Why choosing a career is hard and why it should be

When someone asks me how I came to be what I am today, I say that I walked down the path of diminishing salaries and stopped where I felt that that is the least I needed to earn. What I don’t tell them is that, if there is one thing that I’ve struggled with constantly as a young adult, it would be with my choice of career.

At the age of 17, when I was about to enter university, I wanted to make lots of money but also be as educated as my dad. The middle ground was to become an engineer, earn an MBA and get a high-paying job. Chemistry and maths were the subjects I liked, so I decided to do chemical engineering.

At 20, in the middle of my engineering degree, I decided that my education was too shallow. To be truly valued I needed to become an expert. Earning money can wait. This is why I decided to pursue a PhD in organic chemistry, the subject I enjoyed the most.

At 23, in the middle of my PhD, I realised that, while research is a noble pursuit, my temperament is not cut out for a life spent trying to solve problem in a single narrowly-defined field of science. There were far too many interesting things happening in the world to not know and think about. That is when I started blogging about science. And money had merely become a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Now, at 26, having finished my PhD, I have become a science journalist. It seems like the job that I feel I could do most with given my skills, my temperament and my ethical code. It is the job in which I’ve found myself to be most at peace with myself.

And yet, even today I struggle with my choices. Every so often, I have to take a few steps back and look at what I’m doing. I feel torn about the opportunities that I may have let go on my way here, and those I still let go because I’ve made a decision to do something else.

Hard at work
Hard at work? Be sure to think about why you work. Svein Halvor Halvorsen

Do all young adults suffer from the same? Do they all give this critical choice of their life enough thought? Do we even have a culture that promotes deep thinking about our own careers? From what I read on Cal Newport’s blog, the answer to all the above questions seems to be “no”.

In a sharp commentary, Ezra Klein, a Washington Post columnist, explains that this lack of thinking about careers (or, more precisely, “no idea what to do next”) leads the world of finance to swoop up smart graduates with great work ethic. These kids did not enter university thinking they are going to spend their life making money for the already rich, but for the lack of better options and the attraction of a fat paycheck that’s what they end up doing.

Thinking about your career is as much a responsibility to yourself as it is to society that depends on you. In your lifetime there will be only so many hours spent working and contributing to the world (80,000 by one estimate), the least you can do is ensure that those hours are spent productively.

Newport’s summary of the three things that one must think about when choosing a career is a good start:

  1. The value of craftmanship
  2. The importance of lifestyle
  3. A personal ethic

That I would contend is still not enough.

On the failings of passion

One person with passion is better than forty people merely interested. – EM Forster, English writer

Forster is probably right. Passionate people can achieve a lot more than others. But we assume that because we think passionate people are those who know why they like doing what they do and derive immense joy from doing it. And that certainly is the case for the ones that emerge successful, which leads many to profess “follow your passion” advice to young’uns.

I think that is a terrible advice to give to one at a tender age. Baruch de Spinoza, a great 17th century philosopher who explored human emotions in his book Ethics, has much better career advice. But to understand that we have to go back a few steps and understand how emotions play a role in helping us feel and act.

Susan James, a philosopher at Birckbeck college and a scholar on Spinoza, explains that the true nature of emotion is to be passive. Even the word passion, which we now associate with feeling strong emotions, comes from the French word pascion, which by 13th century meant the “fact of being acted upon”.

The passivity of emotions is simple enough to understand. For example, if you enter a room and you feel more joyful then it may because in the past you were in this room and had a pleasurable time. So now that you have come to the room again you are associating that past pleasure with the room, which is making you more joyful. And the association might happen unconsciously.

In that sense, you are most of the time unaware of what exactly is it that makes you joyful. Thus your passions, as Spinoza argues, are things that you don’t fully understand. And that is a dangerous thing. If you are not sure why something makes you joyful, and because your driving force is to be more joyful, you may end up taking irrational decisions to pursue that joy.

That is something that happens to all of us, at one point or another. We end up regretting irrational decisions that we took when we acted too passionately without understanding our passion well enough. That is why Spinoza calls passions inadequate ideas. When we try to empower ourselves with our passion (ie inadequate ideas), we often fail.

This hits at the heart of the “follow your passion” advice. First of all very few people know what exactly makes them happy. Those who do, often don’t know why it is that something makes them happy. The advice given a tender age when one is at an early stage of knowing themselves is perhaps a wrong advice.

Because of this inadequate nature of our passions, Spinoza says that we must use our passions to explore more about ourselves. That the main role of passion is to be able to help us understand ourselves better and in turn be able to wield the power that our passions provide us with.

