The Millennial Challenge

There are two things I am thinking deeply about these days, non linear career paths and continuous learning as an adult.

Each generation has its own unique opportunities and challenges, ours I believe will be to learn successfully navigating non linear career trajectories and learning new skills and technologies continuously as adults while working and having a family.

These will be recurring challenges for Millennials more than any other generation before us not just because of the ubiquity of technology, that’s not new.

Technology has always been a game changer, but because of the pace of change and the profoundly deep rooted ways in which it is coming to influence every part of our lives.

A quick search on “nonlinear careers” yields about a million articles, but “Non-linear career trajectories” by Lara Hogen, Engineer Director at Etsy, and writer of two books is awesome. My own career started off rather linearly, formally I trained to be an engineer, it taught me a lot, structured thinking, the hard skills for programming, getting stuck and learning how to keep pushing when stuck. But, the most important skills I picked up were outside of class, I read like a maniac through engineering college, mostly Russian classic literature, Dostoevsky, Gorky, Kafka, you name it. In retrospect, this reading gave me a philosophical bent of mind, and though I didn’t know it then, was feeding my right brain in a way my classes at school were not. Similar to Lara, I never had a clear vision of my career. I actually wanted to be a journalist when I was in high school, books fed the desire in me to write, and learn how to write. It was also a typical outlet the my INTJ self.

“I’ve often struggled with having a clear vision of what I want to be when I “grow up”, despite the fact that I’m a successful engineering manager and have written two books in my field. Both of my parents had a “calling” for their careers early in life — mom’s a minister, dad’s a teacher — so by comparison I’ve always felt disjointed in my professional path. I’m a person without a concrete career goal or plan, and I routinely lose sleep over that fact.” — Lara Hogen

If I had thought about my career, and built a plan, I would not have said, I want to be a product manager in technology, or an engineer for that matter. Growing up, I had no role models in these professions and product management was not a very popular role in India even in 2011 when I graduated. I would have never thought I’d work in the valley in the education technology space, that I would do a Education Pioneers fellowship, and would want to work in education. The best way to describe me is a multi-potentialite (not a real word, but a real thing). This great TED talk sheds more light on why some of us don’t have a true calling, and that’s OK. I have to constantly remind myself that this discomfort that comes with constant learning is OK. The mantra is

get comfortable, this feeling is here to stay!

Now, moving over to lifelong learning as an adult. Learning to learn, will be one of the most important skills my generation can pick up and hone over the next decade. The excellent article My Daily Learning Ritual by entrepreneur and product person Sachin Rekhi, came into my radar a while back, but really made me conscious about this being a real challenge for our generation, and something we will have to figure out. We will need to learn how to effectively make time to learn in an effective, self disciplined way, throughout our careers. One of the biggest differences between learning as an adult and traditional schooling, is the difference between structured and unstructured learning. Learning is more unstructured and much more self driven and self discipline is far more important in this new paradigm. I really wish Indian education would prepare children more for this.

While the ubiquity of online courses and availability of content will make it easier, it will be up to us to find method in the madness. It’s something I am still experimenting with, and these are some of the things that work for me

  1. Prioritizing — At any given time I am personally capable of giving enough energy to only 2 things, outside of my job. For instance at any given time, I will commit to learning only two new things, like swimming at machine learning. My physical and mental energy + my personal commitments currently only allow for two things. While this seems limiting, its also liberating in ways to say no!
  2. Setting aside time to learn— I put a recurring time on my calendar every day to do this, commit to classes. Both having dedicated time, and acting as a space for me to do what needs to be done.
  3. Being intentional about learning and reflection— From the 100’s and 1000’s of things I want to do, it is very useful to be intentional, and conscious about my own limitations and being intentional about what I want to learn. It’s also useful to be intentional about wanting to learn, acknowledging and accepting it as a necessity. Take time out to write about what you learn or discuss it with peers. Join interest groups, or write a blog. Writing is a great way to actually synthesize your thoughts, and talking to people in a structured or unstructured setting improves learning.
  4. Have fun! — I admit this one is tough for me, to do things just for the joy of doing them. But with mindfulness and accepting that having fun is not just an option but important to life, I have made way and time for it. I don’t questions somethings, don’t want to derive any gains out of it, but purely that it makes me happy.
  5. Set long term goals — This quote from Bill Gates is a great reminder to set long term goals, while short term “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

If you have any tips and tricks up your sleeve or have taken a non linear route, I would love to hear from you.

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