Congratulations on your big achievement. The exams are now over, the assignments all in. As you celebrate and revel in the memories of achievements, experiences, and friendships, we advise that you also pause to reflect on some important questions.
Many of you have made a big decision about what comes next—often in the form of a job or further schooling that signals a career direction.
So here’s the question: Why?
Why did you choose that? Where will it take you?
How does it fit with your values and aspirations for who you will be and what you will do with your life?
Does it fill you with a sense of purpose? Does it provide you with opportunities to learn and serve?
Will you get to work with great people whom you admire?
What is it you are seeking? Money? Status? Recognition? Approval? Control?
These questions, when pursued down to genuine root motivations, are revealing. Too many aspiring leaders skip over these questions. They put their heads down and get buried in the day-to-day grind and lose sight of the bigger picture.
In the social and competitive context of our peer groups and job fairs, our choice about what comes next can become a parlor game of comparison and prestige, not a thoughtful process of discovering the path that best fits our interests, aspirations, and sometimes quirky dispositions.
Too often, we choose for the wrong reasons.
We choose educational and career pathways not based on sampling, experimentation, dialogue with confidantes, and deep reflection, but instead based on expectations, status, pressure, and fear.
Some sell to the highest bidder, as if maximizing income is the only game in town, as if paying off student loans as quickly as possible is the main deal.
Some set off on an ego trip of epic proportions, restlessly chasing status and recognition. Some are under tremendous pressure from parents or peers (or think they are) and jump on a hamster wheel just to prove themselves or gain approval. Others are their own harshest critic—and worst enemy.
Here’s the kicker: as we walk down a certain path, it gets harder and harder to change. Commitments and investments have been made. It can be hard to go back and start over. The “switching costs” of all sorts—financial, educational, social, reputational, emotional—get higher over time.
Some people get locked in. Some find themselves on pathways chosen for shaky reasons—or by default, through the path of least resistance. Ask yourself tough questions:
Will your decision stand the test of time? How much does it truly resonate with who you are and aspire to become?
As you consider your options, did you factor in not only practical matters like income, stability, and opportunity but also guidance from confidantes and mentors, the stirrings of your heart, and the whispers of your dreams?
Can you stick with the pressure and uncertainty a little longer—even in this tough job market—holding out for a good fit, and designing some smart pilots and probes? Can you creatively explore and experiment until you find yourself in your “sweet spot,” where your strengths and passions merge powerfully with opportunities for service and reward?
Our initial pathways are more important than we realize when we are young. They play out over time with accumulating impact. We are wise to search and explore more before we commit, and to mine the riches of these big questions. When approached the right way, they are not riddles but our guides.
Who are you and how will you make a difference?
Bob and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, winner of the 2013 International Book Awards (business: general). Twitter: @TripleCrownLead