Planning Your Career: Aim Too High or Aim Too Low?

Sunset through Freezing Fog, Coventry, 1979

Sunset through Freezing Fog, Coventry, 1979

The photo above—which could be titled “In the Bleak Midwinter”—shows the sun setting through freezing fog in University Valley, Coventry, in January 1979. The location was approximately here, although it’s now unrecognizable.

At the time, I was feeling very bleak myself, because I really wasn’t sure why I’d embarked on an Engineering Science degree course at Warwick University, with a view to becoming, of all things, a Civil Engineer. As I’ve described in a previous post, that experience didn’t go well, but, in retrospect, it actually turned out to be for the best, since a short time later I moved to a more prestigious university and obtained a better degree, in a subject that was more appropriate for my skills and interests.

It’s interesting to examine the flawed thought process that led me to make that discouraging “false start” at Warwick, and whether it would even have been possible for me to have made career decisions more wisely in those days.

What to Do with Your Life

Years ago, I heard someone say something like this (in a PBS radio item, I think):

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time worrying about what I was going to do with my life. As I grew older, I came to realize that I should be worrying more about what life was going to do to me!

That may be all too true, but it does nothing to answer the question that occupies the time of many young people (including me, at that age), about what career to choose, and, in general, what path to take in life.

When I was growing up, it was by no means clear what career I should aim for. I seemed to have no access to knowledgeable advice, and the only thing that everyone seemed to be agreed on was that I should not follow in the footsteps of my father! (My father had become a teacher.)

My Father with Me in our Back Garden, 1963

My Father with Me in our Back Garden, 1963

What do You Want to be when You Grow Up? Are You Joking?

It has become a cliché that most children are asked at some point what they’d like to be “when they grow up”, and I was no exception. My earliest recollections of my ideas on that topic suggest that I wanted to be a train driver. However, my mother claimed that the answer I gave to that question was that I wanted to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps, and be “retired”!

In retrospect, it is now obvious that, had I tried to answer that question seriously, and had I somehow been able to give an accurate answer, nobody would have believed me.

Suppose that, in 1977 when I had to make decisions about what to do after I left school, I had made the following statement about my future:

Well, I think I’ll aim to get a degree in Electronics from one of the world’s top universities, then that should enable me to get a job with the BBC, so I can become a video engineer. Once I’ve mastered that, I’ll move to California to work on advanced video system design. Maybe I should also invent a few new video systems and techniques, to earn me some patents in the USA and Japan.

I can just imagine the kind of response that I’d have received to such a statement! There would have been much rolling of eyes, shaking of heads, and almost certainly some laughter or derision. I’d have been accused of not treating the question seriously.

But the paragraph above describes exactly what I actually did do during the ensuing quarter-century!

To realize just how impossible those predictions would have seemed, bear in mind that, during my schooldays, I’d never used any kind of computer more complex than a digital calculator (as described in a previous post), and nobody in my family had any history of working in engineering or technology. (My father had owned an electrical installation business prior to World War II, but that was really the construction industry.)

In retrospect, it’s obvious that, although my career choice at that age was an important decision, it was really much less important than I was led to believe at the time.

It Seems Easy for Some

In contrast to my indecisiveness, my best friend at school never seemed to have any doubts about what path in life he wanted to follow. He had created his own marionette act while at primary school, which he performed around the Scarborough area, and, when we were at school together, he was always certain that his future lay in show business. I was envious of his clarity of purpose and determination to achieve it.

He went on to win ATV’s New Faces show, on national television, and dropped out of school to pursue his dream, eventually becoming one of Britain’s most successful theatrical agents and managers.

Build Your Own Dream

I had to learn the hard way just how true is the following statement.

If you don’t build your dream, someone will hire you to help build theirs.

As a young man, I would certainly have found the idea of “building my own dream” impossibly daunting, but nonetheless, time expended trying to define “my dream” would have been well-spent.

This kind of advice is sometimes taken to mean that you should start your own business, but that’s not necessarily the case. You may be able to work for someone else, and yet also gain skills that will lead you towards your dream role.

