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What Does a Career Really Mean? September 14, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.

Matt Heusser became a programmer and software test expert because as a youth, he preferred programming his Intel 8086 PC more than anything else.  He points out that tech careers have low social status and, thanks to rapid technology change, a half-life of around ten years (if we’re lucky).  As a result, he wonders if those who follow him fully understand the implications of their career decisions.

I am more or less at the probable height of my career, and it has had little to do with climbing a corporate ladder.  I suppose I had a true tech career at one point, and certainly I did plenty of tech education.

But in reality I’ve actually had many careers.  I tend to divide them into academic, commercial, and journalistic categories.  Within each of those, I’ve done several distinctly different things.  I’ve enjoyed each at the time, but didn’t hesitate when the job or organization went south.

My former colleague and good friend Lauren Dresnick, a wonderfully thoughtful person just over a generation younger than me (24 years, almost to the day), once told me that she hoped she had a career like mine.  That was an odd thing for her to say, given that any advances in responsibility I’ve had have come about purely through age and attrition.  But her point was that I have had a rich and varied series of jobs that have largely held my interest for 30 years.

So what advice do we give those who are embarking upon their higher education, and ultimately their career?  First, discipline yourself in college.  I say that with some trepidation, because many of my generation (and those before and after) didn’t.  But there is so much more information available now than there was then that going to college simply to find yourself seems ludicrous.  Do fun things that engage your intellect, but have a plan.

Second, do what seems interesting, as long as it makes you some money.  I’ve prioritized things in my professional life so that the things that make money come first (this blog doesn’t, incidentally).  But that doesn’t prevent me from attempting my ultimate dream of becoming a novelist.

Third, be afraid, but just a little.  Being unemployed and having no marketable skills sucks.  A little fear for your next job, or even your next meal, can motivate you in powerful ways.  But don’t be so afraid that you’re unwilling to try things outside of your comfort zone.

I don’t know what areas of study and application will make good careers tomorrow.  There are a few, such as tech, that are relatively tried and true, but they also have high volatility.  So it is likely better to choose what you like doing, with an eye toward making money at it, and keep up your skills.  After all, it’s a long career.



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