Have You Ever Felt That You’re in the Wrong Place in Your Career, in Your Life?

Todd Rose, director of Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program, and computational neuroscientist Ogi Ogas cast a broad net when they set out to study unusually winding career paths. They wanted to find people who are fulfilled and successful, and who arrived there circuitously. They recruited high fliers from master sommeliers and personal organizers to animal trainers, piano tuners, midwives, architects, and engineers. “We guessed we’d have to interview five people for each one who created their own path,” Ogas told me. “We didn’t think it would be a majority, or even a lot.”

It turned out virtually every person had followed what seemed like an unusual path. “What was even more incredible is that they all thought they were the anomaly,” Ogas said. Forty‐five of the first fifty subjects detailed professional paths so sinuous that they expressed embarrassment over jumping from thing to thing over their careers. “They’d add a disclaimer, ‘Well, most people don’t do it this way,’” Ogas said. “They had been told that getting off their initial path was so risky. But actually we should all understand, this is not weird, it’s the norm.” Thus the research found a name, the Dark Horse Project, because even as more subjects were added, most perceived themselves as dark horses who followed what seemed like an unlikely path.

Dark horses were on the hunt for match quality. “They never look around and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to fall behind, these people started earlier and have more than me at a younger age,’” Ogas told me. “They focused on, ‘Here’s who I am at the moment, here are my motivations, here’s what I’ve found I like to do, here’s what I’d like to learn, and here are the opportunities. Which of these is the best match right now? And maybe a year from now I’ll switch because I’ll find something better.’”

Each dark horse had a novel journey, but a common strategy. “Short‐term planning,” Ogas told me. “They all practice it, not long‐term planning.” Even people who look like consummate long‐term visionaries from afar usually looked like short‐term planners up close. When Nike cofounder Phil Knight was asked in 2016 about his long‐term vision and how he knew what he wanted when he created the company, he replied that he had actually known he wanted to be a professional athlete. But he was not good enough, so he shifted to simply trying to find some way to stay involved with sports. He happened to run track under a college coach who tinkered with shoes and who later became his cofounder. “I feel sorry for the people who know exactly what they’re going to do from the time they’re sophomores in high school,” he said. In his memoir, Knight wrote that he “wasn’t much for setting goals,” and that his main goal for his nascent shoe company was to fail fast enough that he could apply what he was learning to his next venture. He made one short‐term pivot after another, applying the lessons as he went.

Ogas uses the shorthand “standardization covenant” for the cultural notion that it is rational to trade a winding path of self‐exploration for a rigid goal with a head start because it ensures stability. “The people we study who are fulfilled do pursue a long‐term goal, but they only formulate it after a period of discovery,” he told me. “Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with getting a law or medical degree or PhD. But it’s actually riskier to make that commitment before you know how it fits you. And don’t consider the path fixed. People realize things about themselves halfway through medical school.” Charles Darwin, for example.

At his father’s behest he planned to be a doctor, but he found medical lectures “intolerably dull,” and partway through his education he walked out of an operation at the grind of the surgical saw. “Nor did I ever attend again,” Darwin wrote, “for hardly any inducement would have been strong enough to make me do so.” Darwin was a Bible literalist at the time, and figured he would become a clergyman. He bounced around classes, including a botany course with a professor who subsequently recommended him for an unpaid position aboard the HMS Beagle. After convincing his father (with his uncle’s help) that he would not become a deadbeat if he took this one detour, Darwin began perhaps the most impactful post‐college gap year in history. His father’s wishes eventually “died a natural death.” Decades later, Darwin reflected on the process of self‐discovery. “It seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman,” he wrote. His father, a doctor for more than sixty years, detested the sight of blood. “If his father had given him any choice,” Darwin wrote, “nothing should have induced him to follow it.”

Michael Crichton started with medicine too, after learning how few writers make a living. With medicine, “I would never have to wonder if the work was worthwhile,” he wrote. Except, a few years in he became disenchanted with medical practice. He graduated from Harvard Medical School, but decided to become a writer. His medical education was not remotely wasted. He used it to craft some of the most popular stories in the world—the novel Jurassic Park, and the TV series ER, with its record‐setting 124 Emmy nominations.

Career goals that once felt safe and certain can appear ludicrous, to use Darwin’s adjective, when examined in the light of more self‐knowledge. Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.

Excerpt from: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

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