In an ideal world Spinoza’s advice is indeed a very good one to follow. And Spinoza did what he preached. After being excommunicated from his Jewish Dutch community for questioning a rabbi, he got a day job as a lens-grinder and by night he . He may not have know what his passion was and so took a day job to search for it. Eventually, though, he died at the age of 44 from lung infection (perhaps from breathing in glass dust). His work Ethics was published posthumously and brought him immense fame, perhaps a little too late.

Spinoza’s words from centuries ago have found followers even today. But you don’t have to rely on a 17th century philosopher’s words alone. Science has made progress in this area too. The work of psychologists, which Daniel Pink wrote about in his book Drive), has found that “to be happy, your work must fulfill three psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness.” Here the terms are used to mean:

Autonomy refers to control over how you fill your time. If you have a high degree of autonomy, then you endorse your actions at the highest level of reflection.

Competence refers to mastering unambiguously useful things. As the psychologist Robert White opines: humans have a “propensity to have an effect on the environment as well as to attain valued outcomes within it.

Relatedness refers to a feeling of connection to others. In other words to love and care, and to be loved and cared for.

Cal Newport, who writes Study Hacks and is a passionate critic of the “follow your passion” advice, has written about this. But based on these ideas he draws the conclusion that “the traits that make us happy with our work have little to do with our personality or so-called “passions”. He finds no value introspection, which Spinoza holds so important, as a way of learning what it is that you should work at. He says, “working right trumps finding the right work”.

I find that disturbing. Disregarding inner motivations can be deeply unsatisfying. I, too, am a critic of the only follow your passion advice, but that is because I understand the difficulty of figuring out where one’s passions lie. And for them it helps to choose a profession where the above three psychological needs can be met. Mostly where one can feel autonomy and relatedness, so that it gives them time to figure out where their passions lie and where it is they should become more competent.

In a world which is moving away from the industrial model of doing things, it is indeed important that we find ways of maximising our potential. It does not help anymore to just be a cog in the system. But that must not be done at the cost of sitting at home unemployed because you don’t know what you’re passionate about or getting a job just because it pays well and hoping that it will buy you the freedom to be able find your passions.

Heading in to the unknown

This week I had the opportunity to speak to students of Class IX at the Rasbihari International School in Nashik, thanks to an invitation from Mrs. Suchitra Sarda. I was pleasantly surprised to see a class of 80 students sitting quietly ready to listen to what I had to say. There were a few giggles during the time I was talking but nothing like the mischievous Class IX that I remember myself in! I had been given the freedom to choose what I wanted to talk about and here’s what I had to say:

Last October, I entered the fourth year of my PhD studies. At this point, I became the senior most student in our lab. A student who just started her PhD at that time asked me an interesting question – What would you have done differently had your PhD started now?

It’s a question which first took me by surprise but after a little bit of thought I realized that given the knowledge I have today I would have done so many things differently. And if that was really possible, I am very sure that I would have made fewer mistakes, developed better skills, and contributed more to my field.

When I got this excellent opportunity to speak to you and was so graciously given the freedom to choose what I wanted to talk about, I thought hard.

I wanted to talk about something that would benefit you but at the same time not bore you. You are about to enter a defining period in your life. Some of you may be unaware of what is that you want to do, whereas some of you may be unsure whether what you have decided to do later is really the right thing.

In that spirit, today I am going to tell you some stories. I hope that in these stories you will find some connection with your own lives today. There are lessons to learn from the stories themselves but also, looking back, there are things I would have done differently to make these stories better.

The first story is about friends. We all know that friends play an important role in our lives. Their importance, I feel, only increases as you get older.

Even today, whenever I need someone to talk to help me through my problems, I speak to my best friend from high school. She is someone who has known me for more than half of my life. And despite being fortunate to have a friend like her, I feel that I did not do enough to keep up with my friends from high school.

As is the tradition for those aspiring to become engineers, which is what I had decided to become after leaving school, I focused all my energies to prepare for engineering entrance exams.

The years immediately after school are the years when you are still very close to your school friends. It is also a critical period to keep those friendships alive. I did not give enough attention to this as the preparation for the exams kept me busy.

Ever since I realized this mistake, to make up for it, I’ve been the guy who organizes reunions for school friends. Yet, I feel that had I done more in the 11th and 12th, things would have been better with my high school friends.

Here’s the lesson – had I been in your place today I would have done more than I did to keep up with my high school friends. You may realise soon enough that there is nothing like revisiting old school memories. Many times you will feel you want to relive these years and the closest you can get to that is through your school friends.

