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The young and the restless

By Francis Wade

An erstwhile, young professional leaving a tertiary institution probably has only one thing in mind – “How can I finally earn some money?”

However, at some point in their career when they can see their way out of their student debts, they start to wonder to themselves – “What am I doing, and why am I doing it?”

“Is this what I will be spending the rest of my life doing? Are these the people I want to spend it with? Is this company the one that I want to stay with until retirement?”

As these thoughts come up, a young professional has several options.

One is to adopt the same attitude as some of their colleagues. Those who are resigned and cynical tell them that “This is a job that pays the bills. That is all it is.”

Another option is to ask friends and family for advice, who may tell them to “Shut up before you mash up a good thing. Jobs are hard to come by and you should be grateful, not wasting your time with foolish questions.”

A third option is to go past these run of the mill responses to ask some deeper questions about career purpose, talents and personal commitment.

Too few of our professionals of every age have the skills, awareness or willingness to ask these deeper questions. What are the reasons that stop them from challenging themselves by questioning the basis of their choice of job? Here in Jamaica, as in the Caribbean, the causes lie in our education system, seemingly limited choices and in our inability to face our fears.

Education System
At age 14, our education system forces a teenager to make some crucial choices that shape the direction of their career forever. At this juncture, they determine which subjects they must do in their CXC examinations. Will it be Spanish or Geography? History or Physics? Chemistry or Accounting? Principles of Business or Art?

For most students, the decisions they make have everything to do with the subjects they think they can pass. Their teachers, parents, family and friends encourage them to be practical, and to focus on the easiest pathway to success (getting high grades) while making sure they pass the exams they need to pursue the career they want.

Very rarely is the student asked “what do you most love to do?” If the question is asked, and if the answer is the wrong one, the student is discouraged:

● “You want to be an artist? You must be mad!”
● “All you care about is football, football and football. Nothing else.”
● “I want you to be a doctor, and that’s all there is to it. You are doing the sciences.”
● “I talked with a lawyer-friend, and he said that you should not take accounting.”
● “Have you ever heard of an engineer who knows anything about history? Don’t waste your time on that.”

The message is straightforward – “I know what is best. Follow my advice.” They come to depend on the decision-making of others.

A slightly better lesson is one that they might learn if their choices are more in line with what everyone expects of them. They learn that they should figure out what they are good at doing (i.e. which exams have been good at passing) and build their teenage career choices around their grades.

Good at science subjects? Do medicine, engineering or computer programming.

Good at history and geography? Do law, and so on.

The result is that a student does not begin to learn the more refined practice of following their interests and listening to their instincts, instead of merely accepting other people’s advice, and other people’s logic.

Their ability to deal with and to make basic choices for themselves remains thwarted.

Limited Choices
Everyone knows that there are an infinite number of ways to make a living. This knowledge, however, does not often translate into the advice a teenager hears.

Parents and teachers often fall into the trap of assuming that the knowledge they have will remain current.

Unfortunately, often adults are just plain wrong. At other times, their experience is simply out-dated, or will be old news by the time the student reaches the work-force some ten years later.

For example, in the early 1990’s the experts were sounding the alarm that America’s competitiveness was under a serious threat, due to a projected lack of computer programmers. Estimates varied from a 20-50% shortfall and parents were encouraged to get their children into the field if they wanted to assure them of a bright future.

They were wrong.

By the late 1990’s, after the advent of the dot-com crash, Indian outsourcing and increased programming efficiency, computer programming jobs were hard to find and thousands of skilled professionals were laid off in the U.S. Many who got into the field based on the advice and logic of others were forced into new careers.

Moreover, the choice of career to pursue was unnecessarily limited to a single, “obvious” choice.

Throughout their teens, young Jamaican professionals are often presented with limited choices based on the less than sufficient experience of those around them. They are simply not exposed to a wide variety of career options, and fail to see either the hard facts (that very few of them will become doctors, lawyers, engineers and accountants) or that tremendous opportunities may become theirs if they merely stay open to seeing them.

These opportunities arise for professionals who are willing to build careers for themselves based on their deeply held interests – whatever they might be. This notion of inventing a career at will is not taught, is often actively discouraged, and for most your professionals is completely foreign. They simply do not learn the art of deepening an interest to the point where it can become an expertise, and then a business opportunity.

Yet, this is what a few brave and creative professionals will actually end up doing mostly by trial and error, and with very little prior training.

For a local case study of a former accountant who was able to boldly make this switch successfully, point your browser to http://cuturl.com?accountant

Fears
Above all else, however, a young professional rarely develops the capacity to rise above the fears that come up once they start asking these all-important questions: “What am I doing and why am I doing it?”

The primary fear that arises is that trying to ask the questions may lead to outcomes that are unwanted. They are afraid that they might open a can of worms by inquiring too deeply, and that the consequences may lead them to “quitting their safe jobs, failing in business, having no income, living as a mad-man on the streets, or worse.”

They never start to answer these questions and instead try to push them away.

They may also fear that if they ask these questions too openly, that others around them may think they are being foolish, self-indulgent or simple miserable. They are afraid of what other people think of them, and that their opinions might change for the worse.

The fact is, young professionals that start to ask these questions – “what am I doing and why am I doing it?” – are going against the grain. They are defying the normal thinking that says that “one should study hard to become something that earns enough money to be able to do it forever.”

Unfortunately their educational backgrounds, limited knowledge and personal fears all work against them finding suitable answers.

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Steve Jobs gave an excellent speech to the graduating class at Stanford that demonstrates some of the points made here. Point your browser to http://cuturl.com?stevejobs to watch his speech, and post any comments or questions about this article there.

Next week on JobSmart, I’ll explore 3 actions that a professional can take to answer these career-changing questions effectively.

Francis Wade is the owner of Framework Consulting, a firm specializing in conducting high stake interventions for Caribbean companies, and the author of FirstCuts monthly e-zine.
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