Chase your passion and you will find success.
Education is not enough. You need to equip yourself with additional qualifications.
Go with the flow. You can’t really plan your career that much.
If you agree with the above statements to some extent, then this article will give you a new perspective into these career development concepts equally struggled by high school and college students.
High schoolers will soon have to make a decision that may affect their lifelong career: undergraduate degree or alternative qualifications. They will also realize that college students are still struggling, confused and undecided on what to do. All while college students look back at current high schoolers today, who are becoming more competitive each year and remark ‘what did I do during all those years?’.
If you are a high schooler or college student, this article is for you. These three statements will resonate with you, which demonstrates how the entire career discussion simply doesn’t provide enough grounding for everyone.
There is nothing inherently wrong with following your passion. Everyone has passions, interests and hobbies. But it is imperfect guidance in the context of a career.
“What you might enjoy as a hobby doesn’t mean you will enjoy as a job in the bigger picture of a career”.
A hobby is simple: you spend time on it because you enjoy the activity, whether it’s in the evening or on the weekend, ‘just simply because you enjoy it’. You may think a career is just a job that occupies more time than a hobby being nine to five. So, your heuristic is: you really have to be passionate about your job. But a career isn’t just a job. Before we explore what a career can represent…
First, you have to know at least in part your approach to work and life.
There are two types of people in the world:
- The majority where life starts after work, or
- The minority where work and life are so integrated, work becomes a huge part of identity formation for the individual.
You are probably the former if you think ‘a job is just a job, as long as it pays the bills, the hours are not that bad’. A job is there simply to support your life.
You are likely the latter if you will see it as ‘much more than a job, that is not just the money and ‘I really want to make a difference with my work’.
Honestly, you will find yourself a mixture of both. The ultimate teller is how you spend your time. If you make the conscious choice, consistently, to replace your Friday nights and weekends with doing some form of work you enjoy, it points you to the second group.
Second, you have to place your job into all aspects of your life to know your definition of a career. Two popular frameworks are the ikigai and the four burners theory. Limited time makes our lives like a zero-sum game. You put more time here, you miss out somewhere else.
“Take time to reflect. Look back in time. See how you actually spend your time”.
So why is following your passion imperfect guidance? You can learn more in-depth with Cal Newport. Essentially, what you might enjoy as a hobby doesn’t mean you will enjoy as a job in the bigger picture of a career. In fact, many people often enter a job not knowing whether they will like it or not, but eventually become competent at it and end up finding satisfaction, leading them to stay on that career track. Self-determination theory can help explain the psychological mechanism.
What does it mean for you? It is fine to identify your passion but you must also identify your strengths. It is unlikely for you to do your first job for the rest of your life. Use your strengths as a guiding principle and you will understand where to devote your limited time towards.
Unsure about your strengths? Ask your friends how they perceive your strengths and weaknesses. Invest time and effort doing psychometric assessments and personality tests. Yes, tests are not perfect but doing enough of them will give you a consistent pattern of your skills and personality.
Unsure about your passions? Gain more exposure without an agenda in mind. Join a variety of clubs, organize events, meet new people, meet mentors and simply be curious about different cliques and activities. Reach out!
All students in the world know the financial burden of a college education. We also know that tertiary education alone is insufficient; it is only one component of learning, with the other two being experience and exposure.
“It is perfectly normal to not have it figured out but it’s important to have a toolkit ready to stay competitive and relevant in the free market”.
Have you noticed people posting self-congratulatory messages and announcements on LinkedIn after they have completed an introductory course? There is nothing wrong with additional education. But there is something wrong with jumping on the bandwagon and blindly taking additional qualifications without understanding why you are doing it.
Learning without application is a half-done job. We take on too much information but don’t practice it through assignments, project work, internships or volunteer work. It must apply in real life for effective learning and market value (which translates to a job).
Learning without strategy is also a problem. Are you T-shaped? Essentially, it’s about prioritizing your skill sets in a broad and niche perspective. If you’re in marketing, you need to know all the tools that exist broadly (e.g. video marketing, social media, TV ads, copywriting), but you also need to be highly competent in one or two verticals (e.g. Instagram or TikTok).
Is it the same as not being a jack of all trades? No. You need to be a jack of all trades but you also need to be really good at one or two things in your industry.
For almost all high schoolers and college students, you (and I) are probably still figuring out what to do in life. It is perfectly normal to not have it figured out, but it is important to have our toolkit ready to stay competitive and relevant in the free market of skill sets and jobs so that when the time comes, you can choose one you enjoy and feed it into your career.
What’s your next step? Go figure out your T.
‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’
This interview question might apply to the previous generation, where most jobs were taken on with stability and loyalty to the firm in mind and when more of the power balance leaned towards the employer.