The second story is about the importance of being a good communicator. All through the years since I left Nasik for higher studies, I found that it was those who could communicate best that progressed the fastest, made the best connections, formed the best first impressions… Eventually those were the people who stood out and did amazing things.

When I say communication I mean not just the ability to use a particular language flawlessly but also be able to deliver the message effectively to your audience. To be able to speak in a manner that is easily understood by your audience, to be able to write by using as few words and to be able do all this with clarity.

Two examples come to my mind whenever I think about good communication.

The first is from my initial days at the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai where I did my chemical engineering. When new students come to the institute, the seniors take the initiative of interacting with them. In these ‘interactions’ we were asked to do a plethora of things. Many of them involved being able to talk impromptu or being able to give lengthy answers to difficult questions.

I remember well that those new students who were able to stand up to these challenges which required you to think on your feet and express yourself clearly were those who made good impressions on the seniors. The impression mattered because being connected to seniors who had so much more knowledge than us, the new students, could help us tremendously.

In my case, it was these seniors who shaped my thinking about my career. I had started engineering studies hoping to later get an MBA and earn lots of money. My seniors showed me the possibilities in the world of science and research. They made me realise that I would enjoy it more to be a scientist who seeks answers to difficult questions than someone who seeks money.

The second example is from my initial days at Oxford University in the UK. I started there as a naive 21-year old who did not know much beyond chemistry and chemical engineering having spent four years surrounded by chemical engineers in the Institute of Chemical Technology. As is uncommon in India, at Oxford, people studied every imaginable subject under the sun. The only thing I had in common with most other students there was that I knew English and I was curious.

Much of what I did in the first few days there was to ask probing questions to students and learn as much as I could from them. There were students who studied Mongolian paintings, China Towns in Australia and the works of Borges, a French writer – things I had absolutely no clue about.

My job in these interactions was to keep the conversation going so that I could learn more. The way I did that was by trying my best to explain my PhD project in interesting ways.

Little did I know that this exercise in making my subject sound interesting would eventually lead me to start writing about chemistry for a lay audience. An ability which allowed me to meet 60 Nobel Prize winners at the world’s biggest meeting of its kind, it helped me to get an opportunity to work at the oldest and most respected scholarly society for chemistry in the world, and it also led to build connections all over the globe, much beyond what was already on offer at Oxford University.

Here’s the lesson – If I were to go back to 9th standard today, I would pay a lot more attention to developing better skills of communication. I would take all the languages that were taught to me more seriously.

But being a good communicator is a lot more about the thought process than the words. It is something we are not taught in school but something we learn eventually. If I were in school today, I would have participated in events such as elocution competitions, debates, and essay competitions. Something I did not do in school at all but I realise that when we expose ourselves to situations where we are forced to communicate, we not only develop our language skills but also refine our thinking.

The last story is about thinking hard about the big decision in life.

After I finished my 12th standard and only days before I was about to leave for Mumbai to start studying chemical engineering, I had a moment of panic. I knew engineering was going to be a lot of work. It was going to take four long years and because my dream was to become a businessman, just like my dad, I did not quite understand the relevance of studying science.

Chemical engineering seemed like a good idea to me because I liked maths and chemistry. I had given little thought to how that will help me achieve my dreams.

I asked my dad that evening, “Why am I studying engineering if I only want to become businessman later?”

The answer I got from him is the reason why I entered college more confidently than I ever would have. He said, “An engineering degree at an institute of such repute will open doors for you that you never knew existed. Being amongst intelligent people will give you a perspective to life that will help you flourish later. Studying difficult subjects and excelling at them will allow you to gain skills that you can apply to any difficult task that you may be faced with in the future.”

My Dad could not have been any more correct in the response that he gave. By the time I finished my engineering degree, my dream to go and get an MBA and earn lots of money had changed to becoming a scientist who spent many hours in the lab in pursuit of difficult answers, not in the pursuit of money. It was all the things he mentioned – the opportunities, the people and the difficult but fulfilling work – that played a role in helping make such an important decision in my life.

Here’s the lesson – I would have asked the question ‘Why?’ a lot more when I took any big decision in my life. I would have asked that question to as many people as I could till I found a satisfying answer. This habit of asking ‘Why?’ has been a very useful tool for me. And yet, I feel I did not ask that question enough number times for the big decisions in life.

If you take nothing else from these stories today, just remember that friends are many more times valuable than you think, being able to communicate well is a necessity to succeed and asking difficult questions at the time of taking big decisions in life will help you tremendously.

Thank you for listening and wish you success in your your future endeavours.