“Discover who you are – not who you are supposed to be” Larry Ellison@USC

In all the meetings I have had with folks about career choice, the number one topic, by a landslide, is how to manage the expectations of others: family members, mentors, friends and colleagues.

“My parents want me to major in ‘x’, and apply to ‘y’, but my passion is in ‘z’. How do I get them to understand my decision?”

On Friday, at the University of Southern California, Larry Ellison drew on his personal experience to address the topic. I hope the parents were listening. I guarantee members of the Class of 2016 were texting quotes.

He began where most career conversations start. Recalling his early aspirations to attend USC Medical School, he began to realize that his family’s conviction that he become a doctor was not his own. “Their dreams became my dreams.”

And it wasn’t long before he “became painfully aware that he couldn’t make himself study something that didn’t interest me.”

The power of parental/family influence on career choice can provide either a scaffolding of support or a detour of unending disappointments.

Here’s the thing, the next great innovation is yet to be discovered. The next emerging market is yet to be identified. Categories of new job titles are yet to be defined.

So we fall back on what we know, and what society values as acceptable professions.

In Ellison’s narrative, he dropped out of college and took on a “a couple of jobs I loved and one that was fun”: river guide, rock climbing instructor and computer programmer. It was in the world of technology that he found the link to the same kind of satisfaction he had found solving math problems and playing chess.

But as he incrementally travelled toward his dream job, he found he was unable to live up to the expectations of others.

At the urging of his wife, he returned to college, to pursue his degree. The only course he remembered was a sailing class at Berkeley. The beginning of his love affair with the Pacific Ocean marked the end of the one with his wife, who viewed him as irresponsible, and lacking in ambition. “She kicked me out, and then she divorced me.”

“This was a pivotal moment in my life… Once again, I was unable to live up to the expectations of others.

But this time I was not disappointed in myself for failing to be the person they thought I should be. Their dreams and my dreams were different. I would never confuse the two of them again.

I had discovered things that I loved: the Sierras, Yosemite, the Pacific Ocean. These natural wonders brought me great joy and happiness, and would for the rest of my life. I had an interesting job programming computers and more money than I needed.

For the first time I was certain I was going to survive in this world.

A huge burden of fear had been lifted. I’ll never forget that moment. It was a time for rejoicing.”

Ellison’s career path accelerated along the trajectory of Silicon Valley’s early days, as he tried to find a job he loved as much as sailing. He founded Oracle Corporation, built on his ‘crazy idea’ of constructing a commercialized relational database, and the rest is history.

I spent thirteen years on the USC campus, working with students and alumni as they wrestled with career decisions and connected the mosaic of past experience into a plan for the future. There is no better advice for folks@work or those just starting out than the shared wisdom of Mr. Ellison.

“Each of you has a chance to discover who you are and not who you are supposed to be.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, and try lots of different things. And don’t let the experts discourage you when you challenge the status quo.”

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