How do people decide what to do for a living? This question was prompted by a post from my blogging friend, Indiana Jen, a post in which she relates how Florida governor Scott disparaged anthropology and other liberal arts degrees as less applicable to the job market than others.
There was a time when I would have agreed with the Governor. It made sense to me that engineering, science, business and even law would be more practical than a mere liberal arts degree. Now, however, with the perspective of many decades behind me, I would counsel a young person differently, even in these hard times when the true unemployment rate, counting the partly employed and the discouraged drop-outs, probably is near 20%.
The way I reason now has to do with happiness. Human beings are enormously varied in their talents and in how they develop and mature. Some are early bloomers who know from early on what they want to do and others take a long time, or might get bogged down, discouraged, and never find their niche. But to me, happiness is maximized for those who first identify their own talents and then follow that dream wherever it leads, regardless of whether a particular field may be crowded or in high demand. There are many different kinds of intelligence, not merely the kind measured by IQ tests. Indeed, one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs passionately sounded the same theme, Steve Jobs. His message: find your passion, whatever it may be, and follow it.
One reason to follow one’s heart is that the kinds of skills in demand constantly change, and very well might do so dramatically between freshman year and graduation, and that’s assuming college at all. I submit that one of the biggest mistakes many young people make is that they even need a college education. College is a business which creates its own exclusivity and leverages the false meme that quality of teaching drives its graduates’ success. Such success is instead primarily the result of past success enabling the qualitative filtering of applicants. The price of college, driven by the salaries of professors and administrators, has reached completely unreasonable heights, so much so that most students graduate with staggering debt that defeats the meme that it is essential for financial success. Instead, many are well suited for the trades and despite high unemployment, industry is clamoring for capable graduates of technical schools. Even beyond that, look at two prominent college dropouts who excelled both technically and in business: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
A college education isn’t what it used to be. There was a time when colleges embraced something called a core curriculum, a grounding of all students in the basics of literacy, history, science and math. No more. Now, curricula are so varied that, at least to me, a diploma’s significance has been greatly diluted. However, if it is from a reputable institution, it does mean that a certain minimal effort and level of responsibility have been expended (assuming the absence of cheating on a large scale, something to be considered). But my sense is that many young people who go to college are not college material and shouldn’t be there. Colleges accept them because that’s the way they make their money, and government encourages such mistakes by overly subsidizing people through loan programs. It is a terrible waste – only about half of students entering graduate within six years.
Then, I had this thought too, that many high-paying jobs might not be as fulfilling as the pay would indicate. I will apologize in advance for speculating this way because it is based on perceptions and not experience, but I offer the following examples as fitting that concept.
- Pharmacist: a very competitive profession with extremely high requirements in science, biology and chemistry and which could be crucial in preventing botched medications if it weren’t under-utilized. From what I see, most spend their days on their feet, searching computer screens for interactions and medication histories, and managing pill inventories. As I see it, computer software is making this profession obsolescent at the retail level.
- Airline pilot: a job that requires both high technical skills, good eyesight and physical dexterity, particularly in demanding weather conditions. However, the great bulk of their time is spent on autopilot, so much so that airline companies are having to revamp their training programs. But it involves constant travel, living mostly in hotel rooms and eating a lot of airport food. It would be fun at first, but to me this would be about as exciting as driving a (complicated but automated) bus.
- Lawyer: a very competitive job that requires post-grad education, excellent communication skills, and patience for absorbing mind-numbing detail. Trial lawyers appear quite glamorous on TV, but I think the average lawyer’s life is one of great tedium. Think of searching through the detail of hundreds of cases, or a real-estate lawyer drawing up papers year after year all the same except for the occasional hiccup in the laws, or a patent lawyer trying to match a hundred subtleties to find some exception that makes an invention worth a new patent. Not my idea of excitement.
- CPA: another competitive course of study that involves a broad range of fine detail, math and business studies. However, once out in practice many CPA’s find that their success depends more on salesmanship than on technical details, and if that isn’t your bag, you are doomed to disappointment. As for auditing, it is on a par for interest with the law trade above.
Well, you get the idea. Those aren’t my cup of tea, but I’m sure they fit many. I
consider myself extremely lucky. While my Navy career cost me good deal of family separation, I somehow never once missed Christmas at home. It was an adventurous job that spanned submarines and surface ships, sea duty and shore duty, administrative and technical work. It allowed us to live in seven different cities during my career and it allowed me the early retirement that enabled a second career as an aerospace battery engineer, one in which I enjoyed a good deal of design work as well as business management.
I am thinking that Jennifer Lockett (Indiana Jen) is lucky as well. She is a teacher of anthropology in a private school and she has expressed her pleasure with her job, never mind that the governor of Florida doesn’t think much of it. She interacts with a changing array of personalities in her students and obviously enjoys travel and keeping up with a profession that uses modern communication technology and constantly reveals new discoveries.
I say, listen to Jennifer and Steve Jobs, young people – follow your star.