Opportunities, not passions


Of late, I have been fielding a bunch of requests from current and former students of my Master's programme to share with them whatever pearls of wisdom I have picked up over my career. Most of this is of course opportunistic; the professional cynic in me knows full well that these people are looking at me as a potential contact who can do things for them, and nothing more.

That is all well and good. I used to be in their shoes. I felt the same things they did. And it does not bother me in the slightest.

I have to say, though, that this sort of thing makes me feel very old. I recently gave a guest lecture for the current generation of students in that programme and I swear it was like looking over a theatre of toddlers in diapers. I was half expecting their mums to show up carrying strollers and baby bottles afterwards.

And yet, here they are, asking me for advice about what to do when looking for a career, as if a grumpy old man like me would have the first clue about the subject.

Thing is, though, that I remember full well what it was like trying to figure out what I was going to do after my Master's programme ended. After that began the "real world", and at the time I had no idea whether I was even ready to face it.

Like most people of my age at the time, I had no idea how little I really knew.

With the benefit of more than a few years' worth of 20-20 hindsight, here is what I would have told my younger self, and what I try to tell the kids that come to me for advice now about jobs and such- those that bother to STFU and listen without interrupting, that is.

Here's the hard reality of being in your early twenties that very few people ever tell you: you know precisely DICK about ANYTHING of ANY importance. And the sooner you accept this cruel but inviolate fact, the happier you will be, and the easier your life will be.

It's just that simple.

A 22-year-old kid who has been told all her life that she is special and wonderful and bound for success in this world- as virtually every Millennial these days is- will suffer a very harsh reality check very quickly. Lord knows, I did, when I was in my early twenties. Reality doesn't care about what you've been told growing up. It only cares what you can actually do.

And the fact is that, when you're just starting out, you can't do much of anything. You're a barely functional adult in any real sense. The fact is that a new employee is a massive net cost in terms of resources for the first 6-12 months of his or her working life. It takes roughly that long to train a fresh-faced but clueless kid into a reasonably competent person who won't sink the team and the company by making a carelessly stupid mistake in a spreadsheet that goes out to a client, for instance.

It is no doubt quite harsh to hear this, for youngsters full of hope and optimism and youthful exuberance. But then, the real world is far better at beating those qualities out of people than I could ever be.

But once the youngster accepts the world for what it is, and begins to learn from it instead of resisting it, the scales fall away and suddenly, the hidden paths of opportunity reveal themselves.

Which brings me to my other piece of advice for such folks: do what Mike Rowe says, and chase opportunities, not passions.

Passions are fleeting. Following your "passion" is all too often a great way to end up directionless and adrift, unable to chart any kind of course because doing what you're "passionate" about doesn't actually provide any kind of moral or spiritual compass. I've seen this happen firsthand to members of my own family, and the results are rarely pretty.

On the other hand, if you find an opportunity that just so happens to play to your strengths- and you are wise and mature enough to know what your strengths, and more importantly, what your weaknesses, are- then you ought to grab it with both hands, and never let go.

I didn't follow my passions much, even when I was young. When I was coming to the end of my undergraduate degree, I knew that I wanted to continue studying mathematics for at least one more year. I wanted to specialise a bit and pick up some marketable skills in the process. I applied to a number of different MA and MSc programmes, in the US and the UK.

It just so happened that I was given the opportunity to go to Oxford to study for an MS in Mathematics and the Foundations of Computer Science- a highly prestigious degree, to be sure.

But then, other opportunities came knocking. I had applied, on fairly short notice, to three schools in the US which offered Master's degrees in mathematical finance of various types. I got into two. I chose the better of the two in terms of reputation.

I never looked back. And ten years later, here I am, living in a country that I love, doing a job that I genuinely enjoy. I get paid to solve complex technical problems for a living. I get to work with people I really respect. I get to challenge myself just about every day on the job.

I didn't get there easily. There were plenty of bumps in the road- including two layoffs, at least two years of being passed over for promotions that I thoroughly deserved, and nearly four years without any real raise in pay.

There are many more bumps ahead. I am about as far away from anyone's definition of a "people person" as one can possibly imagine, even though I actually get along with most people quite well (just as long as they LEAVE ME THE HELL ALONE when I need to do real work). And that is going to come back to bite me sooner rather than later.

But the lesson that life has taught me, through repeated and sometimes brutal application of the harsh rod of reality, is that it is opportunity that rules over passion, not the other way around.

Find your opportunities. Grasp them firmly with both hands. Never let them go. And make the most of your time on this Earth, so that when you meet the Supreme Judge of the Universe and are called to account for the ways in which you have used the gifts that He has given you, there will be neither shame nor sorrow in the recounting.

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