When career services asked me to write this blog post, my first thought was: who am I to give career advice? I’ve worked for a total of 5 years and a few summer internships, and am still very much on the long path to figuring out what I want to be when I grow up. But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was just the person to talk to college students and recent alumni. First, I am a student myself, in my third year of graduate school. Second, at 29 I am not so far away in age that I can’t relate to anyone at the beginning of their careers. Third, I’ve been lucky enough to have many experiences and jobs in different places, and the time to reflect on what has worked and what has not. I have by no means figured it out, but I put together some advice that I hope will be useful.
1. Nothing matters as much as your health, so protect and nurture it!
Many of the ideas for this blog post came from a twelve day, 220-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail that I took between my summer internship and the beginning of this academic year. When my knee started to hurt on the second day of the trip, and the pain began to dominate my every thought, I reflected on how much we take our health for granted. As simple as this may sound, guard your health carefully, eat well, and take care of yourself. Career success means little to nothing if you can’t enjoy the fruits of your labor.
2. Time is more important than money
Before you go off to become an investment banker or a management consultant, and commit to 80-hour workweeks for the rest of your 20s, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Jobs that consume most of your time and energy can be meaningful, challenging, and for some people, very enjoyable, but if you are planning on working primarily for the money, I would urge you to think again. It is much more enjoyable to have time for friends, family, hobbies, travel, and adventure now when you’re young, than to have that time later, when you don’t have the energy or freedom. Work hard, by all means, and save for the future, but remember to strike a balance.
3. Make your own path after school
Once you have that diploma in your hand, your choices will seem limited to those that society – and, quite possibly, many of your loved ones – thinks are best for you. The world will want you to take the job, settle down, plan for the long term, and slowly build your resume as you advance in your career. This can be extremely satisfying, if it’s what you want. If it’s not, and you aren’t happy with the path you’re on, then make a change! Uncertainty and the happiness that comes from free will are always better than certainty and misery, so make the right choice while your responsibilities are relatively few in number!
4. Do something huge!
In July of 2008, I decided to quit my job, buy a backpack, and walk the length of Italy from Switzerland to the western tip of Sicily. When people ask me why I took such a trip, I can think of many reasons, but what always comes to mind first is that I wanted to undertake something huge, with no guarantee of a successful outcome. And that’s exactly how it turned out; the walk lasted 6 months and 1,780 miles, and I was never certain that I would finish until the second-to-last day.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the boost of confidence that this walk gave to me. I realized that I can do just about anything, and that I am much more resilient than I could ever have imagined.
My advice to you, then, is to do something of epic proportions! It does not need to be a physical feat, either – develop that software program, launch that start-up, or write that book. Whatever it is, take advantage of your energy and the leeway that society grants young people, and absorb the lessons that will come from success or failure.
5. Practice activities that require delayed gratification
A study conducted in 1972 by Walter Mischel of Stanford (see this New Yorker article for a good explanation of the study) gave children two choices: they could take a marshmallow immediately, or they could wait 15 minutes, and they would get two marshmallows. Mischel then tracked (and continues to track) the development of these children as they reached adulthood. The results were clear: those children who delayed their gratification for a greater reward down the line proved to be far more successful than their more impatient peers have been.
I am not sure the extent to which nature endowed me with the discipline to practice delayed gratification, but I do know that it is certainly possible to nurture a disciplined lifestyle. I ferment kimchi for three weeks, make limoncello by steeping lemon peels in alcohol for three months, and learn classical piano pieces over three years. The feeling that I enjoy upon completion of each project is, to differing extents, one of extreme satisfaction and pride in my patience and accomplishment. There are few better ways to love yourself than to invest in the happiness of your future self.
Wait for that second marshmallow, and you will see how rewarding it feels! Start small by planting seeds or knitting a scarf. Over time you will be able to take on bigger tasks, like saving for retirement, learning a language, or undertaking a multi-year initative to improve some aspect of your company. What is important is that you finish what you start: it does not matter how intelligent you are if you lack the discipline to see your projects to completion.
6. You can always switch career tracks
During a recent phone call with my high school drama teacher, I told her about my plans to work in forestry. Her response made me smile: “If I made a list of every student I’ve ever taught and every single profession they’ve chosen, I don’t think I could have found a stranger combination than yours.” From her perspective, it is indeed a strange combination: I grew up in San Diego and had limited contact with forests, so how could I have known that I wanted to work in forestry?
One of the great benefits of our society is that it understands and accommodates career switches. Did you just realize in your senior year that you hate pre-med and want to teach English literature instead? Are you going into management consulting simply because you don’t have a clue about what you really want to do? Whatever your particular situation is, don’t worry! Graduate schools are filled with career changers, and different perspectives are encouraged, if not sought after. Even the job market accepts seemingly random job hopping, as long as you have a compelling narrative to go along with your resume.
In other words: don’t forget to enjoy your life, work on building discipline, and be yourself!
Patrick Hook (C ’05) graduated Penn with a BA in Diplomatic History and minors in Music and Italian Studies. He is currently in his third year of a joint MBA/Master of Forestry program at Yale School of Management and Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. He enjoys playing classical piano, cooking, gardening, and walking in the woods.