Too Narrow an Education

One major problem that negatively impacted my career decisions was the insistence on over-specialization, at too early an age, that was a feature of the British educational system. The requirement to concentrate on a limited range of subjects at school, from the age of 13, effectively closed off many careers to me.

I’ll have more to say about this problem in a future post, but I want to mention it here because it has probably had such a negative effect on the lives of many.

The Luxury of Options

I realize that people of my generation and younger can perhaps consider ourselves lucky that we even have the luxury of being able to choose our goals in life. For many people—perhaps the majority—throughout history, those options were simply not available, and their paths through life were largely restricted and predetermined at birth.

For my parents, and many of their generation, their attempts to plan their lives were repeatedly interrupted by major events beyond their control, such as two World Wars in my father’s case.

Even those who managed to avoid taking overt personal risks sometimes found themselves impacted by the misfortunes of others. My mother’s first husband died of tuberculosis (contracted in a Japanese POW camp), which then almost killed my mother (her life was saved only by the development of new “wonder drugs” at the end of the 1940s).

By comparison with my parents’ battles, my own worries and concerns have always seemed trivial, but nonetheless I did have to make important decisions about my future at a young age.

Summary: how to Choose a Career

The best advice I can give to anyone trying to make a career decision now is as follows. In offering these tips, I’m well aware that it’s much easier to give this type of advice than it is to follow it!

  • Don’t fret the details. Don’t waste time trying to predict or plan exactly what you will do. As I showed above, even if your predictions were to be 100% accurate, there’s a good chance that nobody, including you, will believe them! Some people try to plan in immense detail, and are then disappointed when things don’t work out exactly that way.
  • Build Your Own Dream, by aiming to do what you enjoy doing. I realize that this is common “pop psychology” advice. It sounds trite and is usually much easier said than done! However, it has a valid basis. One way or another, you will spend a significant portion of your life doing whatever you choose to do as a career. Choosing to do something you don’t like is therefore a terrible form of self-punishment. You only get one go at life, so you will never get back all that time that you spent being miserable.
  • Don’t worry too much about relative pay or current career prospects. These conditions tend to change with time, so the job situation when you actually enter a field is likely to have changed relative to when you made your career plans. Many jobs that existed when I was trying to make my career decisions simply no longer exist at all, and vice versa. There are also more subtle pressures. For example, I chose Electronic Engineering over Computer Science for my degree, partly because, at that time, I could obtain an apprenticeship in the former but not the latter. In retrospect, though, Computer Science would have been a better fit for my skills and interests.
  • Always aim “too high”; that is, aim for the highest level that you can achieve. For example, if you can get a Ph.D., and if it’s relevant to what you want to do, be sure to do so.
  • Don’t fear failure. Again, this is easier said than done! My parents seemed to have a fatalistic view that, if you tried something but failed at it, you were somehow marked for life as an “irrevocable failure”. In fact, many successful people have experienced some failures along the way, but still their achievements outweigh their failures. They don’t “write themselves off”, nor permanently wallow in self-pity, because of a failure.
  • Treat career advice with caution. I recall many instances when someone said to me, “If I were you, I’d…”, then proceeded to offer some well-meant advice. The problem, in all cases, was that the person offering the advice was not me, and typically had completely different skills, aptitudes and interests from me. For example, an art teacher was never going to advise me to become an engineer, and a science teacher was never going to advise me to become an artist, but what I now do involves both skillsets, so I was right to insist on developing both.
  • Reject advice from “No-Talent Naysayers”. Not all career advice is well-intentioned. Unfortunately, there are many in the world who have no particular talents, and who try to compensate for their own failings by belittling the abilities of others. Such people will invariably tell you that, whatever ambitions you have, you’re sure to fail. I grew up with the British class system, where the typical claim would be that, “People like us don’t achieve things like that”. The best response to such nonsense is not only to recognize it when you hear it, but also to feel sorry for the inadequacy of the person saying it.

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