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Dangerous Ideas: Beware of People Who Tell You Traditional Career Paths are Bad

August 1st, 2008 · 14 comments

The Drone ArmyWorker Drone?

Self-help blogger Steve Pavlina recently published an article titled: What If You Have Many Different Interests and Cannot Commit to Any of Them? Among the many ideas in this piece (several of which I agree with), were the following arguments:

  • “The notion that you have to commit to a single trade for life (or even for a decade or two) makes sense if you want to live like an industrial worker drone.”
  • “Hmmm… for some reason the people that said I should specialize got a lot quieter when my eclectic interests started paying off financially.”
  • “The next time someone tells you to settle down and pick just one thing for your career, your college major, or your source of income, I recommend you reply as follows: ‘I appreciate your concern, but since I don’t share your dream of becoming a prized poodle, I must reject your advice as being utterly stupid.’”

The basic message lurking here — that traditional, long-term career paths are for unoriginal, unhappy drones — has been gaining ground in the self-development blogging community. I guess this is not surprising, there’s something appealingly contrarian about the message. Think Different! Make your own path!

But is it right?

Good Intentions Pushed Too Far

Arguments like those above are born of good intentions. They aim to prevent arbitrary social conventions from pushing people into career paths they don’t like. The problem, however, is that these arguments often go too far. Instead of making the point that there are other options out there, they begin to demonize the traditional options as always being bad. Instead of freeing people to make their own judgments, they slander an entire direction as being for “drones” or “prized poodles.”

The Reality of Careers

Here’s my experience with young people entering the work world. For many, a so-called “traditional” career path is probably the best fit. Not because they are somehow damaged or unoriginal, but because for their particular set of interests and talents, a traditional path comes closest to giving them what they need to be happy.

For example, the following are all traditional career paths that match up with someone I personally know who is really engaged and happy with their life:

  • Journalist: The adrenaline of scoring the big scoop and the excitement of jumping from story to story is addictive to some. The quickest route here is a good college, lots of writing for the best possible student publications, journalism school, then working yourself up at a professional venue.
  • Professor: Everyone had at least one college professor who seemed to just absolutely love his life. The path here is as traditional as it gets.
  • Technology Entrepreneur: Stupid consumer web businesses started by 19-year-old college dropouts capture our imagination, but the vast majority of successful tech companies are started by engineers who innovated some new and needed technology. They are either professors, grad students (like the Google guys), or product team managers at an existing tech company. All require a long-term, traditional path.
  • Management Consultant: Some people love this lifestyle: see the world, never stick with one project for too long, work with brilliant people. The path here requires top schools and top grades.
  • Teacher: If you want to make a career of teaching, you’ll want a Masters of Education from the best school possible. If you want to do Teach for America, you better be one of the top students at your school; their recruitment is more competitive than most investment banks!

There are, of course, hundreds of other examples of traditional career paths that yielded, for some people, a rich, fulfilling life. On the other hand, there are also hundreds of stories of people trying to construct “alternative lifestyles,” who end up spinning their wheels for years, unhappy, bored and aloof until finally they figure out what fits their real interests and they end up buckling down, working hard, and constructing a life — though not always a Tim Ferriss wonderland — that they respect. The point being that there is no answer that is automatically good or bad.

How to Decide What’s Best For You

The decision of what to do with your life after college remains complicated. My advice is to start with the desired lifestyle, then work backwards. That is, visualize the feel of your ideal lifestyle, then decide what specific near future path will move you closest.

The key to a lifestyle-centric approach is to take nothing off the table in advance. Don’t let bloggers who are self-satisfied with their microbusinesses, or serial entrepreneurs with a fear of ties, try to convince you that some options are only for losers.

Do you really believe that everyone would be best off be making their living off of blog advertisements, eBook sales, and paid product reviews? Think about it for a moment. There is just no way that such a highly specific, somewhat unusual career path is some general cure-all for post-grad ennui — no matter how strongly we rant against “societal expectations” and the “liberating” power of “lifestyle design.”

What fits your talents might be different than what fits that talents of Steve Pavlina. Or it might not. The point is that only you know that answer. Don’t let anyone else try to convince you otherwise.

(Photo by Meditatejack)

14 thoughts on “Dangerous Ideas: Beware of People Who Tell You Traditional Career Paths are Bad

  1. Scott Young says:

    Steve Pavlina gained a lot of popularity with another article entitled “10 Reasons You Should Never Get a Job”.

    I think there is some merit to his push to reject more traditional options. Although some people are pursuing eclectic careers (only in Silicon Valley could Tech Entrepreneur be considered a “traditional” career, or maybe in MIT) I would say that most people are pursuing exactly what everyone else is. Social proof during uncertainty is a powerful force for making decisions.

    I agree with you that lifestyle design is probably the best strategy. However, I think it’s articles like these that open people up to the possibility of other options than the traditional job-promotion-retire route.

    I think that we’re both lucky in having lots of exposure to those alternatives, so it makes sense to take a neutral point of view.

  2. Study Hacks says:

    I would say that most people are pursuing exactly what everyone else is. Social proof during uncertainty is a powerful force for making decisions.

