Find your own axis

17 February 2021
17 Feb 2021
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

When I was in middle school, I was one of the kids pushed up into the “advanced math” track. One day, my math teacher at the time threw me what I thought was an innocent question. She asked, “what do you think you want to do when you grew up?”

I gave her my de-facto answer at the time, which was something in academia, probably physics.

She said, “Good, don’t go doing something else that’ll waste your talent.”

I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but over time I’ve come to rethink it. I mean – I’m sure she meant well, but what an absolutely condescending and single-minded way to think about planning a career! To think that there are paths where I’ll “waste” some potential I have, and to think that this should take a higher priority than what I enjoy practicing and where I want to grow – this seems wrong.

Especially early in life, there are far too many variables interacting in unpredictable ways to say that one choice would lead to a more successful career or fulfilling life than another. Less than a decade later, I think academia is absolutely the wrong choice for me. But if I found myself doing research in another eight years, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised, either. “What you do with your life” isn’t a projectile you launch in your early twenties and let fly in a trajectory until you retire, it’s a powered maneuver, responding to the eddies in the air and changing courses as you learn to see further over the horizon.

To make matters worse, I think a lot of us grow up with the mindset that there are better jobs that we should aspire to, and worse jobs that we shouldn’t care to do. Obviously, some part of this is tied to pay, but salaries are correlated much more highly with geography and experience and education than job titles. Even despite this, a lot of us have (or at least, grow up with) an internal scale with doctors, lawyers, professors, and C-suite executive titles at the top and teachers, salespeople, and most artists underneath them.

How does this mindset happen?

Humans instinctively want to sort and order things. We’re uncomfortable with multidimensionality. So when we’re presented a bunch of choices in life of how we should spend it, we sort them to organize it in our minds. We ask ourselves the question “what would the smartest/most talented/most fulfilled person choose to do as a job?” and then we all aspire to it.

Early on in life, this ordering is colored by our upbringing and the lenses of our family. Depending on that, we might aspire to be professor or a doctor, maybe a lawyer or judge or a big-time CEO. But there are people whose most-fulfilling, highest-signal career achievement is to be an influencer, a founder, or even a career politician. The answers vary, depending on both nature and nurture. Even within my circle of friends, people’s scales by which they order career paths on this axis of achievement differ depending on where they grew up, and with whom.

When I was younger, my personal scale placed the best-educated jobs at the top – the ones you need all the degrees and years of schooling to get. Lawyers, professors, doctors, researchers. Your scale may be the same, if our childhoods were similar. Chances are, it’s probably different in some way.

In reality, you can’t put these career paths on a single line, because how smart and successful you are has only a small correlation to your career choice. There are founders who are both smarter and dumber than professors, who are smarter or dumber than career celebrities or politicians. These are two mostly independent axes, but from childhood we conflate the two and “flatten” them into one, so we hold within ourselves an implicit understanding of what the “most successful” career path or job looks like. And most of us live with that flattened view of career and success, so even as we grow up, when we choose our paths we think “if we want to look smarter or live up to our talents, we should choose X” or “that person is X, their work must be worth more than the work by people who do Y”. This is hard to escape, but it’s a dangerous oversimplification. Sometimes it keeps us from having to make choices more deliberately, by giving us an easy North Star (just try to be the highest thing you can be on the scale!), but I think it also clouds us from forming our own scales guided by our personal values.

In Silicon Valley, founders have a halo. Being a founder takes lots of intellectual labor, yes, but it’s no different than any other difficult profession. You can’t compare them. Career isn’t a flat ordered list of professions where you rank things by how much success each profession signifies, and then pick the one closest to the top. Though gossip has a way of flattening these things, that’s not how you should make these long-lingering choices in life.

Instead, you need to discover your own axis of success. This is a little bit nature – what you inherently like as a person, which you discover about yourself over time – and a little bit nurture – what you think matters to you, and what kind of work you think reflects it. You draw your own axis, and then measure yourself and your choices along it. Nobody else’s, because these are all arbitrary in the end.

I think many people make costly mistakes early in their career because they don’t stop to examine and question whether the career they’re choosing is really the one that’s best for them, or whether they simply aspire to it because it happened to sit higher on a (perhaps arbitrary) scale.

As I’ve noted before, there are many more ways to live a life than the ones that you see around yourself. When people inherit skewed rulers by which they measure their job or professional path, I think they’re falling victim to just another case of this – failing to look further than what’s immediately obvious, and really asking yourself:

Given what I know about myself and the choices ahead of me, is the ruler I’m using to measure them my own, or one I’ve just inherited from other people’s ideas about what a fulfilling life looks like?

Thanks to Tanthai Pongstien for conversations that added much color and dimension to this post.

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