Choose a challenge instead of a competence

I think we have created a bumper sticker approach to career choice; serious decisions truncated into platitudes designed to market books and sell tee shirts: ‘Lean In’, ‘Thrive’, ‘Do what you love, love what you do’.

It’s not that simple. Having a dream and executing it are two very different things.

And it’s very easy to be distracted from the very beginning.

In 2011 Marina Keegan, an undergraduate at Yale wrote a short piece in The New York Times, “Another View: The Science and Strategy of College Recruiting”.

“When I arrived at Yale as an eager 18 year old, I had never even heard of consulting or I-banking. And to be honest, I still didn’t totally understand the function of a hedge fund. But what I do understand is that students here have passion. Passion for public service and education policy and painting and engineering and entrepreneurialism. Standing outside a freshman dorm, I couldn’t find a single student aspiring to be a banker – but at commencement this May, there’s a 50 percent chance I’ll be sitting next to one. This strikes me as incredibly sad.”

It’s hard to sustain the ‘semi-fictional’ goals in personal statements written to gain admission to college. It takes a significant degree of courage to withstand the influence of corporate recruiters, family, peers and looming financial obligations to become an artist, writer, teacher or entrepreneur.

David Halberstam, speaking to the University of Southern California Class of 2002 reflected on a visit back to Harvard and the campus newspaper where he had been managing editor as an undergraduate. He talked with a few of the graduating editors who had wanted to be reporters. On the way to graduation they were offered three times an average journalists’ salary and had decided to become consultants.

He challenged their choice.“Did it ever occur to you that the salary you are being offered reflects the fact that this is a choice that you might not make were it not for the size of the salary? And that in some way that you do not yet entirely comprehend, you are being manipulated.”

Finding your ‘work place’ is hard work. It’s a process of discovery that will only occur when you take the lead. It’s a process that involves ongoing conversations with those who have gone before and healthy skepticism for those who might persuade you to change course.

Your first choice of work is not your last. If you are one of those students Marina or David described, you have time to change and become the artist or journalist you imagined yourself to be.

We learn from the wisdom of others and sometimes we have to look back 54 years to capture that guidance. Former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt expressed her thoughts and perhaps added a phrase to the ‘bumper sticker’ canon when she wrote an article in the April 1961 issue of The Atlantic.

“Perhaps the older generation is often to blame with its cautious warning: “Take a job that will give you security, not adventure.’ Do not stop thinking of life as an adventure. You have no security unless you can live bravely, excitingly, and imaginatively; unless you can choose a challenge instead of a competence.”

Choose a challenge instead of a competence.

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