    I agree with this. However, I call into question the idea that the right strategy is to demonize what the traditional paths. That is, the fact that many people follow traditional paths for bad reasons does not imply that the traditional paths themselves are usually bad. The key in my mind is to call attention to social convention, and broaden people’s perspectives, but not, however, begin to label certain paths as intrinsically bad. Most bloggers are fair about this. Steve seems a hasty in his push to generalize his specific experience into a lifestyle for everyone.

  3. Allison says:

    I agree with your point in general. But most journalists never get to score a big scoop. Instead they’re stuck writing the same boring lifestyle pieces and celebrity interviews every year, chasing advertisers instead of readers. Then their incomes max out at $30,000.

    I love writing, and I love journalism in its ideals, but I haven’t met anyone who went the traditional route and ended up satisfied. I think those of us who are willing to stick with writing need to carve out something else, with freelancing, book deals, syndicated columns, maybe even blogs.

  4. Study Hacks says:

    But most journalists never get to score a big scoop.

    I agree that it is very hard to become a successful journalist. Most people who try fail. But for those who do have the talent, I think the traditional path is the best approach. (Like it or not, 9 times out of 10, the New York Times is hiring the latest Columbia Journalism School hotshot, not a blogger with a down-market advice-guide book deal.)

  5. Study Hacks says:

    Only in Silicon Valley could Tech Entrepreneur be considered a “traditional” career, or maybe in MIT)

    Ha! That is very true…

  6. Keith says:

    A traditional career path is something I’d suggest for most people leaving school. You don’t need to stay in that career for ever, but a few years can really help. Here are some of the advantages I see:

    1. There’s security in working for big companies that make money and aren’t likely to fail. This gives you room to make mistakes and learn from them in a safer environment that you will find when working on your own. This security is especially important for people with kids.

    2. Working with different people is also a very important skill that can be learned. Virtually all students have almost no experience working with people who are older or have different skill levels. Learning how to deal with these types of people can be a big benefit when striking out on your own later.

    3. Learning about an industry from the inside can be very important for later in life. You get to meet many people and see many jobs that are often opaque to someone outside the company or industry. Knowing how things work and who makes them work can be a big advantage later in life.

    The anti-career advice of “you are a cog in a machine” is totally true, but sometimes being a cog isn’t bad. This is especially true for people who’s job isn’t their primary focus in life. For parents with kids, or people with medical conditions, or people who are active outside work, a traditional career, chosen well, can be a way to have security for themselves and their family while dealing with other issues.

    One final point here is that the “traditional career” is pretty much dead. The security blanket from a big company isn’t nearly as big as it was back in the 1950s. Even a “careerist” needs to really look at themselves as a free-agent to some degree, because it’s unlikely that their job will remain stable and secure throughout their lifetime.

  7. Jordan says:

    “has been gaining ground in the self-development blogging community.”

    The mindset of working for yourself has been around forever and is held by a small percentage of people. The self-development blogging community is a very small percentage of people and what portion of that community are anti-job.

  8. Brandon says:

    I totally agree. Neither extreme is good.

    The thing that worries me about his site is not necessarily that he gives his advice, as is his right, but that some younger people see this and think they don’t have to go to college, because they are special, and they will have just as great of a chance of succeeding as a college graduate. That’s just pure ignorance. Unfortunately I see it among some who follow Steve’s writing.

    I tried to convince one person who had been thinking this way, explaining that at worst, going to college would be a safety net, in case his plans didn’t work out. He said I just didn’t understand. 😮

  9. Evan Meagher says:

    Good post. I liked Pavlina’s article, but felt it was a bit over the top. It’s nice to have both his and your posts to correspond and play off eachother.

  10. Chris Yeh says:

    There is a nasty whiff of the scam or pyramid scheme to the work of this new wave of self-help bloggers.

    You wrote, “Do you really believe that everyone would be best off be making their living off of blog advertisements, eBook sales, and paid product reviews?”

    I think an even more salient question is, do you really believe that everyone, or even a reasonable number of people, could make a living that way?

    Something most people tend to forget is that the value of advertising is in its ability to get people to buy things. Simply racking up pageviews is not enough.

    If everyone quit their jobs and started hawking health pills and eBooks, who the hell would actually buy them? Where would the money to feed the system come from?

    The guru life works for Pavlina and Ferriss because their approach is *rare* and they can make money off a legion of followers. But when everyone tries to be a guru, there’s no way even a small fraction will succeed.

  11. Jack says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been reading “Self Development” blogs for a long time now , and although I find many of their posts very interesting and helpful , I can’t avoid the feeling that they instead of liberating people from fixed concept , they just preach a new religion – not necessarily better then the old one.

    We are all human beings , and as such , we’ve already learned that “one size does not fit all” , specially when it comes to life style. So it’s great to learn about new options and think about possibilities you might not have considered – but you should always keep in mind that what’s right for them is not necessarily right for you.

  12. Study Hacks says:

    I just returned from a nice relaxing weekend in Maine, so I didn’t really get a chance to respond to these comments individually as they came in. I want to say, broadly, that this all excellent feedback. I’m glad to see that others also feel an unease about the “new religion” style of many in the online self development community. Brandon’s story is exactly the type of thing I’m terrified about, and Keith’s note adds an important nuance to the value of the short-term traditional path.

    Great stuff guys…

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