Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Real lives have curves

"How do I know where my passion lies?"
"If I don't have a defined passion, am I in trouble?"
"I don't know what kind of career I want..?"
"How do I figure out where I'll be in the next 10, 20 years?"

These are just some, out of many, questions that frequently come up at the career seminar series organized by the women's group that I am part of at Stanford. Women are not the only attendees at the seminars, men join us too. But that is not the important point. The point is, so many of us, men and women, are uncertain of what we really like to do, where we can best apply our skills, whether we want to stay in academia/move to industry/try a completely different field, etc. The passion theory states that you should follow your passion, but what if you have too many interests?? 

Everyday we meet so many people who seem to know exactly what they wanted to do since they were 18 ("I always wanted to be doctor", "I always wanted to teach", "Working in this field is my dream" etc.), so much that those of us, who are yet still indecisive, start to wonder if there is something lacking in our vision. It can sometimes even induce panic attacks, breaking out in cold sweat in the middle of the night, as we worry about not laying down a concrete path for the future. 

One thing I learnt from the career seminar series (we invite successful men and women who are top notch in their companies/field to speak about their lives) is that real lives have curves. What does that mean? Simply put, careers change all the time! Many successful people do not end up working in the same field/industry that they started off in, and do not expect to remain in their current position for the rest of their working lives. This includes those who had thought they wanted a specific path for themselves. In fact, careers change so often, especially in one's 40s/50s, that there is a term called 'the second career', where some people switch to a job that is drastically different from the one before. 

Interests and life situations evolve all the time, therefore careers do too.

Let me use my PhD advisor's wife, T, as an example. An amazing woman -- smart, funny, confident -- she is one of few people I truly admire.
T has a PhD in molecular biology, and she is really interested in archaeology and teaching. At the same time, she wanted to be an astronaut, but accepted the low likelihood of that option (due to various factors). In the middle of her PhD, T took time off (against her advisor's wishes) to join the Mars Society, and live in a biosphere in the Arctic for 6 weeks, running biological experiments related to settlement on Mars. She also spent time in their habitat in the Utah desert, building their biological laboratory and overseeing the construction of the observatory at the Mars Desert Research Station. To help fund her venture, she convinced NASA to allow her to use part of her fellowship (they were funding her graduate work) on travel expenses to NASA. 
After she graduated, T wanted to teach, while fulfilling her love for Egypt and biology, so she took up a Visiting Assistant Professor position at The American University in Cairo. Two years later, she was engaged to my advisor, whom she had met in graduate school, and moved back to the USA to be with him. In the States, T applied to faculty positions (she still wanted to be a professor), but unfortunately the global economic crisis in 2008 occurred, thwarting her efforts. During her brief unemployment period, she explored her love for writing, a skill she really honed during graduate school. In addition to accepting requests from contacts to write travel/science articles, she started exploring the option of being an independent scientific editor. This allowed her to discover her interest in being a business owner as well. At the same time, she sought out opportunities to conduct independent research in a lab on campus, exploring exciting and ground-breaking scientific questions in her own time. 
In a short span of less than four years, T now has her own scientific editing and consulting company to help edit scientific manuscripts, as well as to teach scientists how to write good papers. She also helps to teach a laboratory class, when required, alongside two other professors at Stanford. Due to their new addition to the family, she has stopped doing research at the moment. But more amazingly, T has written a novel over the past year (the storyline revolves around Egyptian history), and is on her way to publishing her first book. 

I hope this story has illustrated how much a person's career can change over less than ten years. T explored her various interests, adapted her career according to her passions (how many of us actually take time off a beaten path to try something new?) and evolving life situation (marriage, the two-body problem, children), and is still doing what she loves.

Granted, T is a truly remarkable woman. But my message to you, the reader, is this:
If you know exactly what you want in your life, I applaud you and wish you all the best in your journey. 
If you don't, do not worry! Just explore different options, figure out what works/doesn't work. Talk to people, find out what it is really like in your field of interest. Do information interviews, people are often more than happy to chat. Network*. You never know who may be able to help you in the future. More importantly, be brave. Never close doors just because you are afraid of failure. Don't be afraid to dream big. Ask for help. Fight for what you want. Never let someone else's expectations or reluctance stop you**. Learn as many skills as you can, you never know when they will be useful. Put in your best effort in what you do. So what if you're not good enough now? Become so good that they cannot ignore you***. If a job does not work out, do not take it personally (unless you were lazy and did not put in effort), move on to the next thing! Finally, be flexible. Just because you thought you wanted a particular path in life, do not beat yourself up if you lose interest and find another interesting area to work in. Also, be open to new ideas, even if you were not interested before. Evolve yourself!

If life was so predictable, wouldn't it be boring? =)

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

*You don't have to start giving out your business card to a hundred people right away. If you are an introvert like me, just take it slow, talk to one new stranger at a time. Over time, you might even find it fun!

**If you are fighting against bureaucracy, remember that people's first response is often 'No' because they don't want to do more work.

*** Recommended read: "So good they cannot ignore you" by Cal Newport

p.s. Thanks, T, for allowing me to share your story. =)

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