Pathing from College to Career

I love dealing with people who are a mental step ahead of me; I find them very reassuring.

I was reminded of this while having lunch with a friend who is helping with her kid’s college funding.  Last I had heard, the kid was an art student — which is pretty much the worst possible kind of education to have to pay for as far as I’m concerned, but maybe she’ll be the one-in-twenty-five to both use her art degree and not be permanently paupered by it.  Anyway, the kid was having difficulties appreciating the college experience: she was expecting it to be far removed from the shallowness of her high school experience, not realizing that — as my friend had explained to her — that about 80% of people are going to be kind of boring and 10% are going to just plain suck, the point is to seek out the 5% or so that will make you a better person.

I’d like to support this with a couple points.  First, in any arbitrary grouping of people you encounter, not everybody will be trying to be successful in the same way you are because not everybody will be motivated by the same things you are, if they’re motivated by anything (or paying any attention) at all.  Second, when looking forward to a collegiate atmosphere (and I’ve heard wistful mythologies coming from some of my students), you have to bear in mind that the college is selling access to its best students and faculty to the students who are being charged full price.  Put these together:  you’re not going to instantly be in a niche of like-minded people of comparable cognitive competence.  That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, but it does require some finding — and the process of finding will probably challenge your self-understanding in a variety of ways, and this will be a good thing.  But it will be even better if you don’t have unrealistically high expectations going into the situation, which is why I’m repeating this now.  If you want a narrative example of this, watch The Social Network and see how Mark, on the campus of Harvard, is both sought out as having specific capabilities, but also limits his peer group based on the specific capabilities he needs to be able to leverage: even inside of Harvard, inequality is the normal state of human relations.

But above and beyond that, my friend told her kid to get to know the school and its resources beyond just the academic setting of the school.  It’s a valuable proposition, especially for the schools which are the size of small towns and have developed substantial community ties.  I’m not sure what all I missed out on in my time in college, but I suspect it was something.  (On the flip-side, I’m not sure it was too terribly much based on what I heard being hinted at for reasons I’ll allude to shortly; overall I’m quite happy with how I made it through what I know at the time felt like an ordeal in many ways.)  The point is that it’s a highly sensible suggestion, to take a bit of a schedule-break some day or time and spend it exploring the non-classroom areas of the campus.  Specifically, I’d add that consuming your professor’s office hours is a valuable activity.  Some of them are there not just to teach, but rather to profess what has consumed more of their lives than you’ve been alive for — stop and think about that for a moment.  They aren’t going to just grade you on the quality of your work, but rather on what they see you getting out of the class — even if you’re consciously getting not much out of the class.  As a for-example, I managed to upgrade the C that I earned in French to a B just by being involved in the cultural appreciation that the professor wanted to share with us outside of the class, of which I appreciated very little, but my interest was there… instead of in learning the in-class material.

Anyway, the conversation goes on and the kid changes her mind about being an art student (“Oh really?” I think) and has decided that an anthropology degree is really the way to go (“Well that’s better,” I think) because — in response to the immediate question of “Okay, why?” — it allows for more career latitude.  I regard this as a brilliant demonstration of Paul Graham’s description of staying upwind — don’t study art to make art, study people to make art.  But the other relevant question that my friend asked was “Are you still in the right school for that?”  This is a super-relevant question and one that I should have noticed when I was choosing a school as my university’s math and computer science departments were cloistered into trailers and stuck on the down-side of campus, just past the “Old Gym” and across the road.  Every university has departments that it loves, and departments that it has just to say that it has them — when you’re choosing a major, make sure it’s a major offered by a department that the school you’re going to loves.  The well-loved department will likely have better-equipped professors with fresher resources and more community contacts resulting in more impressive networking opportunities and internships.  Let’s look back at The Social Network: not to disparage Harvard’s computer science program (as I’ve already disparaged the one I was part of for a while), but Mark didn’t really get to a point where he could grow his success until he moved to California where technical start-ups were well-loved, blessed with resources, and had ample networking opportunities.  I would suggest that the difference is that Harvard’s computer science department, while still bearing the educational brand of Harvard, is not one of their well-loved departments.

