TYLER, Texas — All writers, especially columnists write in search of understanding, said the late New York Times columnist David Carr. I think he was spot on. I have found that writing, with the aid of a lot of reading, really does help one think through their beliefs, flesh out ideas and, thankfully in some instances, allows one to correct a mistaken theory.
I have argued that the Great Recession dramatically changed the concept of career management, that our children entering the work force could not afford the luxury of moving from job to job without having an overall focused strategy. This theory of mine was based on the belief that someone like me, a college graduate sans master’s degree working in an industry that overvalues the importance of said advanced degrees, could not achieve the success that I have achieved. That the new healthcare economy, with reform leading to a dramatic transformation of our business model, simply negated the possibility of someone like me moving from a career as a crime writer and investigative reporter, to being selected as the first director for Hermann Hospital’s Life Flight program and later serving as the national marketing manager for the helicopter company, to starting several companies, including a successful search firm. The changing times simply would not allow for that kind career management serendipity, I thought. Young executives, I believed, simply had to be more thoughtful and more calculating in mapping out a career.
While that theory of career management may be more true for people seeking careers in medicine, investment banking, or law, I have come to realize that my neat theory that the smart college graduates should have a straight-line career management plan with the discipline not to wing it, is just not real, or even a good idea. Besides, it disregarded some overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Sometimes truth can be found where you least expect it, like on a Sunday morning reading another New York Times column. Frank Bruni who writes weekly about people, life and politics, interviewed Joel Benenson, one of the chief architects for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Before you discount what Messrs. Benenson and Bruni have to say because you do not like Ms. Clinton, The New York Times, or both, hear them out, and then think about their comments in the context of career management.
Benenson’s “jagged arc of life and career” says plenty about higher education, “the importance of liberal arts, indulging your passions, allowing for digressions and not sweating the immediate relevance and payoff of each and every step you take,” Mr. Bruni writes.
Benenson, 62, loved the idea of becoming an actor and prepared well for this career, studying language and literature as part of a classic liberal arts education. He spent most of his 20s as co-owner of a beer distributorship in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. It seems as though acting did not afford him consistent employment or the level of income necessary to survive in New York City.
He attributes his knowledge of the classics and his work experience in the beer business for making him one of the most respected political pollsters working today. Of his days selling beer in Brooklyn, Mr. Benenson realized that almost everyone around him — his customers and employees — were living paycheck to paycheck, Mr. Bruni writes. Those conversations never left him according to Bensenon who told Bruni that today he credits those experiences with helping him write polling questions “in the language of these men and women and to hear their answers accurately. I know their voices.”
Benenson did not graduate from college right away, Mr. Bruni writes. He did not finish until his late 20s. Then he took another sharp turn and became a journalist. It was not until he was in his 40s that he fully appreciated his passion for the work he is doing today.
Benenson’s lesson for young people is “don’t think about what you want to do for the rest of your life, think about what you want to do next. Maybe you have a big goal out there, pursue it, but along the way the line from A to B is not a continuum. The key will be identifying what you are passionate about in each of those steps along the way. “
Parents are “too focused on mapping a straight-line journey from cradle to lucrative career,” Mr. Bruni concluded. Benenson was even more direct: parents “stop making the focus of your kids’ education a job. College is about learning how to think critically, learning how to write and communicate your ideas.”
You have to discover yourself. Following some tightly crafted strategy is probably not the best approach to that end.
Thanks for allowing me to rethink that idea.