In conversations I’ve had with undergraduate students, I’m often curious about the visions they have for their future.
Many haven’t thought much about what they want to do after graduation. It’s understandable. It is hard to focus on five years from now when you have a hundred exams and assignments that are due next week.
If that is you, I am hoping that by reading this, it’ll encourage you to invest a bit of time into it, despite how busy you are.
If you are already past that stage, what you would you tell your younger self about choosing a career? This is what I would say to mine:
1. Start slowly, but start now
Even if you still have years before you graduate, it is crucial to start thinking about your future now. It takes time to identify the career that truly aligns with who you are. Also, after you get those answers, you may realize you are on a wrong path. So it may take longer still to redirect the course of your life.
2. One puzzle piece at a time
You don’t have to get all the answers at once. Put together your future plan like you would assemble pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Focus on one piece at a time. Spend 10 minutes a day on consciously thinking about it. Do it in whatever ways that suit you; write it in your diary, or bring it up in conversations with friends at lunch.
3. Generate the puzzle pieces
In each session, use questions like these to cue your mind towards an answer:
- Do I enjoy what I’m studying? I may enjoy being with the people (lecturers or friends), but do I really enjoy the discipline?
- Who are the people that make me feel “wow, I want to be like that”, and what do they have in common?
- What are the things that, when I do them, an hour feels like a minute?
- What am I doing when I feel the world around me fades away?
- What was I doing the last time I felt most alive?
4. Have fun with the exploration
What you are doing is actually exploring the best way to express your unique self and make other people’s lives better. That’s a beautiful thing. So have fun and don’t turn it into something stressful. Share it with close friends, and enjoy discovering who you are.
Important factors to consider in planning your career
During that exploration, consider these carefully:
1. In balancing between money and passion, lean towards passion
It is true that sometimes, you may not have the opportunity to pursue what you’re really passionate about right away. Most of the time, it’s because of money.
And that’s okay. Don’t feel sad about it. The journey of life is never linear. Make the best decision you can with the pieces you have on the board.
But don’t ever give up on your dream. Once you do, your senses and intuition will ignore future opportunities that can make it a reality.
Keep that fire alive.
Too many people spend most of their waking hours at jobs they don’t care about. The money that they chase is then used to perpetuate consumerism, to mask the emptiness that they feel inside.
On the other hand, there are those who love their career. They feel alive, purposeful. Their works are the authentic expressions of who they are. Because they love their job, they do it with all their heart, and they become great at it. And because of that, money follows them.
If you can’t take the money factor out of the equation, find ways to minimize its influence. Don’t allow it to distract you from pursuing who you are meant to be.
2. Think about marriage
I used to believe that you should delay marriage, especially if you plan to do a PhD or start a company. There is a valid argument for it: you have less time for your career if you commit to a marriage too.
But what I’ve learned from others have made me unsure about it.
It seems that a loving commitment towards another person is not a diversion from building a successful life, it’s an essential part of it.
I notice that married people of my age are generally wiser than me; they see the bigger picture about life almost instinctively.
They also have an extra source of motivation. They work hard not just for themselves, but to take care of those they love, and to be someone that their kids will look up to. Those are immensely powerful.
So I’m a bit ambivalent about this. Perhaps the best answer is context-specific. You should decide what’s best for your unique situation.
3. Let your past be a teacher, not a dictator
You are right here right now because of the decisions made by the much younger — and possibly more naive — version of you. More than that, it may had been influenced heavily by others around you.
If you’re happy with where you are and where you are heading, that’s wonderful. Keep pushing through.
But if you know you’re not the same person who made those decisions years ago, be open to alternatives in choosing what to do after you graduate. Do not limit yourself to what others expect you to do.
Also, be aware of sunk-cost fallacy.
In our context, it means feeling guilty about choosing something different than what’s in your degree. You feel if you do that, the last four years is “wasted”. So you just stay where you are. But one day, decades from now, you realize you’ve spent forty years doing something that doesn’t make you happy, just to “save” those four years. Don’t fall into that fallacy.
Our past is meant to provide lessons for deciding our future; it is not meant to dictate it.