Saturday, October 26, 2019

What you want to do in your life

Quite some time ago, I wrote "Good grades, good opportunities". Basically what I meant was that working hard in school is one way to propel in life, but it isn't necessarily the best way. By focusing too much on a part, one risks missing the whole spectrum of possibilities and opportunities, like a sad puppy looking at a rainbow. Yet supposed you have graduated and what you want to do with your life is anything but a fogged window, how would you get yourself into a position with better visibility?

My generation was fed that we should be following our passion. That implies somewhere in your mind there is a hardwired plan waiting to unfold, and that you know what you like - more so than any others. Well, if that was the case, we wouldn't be sitting here, would we? The people who said that also didn't really mean it. They probably meant that though the journey to discover what to do in your life is more banging your head against a brick wall than smooth sailing, don't let it demoralized you. I agree. You shouldn't underestimate your potential, and succumb to the thought you can't do what other people can.

The first step towards a way out is to ask whether you must have a job. Hint: if you can afford the question, you probably don't. Besides providing a means to get by, being in a job is also a useful experience. It is certain that each job is unique, but given a bit of abstraction, they have a fair share of similarity. For example, most engineering jobs are project-based and focus on time management, communication, and problem solving. These skills are interchangeable regardless of industry. Through the job, you also get exposed to an industry, where opportunities barely visible from outsiders. No, the world doesn't have a conspiracy against people like you and me, nor some people have it easier than others. It just changes fast and because innovation rarely follows a pattern, being in the right space is crucial.

Remember this is your day job. Working at a day job doesn't mean doing it half-heartedly. It means you shouldn't let your identity be defined by this job, just as an aspiring writer with a day job as a cram school teacher doesn't think of himself as a teacher. I usually tell fresh grads that who they are in the next 5 years is defined by what they do after 7PM. Because that is when the day job ends and real work begins. If you are one of the fortunate individuals who can afford not having a job, you get to do real work full time.

What real work? To discover what you like. This is actually harder than what it sounds like. There are a lot of jobs, ones that you don't know and ones whose name hasn't existed yet. And the dramatic way the media has described professionals only makes an accurate image harder to find. Most lawyers go through their careers without a single murder case. Literally no one hacks into a system by typing in a terminal like a maniac. And my favorite series House MD is about the exact opposite what doctors do.

I am probably the worst one to whom you can talk about the definition of "like". But I know that working on a job where you only execute instructions is not going to be very fulfilling. It is better to work in areas where you are interested to understand how things work, can exercise your freedom of thought, and get into the zone easily (where time flies). In other words, work on stuff about which you are curious. You don't need a full time job in an industry to experience it. Better yet, don't even bother with the concept of industry, it puts boundaries to your thoughts. Just pick a project that seems interesting: volunteer at a professional event, research the answer to a hard question, build a bottle rocket on your roof top. Choose a project that only takes a few weeks. Make sure it is something you can finish without any blocker. It should be a bit challenging, but not so hard that you feel overwhelmed. Online courses and books are both very helpful in this journey, though you should avoid acquiring too much data without a project to put it to use. Rinse and repeat with another project, and another, and yet another.

These self-directed activities can be a bit overwhelming at first, especially if you have got used to receiving assignments from school. But you will be able to adapt and get better. It is a part of being human, and being young.You need some initial discipline to get started, but once you do, given the project is an object of your interesting, curiosity will turn work into play and discipline is no longer needed.

If you continue down this path, you probably find something that stands out from the rest, enough that you want to come back for more. If you are lucky, you would find more than one. Depends on how good you are at multi-tasking, you might need to choose. Choose the option that leads to more options afterwards. There is a paradox of choice, but advancement in life is measured in possibilities. You go from one stage of education to another because the higher stage give you more options. There are simply more things a guy with a college degree can do compared to one graduated from high school. Building a software product gives your more options than doing business analysis. Once you have built a product, you can get into business analysis later if you prefer the narrow focus. But analyzing business is not going to make you a product manager.

Paulo Coelho's renowned The Alchemist had it that when you really want something, omens is the way the universe points you to the right direction. I have picked up many things in my life, and given up most of them. The ones that stick are usually ones I experienced some sense of beginner's luck. Perhaps it is my omen. Yours might be the same. Or it could be the urge to do something you weren't allowed to do in your younger years. Or the thrill of an audacious plan even people who have known you for years couldn't think you would pull it off (actually, the more people know you, the more likely they are to subject to stereotypical thinking). 

You should believe you have it within, that you will sense the click when the omen happens. Now go give you some more exposure of what the world has to offer.