“You need to know your competition by the hours and assess how capable and dedicated you are in becoming the top”.
However, today we are so flexible that freelancers are fully capable of self-sustaining themselves simply by doing productive work remotely. So, for us current high schoolers and college students, how do we plan for a career when it has changed so much and much of the advice is given by the previous generation who lived in a different context?
It all depends on how clear you are with your future job path.
Are you embarking on the traditional well-regarded paths of being a doctor, lawyer or engineer? Professional tracks are easier to plan because it is a numbers game of grades. You just need to invest in how to learn better and then get excellent exam results.
You also have to bear in mind that you are competing with top students worldwide. Some people may have genetic advantages or higher cognitive abilities (e.g. photogenic memory). On that front, you may not be comparable.
“If you are a college student, it’s harder to prescribe on paper what’s next because it depends on your year of study”.
But you also have to look at the number of hours you invest into studying compared to your local competition. My high school international campus shared a space with the local division, which followed China’s infamous machine-like Gaokao pre-university examination. Our school is ranked among the top and these students grind study materials like a machine. Yes, you can debate the merits of the exam system but that is the system we live in. My point: you need to know your competition by the hours and assess how capable and dedicated you are in becoming the top. If you are ready, your timetable needs to be packed to the minute.
Are you embarking on prestigious jobs like being an MBB consultant or working in a finance front office? These paths are slightly more complex and flexible compared to professional tracks. Consider your existing connections, the effort you put into networking, internships, interview skills, industry exposure and more.
You are better off reading all the relevant prep guides, paying for those crash courses by former employees of those firms who run educational programs as a side hustle and making an effort to meet people who work in those places for an insider’s perspective. Finally, you should join as many insight weeks as possible to understand the day-to-day culture of the consulting / finance industry e.g. the jargon, the focus, what makes someone impressive, etc.
Are you just not sure on which path to pursue? If you’re a college student, I think it is harder to prescribe on paper what’s next because it depends on your year of study, how many more internships (if applicable) you can slot before graduation and how clear you are with your direction—which I suggest engineering serendipity to become more inspired.
If you’re a high schooler, I think it is slightly more straightforward. Depending on your ambition, you could mass apply or just select a few colleges based on your grades and personal statements. But I want to list some factors to help you consider your college choice in the context of a career. FYI: I’m not going to cover ‘college life’ or ‘partying scene’ here because that’s for your own research and preferences.
First, you need to understand the opportunities in your college location. Do firms or event organizers host many activities in that city? Or do you have to travel far? Would you be able to easily meet a lot of people for a coffee chat? Are the firms you want to join based near your city?
“You don’t know what you don’t know until you go out”.
It makes a huge difference if you need to deliver a strong impression through an in-person interaction. Repeatable and financially viable access is the keyword. (As you know already, opportunity is unevenly distributed.)
The second aspect is the people you meet. College is valuable for various reasons including its brand credibility that feeds into everyone’s habit of judging a book by its cover. Yes, this is reality. Your college brand name makes a difference unless you invest comparable hours into your personal brand. More importantly, it’s the college relationships you will develop. You can get a sense by coffee chatting with people from your target college or asking your current school alumni to learn more.
Also, you can consider whether your degree is a small cohort e.g. under 40 pax. If it is, you may benefit from a strong camaraderie with developing lifelong friends. You can do the same in other programs too, but this is just a bonus.
The third aspect is the number of exchange opportunities you get from this college or degree. This is crucial if you are looking to widen your exposure to different cultures. You don’t know what you don’t know until you go out.
The fourth aspect is the flexibility of double majors. If you’re not opting for a professional track, then you will benefit from double majoring in two relevant or different fields of study. You will expand your network and also develop interesting domain intersections that can transform into innovations, whether as business or as social innovation. Think Elon. (Or, working on two T’s.)
A final conclusion
The career discussion can be as detailed (and somewhat theoretical) as you want on paper. But you need to align your plans and ideas with reality—ideally, people with experience and exposure. That’s why you must reach out to mentors whether from the industry, LinkedIn influencers or your school alumni. Share as much as you listen and learn. Have role models to imitate.
You will also find it useful to read people’s LinkedIn profiles to understand their career trajectory—which you will later find is a mixture of: A) paths that are not too surprising—good grades, good internships, good firms or B) paths that are totally random but ‘still made it’ to what they enjoy.
Finally, realize you cannot plan five years ahead unless you’re going on a traditional career path. You have to surrender the outcomes. But you also need to find the right balance of strategy.
Harrison Li is a graduate of Fudan International School in Shanghai, China. He continued his studies at The University of Hong Kong majoring in Food & Nutritional Science, and now developing professionally in the human resources industry, and working towards a social mission in the healthcare sector. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.
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