Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Myths on Careers

My nephew is doing post-grad in Aerospace. We were recently chatting, when he said that from the age of five, Astronomy had been his dream and he wanted to be an astronaut all his life.
I was somewhat skeptical - you see, I knew him from the time he was a baby. He does not even own a telescope at home (they can afford it). I have never heard him talking about astronomy; nor seen him read books related to that subject.
I think my nephew was falling into a trap laid by popular culture - which is the idea that people have "dreams" about their careers from very early in life and that they should "follow their dreams".
I know the message sounds all optimistic - but it makes no practical sense. Yet, in advertisements, Disney movies and media we find this meme - that we all have some kind of destiny and that we should strive to fulfill it.

Can We Decide When Young?2.
Increasingly, we are also told that we have to decide our careers very early in life. This is a repeated theme in Hollywood movies. Our advertisements nakedly exploit this - with children spouting lines about becoming a pilot or a computer programmer.
The idea that we have talents, I agree with. But those talents are more at the abstract level - it is impossible to decide very early on in life if you are going to be a computer programmer. Just as you cannot decide if you are going to be a lawyer or an auditor or an archaeologist.
At some level we all understand this when it comes to a career like law or accounting. But when it comes to "engineering" and other such romantic careers, we are told that we should "dream" and "follow our dreams".
There is an effort to make us believe that our dreams as children matter. I think that effort is simply putting more pressure on parents and children - on parents to "discover" their kid's talents very early on; and for children to decide their talents early and then stick to it, even though they may be completely wrong about it.
In one way, this is the age old game of trying to maintain a competitive advantage in our society - it has nothing to do with dreams or following those dreams.

The Truth about Career Dreams
The truth is this: most people decide their career based on financial reasons. This is true both in India and abroad. I know plenty of American programmers who are from finance, medicine, chemistry and other backgrounds. There is NOTHING wrong with deciding your career based on financial considerations.
Let us say, in spite of this, that we should follow our dreams. The question is, practically, for the majority of the population, at what point would you even know what your "dream" career is.
This is why I believe popular culture is sending the wrong message. I think it takes a long time, even into adulthood before you can understand what you are REALLY good at. And that is fine. Most people will end up working on something we are average at. That is fine too.
One of my cousins said she decided to be in the media very early on in life. Maybe. Did she even know what role she would play in the media? Doubtful. I mean, media includes roles from project management, production design, writing to several on-stage and off-stage roles. I think, instead, she decided to specialize in media when she entered adulthood, but then re-invented her passion for it and projected it to her childhood.

My Career
When I was in fifth standard I wanted to be an archaeologist. Then I wanted to be an astronomer, bus driver, wandering sanyasi, temple poojari, writer, reader (if someone would pay for it) and countless other professions.
It is obvious that I had no idea what a "profession" meant. I did have a talent for writing. But it was not very well-honed then.
Now, it would be absurd for me to say that I wanted to be in computers from when I was young. Why? Because I did not know what a computer was till my second year in college.
A bunch of my classmates were studying in NIIT at that time. Me and some friends were into Physics. We thought the guys studying computers were betraying Physics. We wouldn't talk to them.
This hatred for computers continued into engineering college. When it was time to choose what jobs we were interested in, I chose Elecronics and then Communications. I did not select computer software as a campus interview choice.
Then in my final year in engineering college, I realized something fundamental - I was an Electronics engineer, but I could not even solder two wires together. In fact, I sucked at building anything using electronics. Some of my classmates were building their own transistor radios and even micro computers. But I was a "theoretical electronics" guy.
This inability to handle anything mechanical must be an inherited bug in my genes. But as luck would have it, this bug pushed me into software.
When we had to choose our final year project, I had two choices. One was building some kind of electronic triggering system for cars or something. The other was a "simulation" project in which I had to program a communication system in a computer.
Since I knew that if I created any electronice triggering system, it would likely blow up when the car started, I decided to go for the simulation project.
Well, 15 years later, I am still programming.
Do I like it? Of course. I am free to make and break things while building them - without any cost consequences (atleast not compared to the real world). I like what I am doing.
But it took me many years to like it.
My point is that my story is far more typical. Getting a job you like is rare. The idea that you can "dream" about a specific career when you are young is just a myth. It takes well into adulthood to figure out what we like and why we like it.

1 comment:

Kunal Janu said...

Hi Ram,

Another good piece on your blog and incidentally i have published a similar piece on my blog. More on my personal confusion to choosing a career and doing what i liked, I'm still confused! But the thing is that it's true, nobody can decide what they like in childhood! It's truly a myth :)