Practical thoughts on career door-opening - even without knowing one's 'passion in life'
The secret to success is to be ready when your opportunity comes.
On first glance, the above quote makes sense. If we aren’t ready when an opportunity comes, of course we will fail to make the most of it. But on closer observation, more clarification is needed before one can apply this reasoning to self development.
Firstly, how are the opportunities coming, in the first place? Isn’t it too passive to rely on opportunities happening to me, instead of me creating opportunities, so to speak? Secondly - what are we supposed to be ready for, really? What if I don’t know what I want to do with my life?
For most of my life, I had no idea what direction to go in. After a lot of trial and error, it’s better now, to put it mildly. But one thing I know is true - I create my own opportunities and open my own doors, so that when my future self wants to do something new, she will have those opportunities: many doors to walk through.
This has worked for me thus far, as you can read about in my previous post, Any career is possible. Now, in this article, I will take a retrospective approach to finding out reproducible patterns as to how one can purposely open these doors, even if they have no idea what direction to focus on in life yet.
- Open as many doors for your future self as possible
- Which open door should I go through?
Open as many doors for your future self as possible
When I mention that I had opened doors for my future self to walk through, once that future self had figured out what she “wants to do in life”, I consider it to have begun at a fairly young age, albeit accidentally. Here, I’ll give some context to those doors of opportunity that I had opened as a teen, and continued to open in my university life and professional career.
Yep, I have fallen over while falling asleep in class like this. Image from Unsplash
In high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. In fact, I was quite a slacker, almost failing physics multiple times, and prompting the teacher to joke in front of the entire class, “Susan, do you want to try propping your head up with two hands? I worry that since you’re always napping on one, that you’ll fall over.”
While I had no idea what I wanted to pursue “seriously” in life, I was spending most of my after school hours in a rock band and practicing for performances. I knew it would be difficult to make it professionally as a musician and didn’t particularly want to, but it was an option along with all the unknowns.
One thing I did know, was that if I wanted to not be stuck trying to be a musician, I would need to study and do well in the university entrance exams. Looking back now, I would say that kicked off a series of opportunities that landed me where I am right now.
Even with no idea what to do, focus on pragmatic long term play
To sum up the logic of my high school self:
- I don’t know what I’m doing right now.
- My future self might figure it out.
- I need to make sure that when my future self figures it out, there are less roadblocks.
The onus was on my high school self to ensure that doors were open for my future self when she makes a decision. Heck, what’s the point of figuring out what I wanted to do in life, if, by the time that happened, I couldn’t even execute on it?
To prevent any closed doors, the high school me decided to acquire some “status quo” entry tickets, such as acing university entrance exams. To illustrate: if I had done crap on the university entrance exams, but then decided I wanted to become a doctor, that door wouldn’t even be open.
Even if I had fallen back on one thing I at least had non-zero interest in, which was music, hypothetically, I would still need as good a “status quo” ticket as possible so I could have the choice of music schools. I honestly saw music as more of a hobby, but in the lack of a strong passion, it stood out as an option in case of desperation.
So with that in mind, I pragmatically got my act together, with time management techniques which I have written about in detail, and scored the top 4% in the mandatory entrance exams (across ~150,000 examinees).
Most opportunities in our lives are as mysterious as this.
Which open door should I go through?
The hard work in high school helped - I was accepted to the University of Waterloo, which in hindsight drastically helped me down the road, because of its reputation.
However, the issue of not being sure what I was passionate about wasn’t fixed miraculously by picking a university major. I’m sure most people would relate - if only it were that easy!
There were a few years where I fell into a slump, even failing 3 courses, in part from this lack of direction. I’ve written about that time and my recovery in this post. Yes, I had opened doors, and I had walked through one of them. Now what? What had me in the slump was thinking that my work was done. What got me out, was opening more doors yet again for post-university future me.
I was able to fall in love with economics as I reached the upper years - the coursework difficulty was able to push me mentally, which gripped my interest, so I was starting to slightly consider becoming an economist. I discuss more in this post why the upper year coursework difficulty helped me build the expert intuition that opened more doors for me in the job market.
As an economist I would have no lack of options: government, finance and banking, even in video games (who do you think designs the online marketplaces, lootboxes, and cosmetic skin trading economies?), to name a few. I wasn’t sure which of these to walk through yet! So, I continued to open doors that led to even vaster possibilities.
Opportunity cost and reaping the benefits of open doors
During this time, I was earning high grades because I enjoyed the courses, but I repeated what I did in high school: go the extra mile to continue opening doors, in case my future self figured out what specific subfield of economics she wanted to go to. And of course, this hard work resulted in an even better “status quo” ticket - admission to grad school at University of Toronto.
There were several considerations to accepting the offer: the University of Toronto degree would be another convenient ticket to open more doors for my future self, and the opportunity cost was low, which won me over. The next best option would have been to start working in industry straight out of school. I was even considering pursuing a PhD until I read The Professor is in, which changed my life (translation: scared me from tenured roles in academia).
While I did my master’s, I continued opening doors, such as going above and beyond to include Python in my economics research, because I had just found out about the field of data science. If I hadn’t done so, the future Susan that was in the job market wouldn’t have been able to join the field while in school and complete the master’s degree working full time. I would have really regretted it if the door had been closed when I wanted to make the career jump.
As a decision making heuristic, opportunity cost plays a large role in deciding which doors to open or walk through. After I received the full time job offer in data science, I could have rejected or possibly delayed it, in order to finish my master’s degree as a full-time student. I could have avoided the stress of doing both at the same time, if I had wanted to. But, the opportunity cost of delaying joining the professional world was too high. Hence, I decided to walk proudly into the data science door!
I’ve discussed how it’s fine to not know what one’s passion is, or “what to pursue in life” at the moment. I was exactly like that for a long time, but instead of waiting for opportunity to come, I repeatedly opened more doors for my future self, in order to get to where I am now.
The choice to do my master’s while working full time was sacrificing present enjoyment to trade for the future. The choice to choose an economics major at the University of Waterloo over another (easier coursework) school and another (more impressive sounding) major, was more of a long term play that required delayed gratification.
I’m grateful that my past self put in so much effort, even when she wasn’t sure what to pursue in her life and career. Thanks to her, I had lots of options of which open doors to walk into. Right now, I am growing more and more in the fields of data science and video game development, but, I will pass on the favor to my future self, no matter what type of development she would like in the future.
And that’s it for this post - I hope it was helpful in any way! As usual, feel free to reach out on LinkedIn or firstname.lastname@example.org.