What your career doesn’t give you

Your experiences, and the retrospective observations are what really count.

Consider the influence a “career path” has on the decisions you make and the opportunities you take.

Career, by definition, implies that an individual subscribes to a specific professional path for a significant period of time; at the end of a career, you are supposed to experience a level of closure with your contributions to the world. The term gives way to a rigidity and narrowness that I simply find uncomfortable. It’s as if you are writing a fiction novel with a complete understanding of how the plot will unfold.

But that’s never how it really is. Your emotions, observations, and daily experiences shape the way you apply your creativity. I’m not an author, but I would assume that the rigidity of formulating a story top-down isn’t a welcomed ingredient in any creative expression, let alone writing.

Assuming we can agree upon this notion, I will further argue that authoring a captivating novel, complete with rich character development and seemingly insurmountable conflict, requires the author to create characters that demonstrate self-improvement and persistence in light of hardship. It’s this element of “coming of age” that enables any novel to be exciting and informative at the same time.

Great tales allow readers to experience an adventure through the lens of a single main character; this individual or creature will make many mistakes, entertain a diverse set of obstacles, and build vital relationships with secondary-characters.

So you may ask — where is a novel’s excitement is derived from?

It’s all in the reactions. How do these characters demonstrate resilience after certain defeat; will a successful bout with adversity restrict their ability to embrace humility? Will loss guide them down a path of darkness and insecurity?

There is uncertainty, intensity and curiosity packed into every great novel.

So here’s the point — any great author will ensure that their characters are nowhere near perfect at a story’s introduction. But by its closing, you will have gotten to know a character who demonstrated self-improvement iteratively, chapter by chapter. How individuals react to obstacles bring excitement, while the approach to self-improvement is what defines a novel’s informativeness.

Now — let’s apply this same methodology to your future.

Career, as it is defined now.

The term career is religiously used to describe a set of opportunities that require the same set of skills. It’s as if your professional decisions are guided by a static set of guidelines that are generated by your academic and creative experiences.

How I’ve seen it used

“So, what would you like to do in your career?”

“Don’t go into that career path, it doesn’t pay as well?”

“It’ll take time to find out if you really like this career.”

“This career is stressful, but there are so many jobs for anyone in it.”

Don’t get me wrong, these are productive questions to ask and positive observations to make. But there is a level of rigidity to them that just feels too artificial and unnecessarily forced.

Observation 1.

“What would you like to do” irks me a bit. It’s a difficult question to answer because it assumes you want to pursue a limited set of opportunities based upon the formal or informal education you received.

Observation 2.

Going into a career path based upon pay is fairly short-sighted. I’m not saying you should ignore the financial benefits an opportunity may afford; it’s an incredibly important component to an opportunity. But when you optimize purely for financial gain, there will be tradeoffs that you know will stunt your personal and professional growth.

There are most definitely exceptions to this observation; any student that operates on paycheck to paycheck, or has any outstanding responsibilities that require professional sacrifice, may optimize for financial benefits.

How I believe you should approach your career.

The way I have approached my entrepreneurial and engineering-based experiences has helped me produce a precise, yet flexible creative focus on the opportunities I would like to take. The precision, derived from the informative nature of my negative experiences, followed by reactionary risk-taking tendencies, generates this unique focus.

I tend to “view” my career as a diverse set of experiences built from opportunities that could lead to significant growth.

I define the term “growth” as the improvement on opportunity evaluation.

After taking on an opportunity, will the proceeding experience be as rewarding as you had forecasted. Perhaps, you may have overestimated the positive impact your involvement in a venture had. Ultimately, it comes down to how effectively you administer trial & error.

Previous experiences taught me about what I liked or disliked; perhaps, the age gap on that engineering team last summer restricted my willingness to take risks. Or maybe the company’s tanking stock price cultivated an uncomfortable level of stress and expectation on the product team I worked on.

Ultimately, I have learned that properly internalizing the benefits and drawbacks of an experience can enable you to select opportunities that better fit your personality and aspirations. This is where the process of recalibration will help you linearly, or hopefully exponentially, find opportunities far better than the former. Keep in mind, each opportunity can demand a different set of skills; this is where the fundamental difference with career exists and enables you to more quickly determine what you like and do not like.

