Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Career advice for gifted young people

As some of you know, I am deep in the throes of writing another book, called 168 Hours, to be published by Portfolio about a year from now. There are 168 hours in a week, and this book is about how successful, happy people get the most out of them (I'm still looking for people to profile, and people to "makeover" their schedules, so if you know anyone who's interested, let me know! Lvanderkam at yahoo dot com is the best way to reach me, though of course I read public comments here too).

Anyway, right now I'm working on a set of career chapters which look at how people build big Careers with a capital C in the middle of already full lives. A lot of it is advice culled from interviewing hundreds of people, and looking back at what I wish people would have told me.

Sue Shellenbarger's Wall Street Journal "Work and Family" column touches on this topic this morning. She starts with tales of woeful grads who tried to major in "hot" areas like accounting and finance, only to see those industries enter deep recessions. She then talks about how parents can help younger kids build skills for the new economy. You need to be adaptable -- answering the endless "why" questions, and helping children puzzle through these -- you need to encourage children to explore new areas so they're always open to change, and teach them how to seek out opportunities to put new ideas in play.

I think it's good advice, and I'd certainly like to hear advice from parents who read this blog on how they're helping their kids and teens prepare for life after school. Here are a few things I wish people had mentioned.

* For creative types: If you are, objectively, pretty good at what you like to do, there's no reason you can't make a career out of it, or at least try. Your twenties are a great time to do this. If it doesn't work, so what? You go and get a real job.

* You will always need to be entrepreneurial. No one is going to create the right job for you. You will probably work for yourself for parts of your life, and even when you're working for someone else you'll have to figure out ways to change the job description to get closer to what you want. One example: I recently profiled Kraig Derstler, a UNO paleontology prof, for Scientific American. He was not hired to research dinosaurs -- that wasn't his original area of expertise, so he didn't have any grants or papers in that area. So to finance his research, he started bringing along paying lay people on his digs, more or less like Tom Sawyer getting people to white wash his fence. But it worked and he got tenure, and is now doing all dinosaurs, all the time.

* The right job combines a few elements. First, the "stuff" of it is what you love and do best (and hopefully that others can't do nearly as well -- your "core competencies" as it were). Second, it affords you a lot of autonomy -- you can work in the way that works best for you. Third, it challenges you at close to the extent of your abilities. There is much joy to be gained by working hard, whether it's in school or at work, and it's a shame that too many gifted young people don't have experience with the riskiness of trying something you might fail. If you're working in an organization, there's a fourth criteria: your co-workers can't be total jerks. I don't have a lot of advice on the last front, since I'm a confirmed soloist, but I do understand that it matters a lot.

* A lot of people mistake things that look like work for actual work. Do not fall into this trap. Keep your eye on the revenue line, the "stuff" of your job, or what you'd like to be doing long-term. The fact that you had 3 meetings and 2 conference calls does not mean you're being productive unless something came out of all of those that advanced you toward the life you want.

* The best productivity boost comes from getting better at your professional craft. Practice does help! When I first started writing professionally, I'd be assigned a piece at 1000 words, and when I'd do my first "word count" it would be 1600 words -- difficult to edit without changing the focus, getting rid of key things I spent a lot of time researching, etc. Now, when I'm assigned a piece at 1000 words, my first count is always between 900-1100 words. I'm not counting as I go, I just have a sense of what kind of thesis will fit a certain length. I imagine that after a while, chefs never crack their eggs in anything but a perfect circle. I don't know why the idea that I'd get better at my job came as such a surprise, but it's true.

* Everyone needs a story. Life is about marketing these days -- hopefully with substance behind it -- but from college applications to job interviews to publicity, it helps to have a good line for why you're interested in something, why you are the right person to do it, etc. It's a competitive world.

Feel free to post more!


Becky said...

As a gifted parent of a gifted child, I am a big fan of teaching "personality awareness". By understanding the strengths and challenges of our personality types, I find that it's easier for us to navigate interpersonal relationships.

Anonymous said...

I would like to make a minor note here. For a minority of us, 'What you love and do best' can actually be two different things. And while 'what you do best' can change little over time, 'what you love' may change.

I am gifted and very analytical, loved computers when I was 15 and got into the software world. I loved doing it for a long time but now my interests have changed over time. Unfortunately it might be too late for me to change career paths, the investment and the knowledge gained in my career would be lost if I do.

So young gifted people should keep this mind and choose to change their paths appropriately when 'what you love and what you do best' may not seem to align.