Twelve Things I Wish I’d Known Twenty Years Ago

13Jul12

I recently turned 40 — one of those “milestone” (or should that be “millstone”?) birthdays. Partly because of my recent birthday, but also because I recently started a new position, I have been reflecting on where my career is now, compared to where I thought it would be when I was younger.

When I was younger, I thought I was going to be making a comfortable living, doing ‘important’ work. Twenty years ago, my plan was to get my PhD and become an academic historian. Twenty-four years ago, my plan was that in 2012, I would be running for my second term as President of the United States.

I expect that my reader knows that it’s actually a somewhat older man who is running for a second term as President of the United States. I’ve actually never even run for elected office. I did try for my PhD (in Scottish history, specifically), and failed. Since that failure, I’ve moved from one clerical job to another, making little (if any) headway financially, but racking up some ‘valuable’ life lessons (those being lessons that you wish you hadn’t had to learn).

Were I able to talk to my younger self, here is some of what I would tell him:

More education does not equate to more financial security. This is a big one, because it’s contrary to a persistent cultural myth. There is a reason for the myth that more education brings more financial security — note the difference in unemployment rates for those with a college degree versus those with only a high school diploma. However, it’s important to note that this difference is for all majors, and that there can be a huge difference by major. Sadly (for those of us who were, there’s a reason for all the “do you want fries with that” jokes about humanities majors. I have even heard (since getting one) that a master’s degree in the humanities is less of a guarantee of financial security than a bachelor’s degree is.

‘Important’ work does not equate to financial security. Yes, most doctors make a comfortable living, and the President of the United States has a very comfortable salary. But teachers and social workers don’t make a great income, while singers, actors, and reality t.v. stars ‘earn’ millions. The key is to find a way to make a contribution you feel is meaningful, while earning reasonable compensation.

Nobody is doing ‘important’ work. I think that we can agree that our doctors do important work, and any readers from the US (and the US’s trading partners and allies) can agree that the President of the United States does important work. However, as much as I respect what they do, I can’t say that the work of any doctor in Sioux City, Iowa (to name a city where I don’t think I know anyone — nothing against Sioux City) is all that important to me. And for an Algerian, the most important thing that President Obama does on most days is to not decide to pursue war against Algeria (not to pick on Algeria; I don’t know of any reason why we would want to). In most cases, the work you do will matter only to you and whoever you serve.

Everybody who works is doing important work. If you’re being paid to do something, there’s a reason you’re being paid to do it. You have a client/boss/customer/student/patient who wants the service you are providing — whether you are serving in a restaurant or performing neurosurgery. They may be able to get it from someone else, but chose you, and you want them to continue to choose you.

Dream big, but have a back-up plan. Back in 1995, I dreamed big — of getting a PhD in Scottish History, in Scotland. I didn’t make it. I’m unofficially ABD (as that’s not an official status). When reflecting on that time, I swing between four regrets:

  1. Not finishing
  2. Going
  3. Staying for more than the one year it took to get my master’s
  4. Not having a back-up plan

The Times Higher Education Supplement ran an article fairly recently that suggests that little has changed in the UK regarding preparing PhD students for the possibility of a career outside of academia, but one thing that heartens me in it is that it mentions a trend of students getting master’s degrees in fields with real-world application (like statistics) during their studies. I really wish I had thought of that. A degree in museum studies, statistics, or public history would have opened infinitely more doors for me than my Master of Science (by Research) in Scottish History. Had I had a back-up plan, I would regret my fallow years less often, and be better able to enjoy the memories.

Neither life nor your career will happen as you plan. Prepare for it. Whether it’s having to move, failing to complete a degree, blowing it at work, an unexpected opportunity, layoffs, falling in love when you didn’t expect to, or falling in love with a town and not wanting to move, there will be something that happens that will mean that your career and life will take a different course than you thought they would. You can prepare by having a back-up plan, by remaining flexible, and by being always willing to learn.

Failure to plan is dangerous. One of my greatest career frustrations is feeling as though I’m being blown on the wind, and not able to progress. I regret that I did not take the time while a student to meet with a career counselor to discover what I wanted to do with my career. Since then, I have met with a career counselor, and have an idea of what I would like to do — I just need to overcome some significant financial hurdles before I might be able to start down a ten-year path to it.

Money matters, and (to some extent) it can buy happiness. The Beatles were right, it can’t buy you love, but it can buy you happiness. Sure, beyond $75,000 a year, it doesn’t do much for you, but it is hard to really feel happy when you’re constantly worrying about how to pay the bills each month. Having spent 15 years much closer to the poverty line than to the point where money no longer buys happiness, I wouldn’t mind seeing if there really is a difference in happiness level between $75,000 and $76,000 a year.

Love of money is not the root of all evil. I’ve lived most of my life as though the abbreviated version of the original quote is true, and that money is the root of all evil. In truth, I still think that the original quote is close to true, and that love of money is the root of much evil. However, when you’re standing on the corner, waiting for a break in traffic, and wondering if stepping in front of the next truck so your family can collect your small life insurance benefit would be better in the long run than getting to work safely, you realize that need for money is also a root of evil, and that making enough to meet your basic needs is essential.

Don’t judge your worth by your bank balance or what you can buy. There are plenty of people who will do that. You don’t have to be one of them. Your true friends and you family will judge you by other (and more important) things, and love you for those reasons. Choose to judge your worth by those same standards, not by the ones set by people who either don’t know or don’t love you.

Don’t buy a house at the peak of the housing bubble. This shows great hindsight, and is of somewhat limited direct application. However, it’s also best to not make any investment at the peak of the bubble. As soon people start talking about how any investment will ‘only be going up from here’, it’s time to look for another investment.

At some point, you will feel that an employer has betrayed you. They probably won’t really have, but perhaps they will have. It doesn’t matter. The root of the issue is that (unless you are self-employed) you and your employer have different long-term objectives, even if your short-term goals converge for a time. If you take control of your career path and always have a Plan B (and recognize that it might end up becoming your new Plan A), you can reduce the impact of the difference between your employer’s and your objectives.

There it is, the bulk of what the past twenty years has taught me about career management. That’s one lesson every 20 months. Perhaps I’m a slow learner.

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2 Responses to “Twelve Things I Wish I’d Known Twenty Years Ago”

  1. 1 chai

    nice read.. I am with you on ‘More education does not equate to more financial security’. But if you have a list on all your accomplishments- be it in terms of family life, children, traveling the world etc which exceeds this list, then you are already a winner. Wishing you the best ahead.


  1. 1 Selling a Mid-Life Crisis | withamouthfullofstones

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