Together, the four experiences listed below define my capabilities as an engineer, designer & entrepreneur. Each experience has its share of benefits and drawbacks; identifying them has allowed me to determine which opportunities offer the highest growth potential.

Gradfire, formerly UCDiscourse (Davis, CA. 2014–2017)

  • Creative freedom to ship and design features at will (Pro)
  • Working with young individuals, leads to productive culture (Pro)
  • Flexibility to contribute to all levels of the technical stack (Pro)
  • Pivot product based upon user feedback (Pro)
  • Make mistakes more frequently, leads to re-calibration (Pro)
  • Overwhelming when handling business & product commitments (Con)
  • Legal overhead that occurs due to infringement (Con)
  • Trying to prioritize tasks without senior leadership (Con)
  • Handling financial investments and investor obligations (Con)

Mailchimp (Atlanta, GA. Summer of 2017)

  • Incredibly cognizant executive staff, employees first (Pro)
  • Diverse staff, balance in engineering between youth and seniority (Pro)
  • Low stress location (Pro)
  • Diverse set of aspirations and career tracks in Atlanta (Pro)
  • Location does not lend itself to growth in professional network (Con)
  • Technologies are internally developed and maintained (Con)
  • Conservative in product timelines, security prioritized (Con)

Yelp (San Francisco, CA. Fall of 2017)

  • Leverage a tremendous amount of open source technology (Pro)
  • Creative freedom to blueprint and execute project (Pro)
  • Engineers have the ability to interface with product initiatives (Pro)
  • Location promotes opportunity to collaborate with other creators (Pro)
  • Balance in engineering youth and seniority (Pro)
  • High octane company, stress is apparent due to external competition (Con)
  • At times, engineers may be over managed due to the emphasis on product excellence (Con)

Google (Palo Alto, CA. Summer of 2018)

  • Strong internal engineering network (Pro)
  • Established growth tracks for all creative disciplines (Pro)
  • Engineering is prioritized, meetings are rare (Pro)
  • Encouraged to move teams, products or divisions (Pro)
  • Culture is significantly fragmented; depends on the team you are on (Con)
  • Use of proprietary technology encouraged and typically enforced (Con)
  • Engineering teams lend itself to more seniority than youth (Con)

As each experience comes to a close, I try my best to identify characteristics like the ones listed above. I associate each characteristic with a distinct memory or encounter such that I can remind myself about how I concluded a characteristic existed in the first place.

Why are these observations helpful?

Just like anything in life, nothing can be planned to perfection. So take comfort in knowing that you will make mistakes and be guaranteed to experience discomfort. You will make some wrong decisions and will take on growth-restricting opportunities; I already have — and I will take many more wrong turns. I’m okay with that.

So now that we have recognized the variability of any career, there is something to be said for pattern recognition. Can you identify consistent qualities that contribute to your success in an opportunity? Perhaps there are certain aspects to your experiences that have caused chronic dissatisfaction.

Identifying these qualities is important; but take it a step further and organize them into two buckets: pros and cons. Prioritize each quality based upon how strongly they impacted your productivity, happiness or ability to learn. Evaluating the emotional weight of each quality via associated memories can be an effective way to do this. Emotions are non-binary and demonstrate range; similarly, prioritization of these many qualities require a range to operate on. Given that emotional impact greatly varies and leaves a stronger foothold on the human mind, you can confidently rely on anecdotal memories to define the order of importance for an experience’s qualities.

Wrapping it all up.

So here is where I dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s. Take as many opportunities as you can; do not make any long term commitments to a single opportunity unless you believe that, after significant recalibration, it is a good enough fit for your personality and skill set. Explore and exhaust your list of opportunities so you can learn from all the negative experiences and grow in the ones that you define as positive. And remember, after every chapter comes to a close, pivot your focus using any form of introspection you find most effective; for me, it happens to be writing it down.

I am assuming you are young — perhaps you are a student. Take advantage of this time; take all the wrong turns you want. I’m not telling you to directly take a left, when you know you should be taking a right — but just don’t be allergic to risk. Take that jump, and see where you land. Another negative experience is the worst possible outcome; and at that point, you’ll know the drill. Internalize it effectively, and re-pivot.

Before you know it, your concluding chapter will arrive — and by then, you will want your “readers” to have seen you break barriers, exceed expectations and hold no regrets. So enjoy the process, because the only person “reading” your book, is actually just you.