Anthropology didn’t last, however — one honors seminar in literature later and she was convinced she wanted to major in that instead because maybe she could be a teacher, which caused me to wince and her mom to ask her introverted peer-disparaging daughter “Does that make economic sense?  And you do realize that this is you you’re talking about, right?”  This calls up a pair of important points.  First, successful kids tend to be sheltered from the socioeconomic realities that they’ll hopefully be growing into as they gain experience being adults.  This often results in a mismatch between how much the student is willing to have spent on their education and the socioeconomic benefits that their education will confer back to them.  Some career paths are just plain expected to be low-profit, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  What is wrong is allowing some posh university to indenture you into serfdom so you can follow a low-profit calling.  I was quietly thankful when one of my students acknowledged that she really can’t afford to take on much debt from her upcoming college education because she’s currently focusing on what she expects will be a low-profit field. I similarly despaired when I heard another kid planning on getting a doctorate in literature to become a college professor as she’s apparently not paying attention to the academic world. This, however, gets to the second point of wondering how much exposure kids have to the socioeconomic realities of adulthood.  A lot of kids believe they can be teachers when they grow up, not because they really want the lives that their teachers are living but because they don’t have exposure to options which would be better for them.  A lot of kids want to be artists when they grow up not because they’re particularly capable artisans so much as other interests seem less accessible.  And a lot of kids want to be writers or speakers when they grow up, not because they’ve figured out what they want to say but rather because they’re certain they know how to say it.  I fully believe that the world would be a better place for young minds to aspire into if adults spent more time explaining their jobs and careers to children — both to ensure that kids have heightened exposure to the socioeconomic realities of the day, but also to ensure that the adults are thoroughly disabused of any illusions they’re putting around their career choices.  Paul Graham speculates that going back to a full-apprenticeship model would help negate adolescent angst. Me, I’d settle for having more influx of competent chaos in the classroom, as was staged in Thank You For Smoking.  Regardless, I can offer a bit of advice from my career, that being — almost identical to pairing a college and major — if you join a company, try to join a department that is well-loved because it is a core competency to (and profit center of) the company.

But let me go on a career-tangent for a moment and tell a couple of stories.  These stories are about people who made choices to be happy with their careers.  Both of them were (and probably still are) Australian divers.  The first one I met was a starfish bounty hunter.  Seriously.  She was a contract-killer of the Crown-of-thorns starfish because having those bad-asses munching away on the Great Barrier Reef was bad for the reef and bad for tourism, so the tourist-handling companies would pay her to come out and kill them, poisoning each stomach and destroying the bodies.  She’d worked her way up handling tourists as a dive instructor and whatnot, but wasn’t enough of a people-person to want to be responsible for ensuring random people’s safety in environments unnatural to them.  It was a long and low-profit path to get to where she was, but where she was was a very small and suddenly lucrative niche… and also being paid to go diving in the tropics without having to keep the clueless and incompetent tourists from hurting themselves or others.  The flip side of her story was my dive instructor, who had actually been quite successful building up a construction business.  The catch was that a lot of his success was a result of being a workaholic — there was a lot of work to be done and he wanted to profit from all of it — and he didn’t quite realize how hard he was working until he took a week of vacation and went diving.  He gets back to work with his construction guys a week later, and is up at midnight that night getting all stressed out over the emails he needs to reply to and he concludes, “Screw this, I’m going back to the girls in bikinis.”  So by virtue of not having any debt weighing him down, he dumps his business and turns the proceeds into a little self-trust fund which he uses to finance becoming a dive instructor, thus getting paid to spend time with — as far as he’s concerned — girls in bikinis.  Admittedly, there were other people (like me) there and not all of the girls in bikinis were the kind you’d want to spend time with, but he put his focus on what he liked about his new career — a career that hadn’t even occurred to him a year prior.  The point is that the most fulfilling work is work that you can choose for yourself, with results that mean something to you, and some of it isn’t going to occur to you despite being obvious and some of it is so niche that it can’t be obvious, so the best thing to do is avoid getting prematurely tied down by taking on obligations from your early impressions of reality.

But getting back to the core story, my friend insisted that her daughter make a economic case for the adjustments she was intending in her life.  The more precise dialog was: “I’m not asking for your advice.” “No, you’re asking for my money.” So the kid starts getting engaged and soliciting advice from her peers and advisers (su-peer-iors?), and within a few months she’s getting her work put on display in town and starting a test-kitchen with friends and bending the agenda of the department to her will because she’s realized that for all intents and purposes, she is a customer, not just a student, and she’s enjoying herself rather more now.  My friend blunted it down to comparing an un-compelling education to a brand new car that just won’t run: as the consumer, this shouldn’t be acceptable.  But that really clarifies the final point that needs to be made: when you go to college, you should think of yourself as a meticulous customer who needs to be a satisfied student.  The current reports suggest that a lot of kids are too used to being students and rather passively accepting the education that they are offered as they were through their earlier schooling, with a trend in colleges to satisfy their customers with enjoyable classes, easy grades, and renovated facilities which look good in viewbooks but don’t necessarily translate to to mind- and opportunity-opening experiences for the students, which is good enough for the students who are too passive to fuss about the lack of substance anyway.  But it’s not good enough for my friend, not good enough for her daughter, and if you’re reading this then it shouldn’t be good enough for you either.  Between the financial aid that the university is subsidizing you with to show how much they want you there (which should be enough to show desire, but not so much to come across as desperately needy of somebody with your academic rigor and cognitive capability) and the money being paid to them — either by you or on your behalf from wherever — which makes you a customer, you should be able to convince the university to work for you.  Really.

Of course, I didn’t have to say much during the actual conversation since my friend was — as mentioned — reassuringly a mental step ahead of me the whole way through, so I could get by with nodding and gesturing, with the occasional “Mmm?” or “Ah,” and yet still have my perception of the academic world validated by somebody else’s practice.