of an individual I become. Every decision I have made, every job I’ve held, every person I’ve come into contact with has shaped my life in a multitude of ways. Instead of having specific and limited skills in one field, I have a toolbox of skills I’ve built from the various professions I’ve had that I can pull out when the time is right.
Whenever I find myself doubting the decisions I have made, I remind myself that every step forward brings me closer to the future I desire. Every transition and new experience guides me towards understanding what I enjoy and, maybe more importantly, what I don’t.
What I’ve built over the years has been a career out of language. I studied words; I taught words; I write words. At eighteen, I probably could have imagined myself as a writer. I’m sure I even did so at some point. But my lived experiences back then could never fully compare to the ones I gained since. As an English major, I learned how writers tell stories. As a language teacher, I helped people tell their own. Studying sociolinguistics, I learned how people from different communities use language to interact with one another. As far as my current role writing copy, I think about how people respond to language and craft writing in relation to that.
Like Epstein, writing has allowed me to continue to pursue broad interests and outwardly express what I learn to those willing to read. I started my journey just knowing that I enjoyed the act of reading and now, after a few years of career dating, I have come to know that I enjoy the act of writing. Through writing, I continue to challenge my understanding of the world in which I inhabit. The lenses I use to do this critical examination come from my experiences as a student, a teacher, a researcher, and a person. Without the specific path I found myself on, I wouldn’t be writing about the topics I write about or the manner in which I write them.
So, in the end, what I’m saying is: go out and date.
Experience what you can and what you want. If you don’t like what you’re doing, switch. Sometimes it can feel as though you’re stuck in a certain career path. But, you’re not. You always have room to grow and change. Your time will never be wasted because you’ve learned skills from every position you’ve ever been in. You become more refined as a person and more selective about what you’re looking for in a career. The more you understand yourself, your skills, and your interests, the more likely it is you’ll find the right job for you. The only way to know is to do.