Two paths diverged in a yellow wood… You know the rest. How many times do you think these lines from “The Road Not Taken” have been quoted in college graduation speechs? It’s safe to say “a lot.” And what’s interesting about them is that they encapsulate the way people often think about the future — as a path, or a track. For smart, motivated students, this is especially true for how they look at careers. Step one: Pick your major. Step two through infinity: Follow the linear path that your major lays out for you.
But what if — by your senior year — your aspirations don’t align with your major’s prescribed paths? Or worse yet, what happens if you feel like your major has no path at all?
You know who you are. Your roommates are preparing for their finance-internship-turned-jobs to start. Your pre-professional friends are bound for law and med school. Even your parents — who said they’d support you no matter what you did once you graduated — are starting to ask questions. Meanwhile, you (who studied something in the humanities because you were genuinely in love with a particular subject; or perhaps you chose the sciences because it felt like the right thing to do) are far from thrilled with your “options.”
But fear not, college senior! We live in a world beyond tracks. You are not a locomotive. A lifetime of baristatude, PhD’s, and teaching creative writing is not in fact your fate, Liberal Arts major (unless, of course, you want it to be). And you, Chemical Engineering major, don’t have to spend the first five years of your career on an oil rig.
You are no longer defined by your major. Nor even by your career to date.
The path to the future you desire is, in fact… not a path. It’s a jungle. Here is your machete. Start blazing a trail. But how should you think about approaching it?
Well, this kind of mindset is actually very familiar territory for entrepreneurs. One of the most compelling definitions of entrepreneurship — the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled — speaks to exactly this. There is no dotted-line, no track to follow. Sometimes, even the goal itself is ill-defined.
This entrepreneurial attitude is what you need to take with your career.
I was a sociology major and took a winding road, a few u-turns, and forged a path to Silicon Valley. When I graduated, I thought I was on a path to med school, ready to change the world by helping people. After surprising my parents (and myself) by derailing from the life plan I thought I should have, I can fully attest to the challenge of starting the job search armed with “only” a BA. There was no clear path for me outside of social work or graduate school. But by getting entrepreneurial about how I saw my career — and by doing some soul searching — I wound up even closer to my passion.
And that’s how to think about it: dive in and get resourceful. Try to turn every “no” into a “yes”. Being out in San Francisco, you get to see a lot of successful entrepreneurs, and there are a lot of lessons we can learn from seeing how they operate.
They hustle: They’re willing to put themselves out there, and realize that doing something new is going to require them to expend the necessary energy to do so.
They don’t give up: They know that there could be 100 of those no’s before a yes materializes. But they also know they only need one yes, and every no gets them closer to it.
They focus on what they can do for others before worrying about what others can do for them: They know that reciprocity is a key foundation of human behavior, and so they start off focused on what they can do to help others.
They’re open to unexpected opportunities: They know that they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for, so they keep the aperture open wide.
Employing these traits means, at least in part, forgetting what you know.
Just like with majors, people look at jobs within industries with similar sets of preconceptions — many of which end up being unnecessary barriers to entry. Healthcare isn’t just doctors. Transportation isn’t just pilots. Entertainment isn’t just actors and anchors. Restauranteering isn’t just chefs. The tech industry is a great example of the divide between public perception and reality. It’s not just engineers with the big career opportunities. Take a look at Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work. Here are some skills these companies look for: “Outstanding written and oral communications skills,” “Ability to prioritize and manage work in a fast-paced environment,” and “exceptional attention to detail and solid time management skills.” Sound like you? Then perhaps you’d be perfect for a Associate Brand Marketing Manager role at Facebook; or a User Experience Designer at LinkedIn; or a People Services Operations Coordinator at Google.
Pigeonholing yourself by your past is the easy thing to do. Assessing your real strengths and skills — and leveraging them — is the entrepreneurial thing to do. English major? “Excellent communication skills.” Econ or engineering? “Strong analytical skills.” Anthropology? “Efficient problem solving.” Classics or linguistics? “Multi-lingual.”
At the Palo Alto office alone of the company I’m at, we have Geography, Philosophy, German, and Zoology majors in Client Services; English and Journalism majors doing content marketing; and Theater, Psychology, Hospitality, and Anthropology majors handling Recruiting and Growth and Development. (We have also hired a nightclub owner, Norwegian Armed Forces Lieutenant, Israeli Defense Force NCO, behavioral economist, and a few published authors, among others… but they don’t like to brag.) We are proud of our diverse talent pool and the patchwork of points-of-view that it represents. As in many industries, it takes many lenses to be successful in tech.
Don’t let any two paths in the woods or tracks or anything that looks like a straight line get in your way. You’re not derailing; you’re freeing yourself to find something that you’ll love.Photo credit: John Walker