“Worry compounds the futility of being trapped on a dead-end street. Thinking opens new avenues.”
“I live on a one-way street that’s also a dead end. I’m not sure how I got there.”
A professional journey is worthless if the destination is a dead end.
Never ignore the endpoint in front of you. Everyone is on a professional journey. By definition, this journey has a destination. Whether you’re unemployed, self-employed or gainfully employed by someone else, you’re on a professional journey. The problem is that most people have no idea where their journey ends. They are on a specific career track but do not know, or refuse to know, where the track is taking them. As a result, too many professionals are arriving at dead end destinations in business and entrepreneurship. A destination is a dead end when arriving at it is unfulfilling, limiting, or both. The only way to avoid arriving at a dead end is to confront reality and risk changing tracks. This means looking closely at the people ahead of you and seeking opportunities that shock the system you’re in.
Distraction is a trap. The reason that so many people stay on dead end career tracks is because they are distracted by daily tasks and short-term rewards. This is especially true for professionals earning and holding advanced degrees. These people spend the majority of their time and resources putting out day-to-day fires and chasing certifications and other “carrots.” Then, one day, they find themselves standing in the middle of a cul-de-sac chewing on a carrot that taste like crap. For example, in the United States, less than 30% of Ph.D. faculty members receive tenure. This is down from 42% in 1995 and 75% in 1970. Likewise, less than 50% of M.B.A. graduates land jobs at big corporations, consultancies, and investment banks. This is down from 70% in 1998. Yet, most people currently pursuing these and other advanced degrees are staying on their traditional career tracks. The key to avoiding a dead end destination is occasionally stepping off of your track and looking closely at where you have been, where you are now, and where you will be if you continue moving forward.
Full Steam Into A Brick Wall
Enjoying the journey doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy the destination. The most enjoyable job I ever had was working as a waiter at a restaurant at the Coeur d’Alene Resort in Northern Idaho. I would pull double shifts during the morning and afternoon and walk out with a couple hundred dollars in cash and play on the beach all evening and night. I loved it and seriously considered staying there instead of going to Graduate school. A single moment changed my mind. I was punching in an order and looked up to see a senior member of the waiting staff get verbally thrashed by a table full of customers. The waiter was 41 years old and was profusely apologizing for something that wasn’t his fault. He ran back and forth in the dumb little green and blue uniforms we had to wear, doing everything he could to make them happy. I was staring a dead end right in the face. I may have been enjoying myself waiting tables but that didn’t mean I would enjoy it forever. I saw the writing on the wall and put in my two weeks notice so I could prepare for Graduate school.
My experience as a waiter taught me to occasionally pause my professional journey and evaluate the path I was on. I’ve learned to look closely at the people who are 5, 10, and 20 years ahead of me on the same career track and ask, “Is this person happy?,” “Is this person growing?,” and “Do I want to be this person one day?” If I consistently answer “no” to these questions, I change directions. This is what I had to do at the end of my Graduate school career. For the longest time, I wanted to be a clinician or a tenured professor. But as my last few years of Graduate school unfolded, I came to realize that neither option was a good fit for me. All of the residents and young medical doctors I knew worked 80 hour weeks, running circles in the hospital with cheap cups of coffee attached to their lips. Likewise, all the post-docs and assistant professors I knew spent 14 hours a day repeating experiments and writing grant proposals that failed to get funded 93% of the time. For me personally, this was a dead end.
Dead Ends Don’t Open By Force
You can’t drive through a cul-de-sac. At first, I thought something was wrong with me. I thought that if I did what I was told, worked harder, and had a better attitude about my situation, the dead end would go away. But things just got worse. Undertand that you can’t bring a dead end back to life. No amount of hard work or sacrifice will resurrect the soul of something that limits you or doesn’t fulfill you personally. Working harder will only move you closer to the dead end faster. It won’t increase your happiness and bring you closer to achieving your goal. People who ignore where they are headed by distracting themselves with the minutia of their current journey render themselves useless. These people are like flies that keep smacking their heads against glass windows hoping to get free. This behavior is predictable and expendable. And expendability is not a worthy pursuit.
During my last year of Graduate school, I was offered a great job in the biotechnology industry. I flew to Seattle, went to lunch with the President, and was hired over a burrito and a handshake. When my Graduate school advisors found this out, they were appalled. “What were you thinking,” they said, “if they can hire you this easily, they can fire you easily too.” This is the kind of mentality you must shake off if you want to reach your full potential. The truth is, I was scared of taking a job that didn’t require numerous letters of recommendation and a weeklong interview process (which is normal in academia). Yes, the job was riskier than staying on my current career track. Yes, there was a big chance I could get fired very quickly. Yes, I could fail massively. But I could also win big. In the end, the job ended up changing my life, allowing me to travel the world while improving my skills as a scientist and speaker. It’s impossible to advance your business and entrepreneurship development without taking risks.
Shock The System By Seeking Failure
A secure journey is not a smart strategy. Slowly chugging along a very narrow career track will not make you successful. Not anymore. Risk is the new safe. Risky journeys create opportunities, not end points. It is better to jump onto a dangerous track and run down it at 100 miles per hour enjoying life and chasing a giant dream than it is to miserably step one foot in front of the other chasing a baby carrot. The only way to adapt yourself for the future of business and entrepreneurship is to start seeing failure as your new best friend. Failure is simply success in camouflage. Where there’s an opportunity to fail, there’s also an opportunity to win. In today’s world, the secret to finding good ways to make money in business and entrepreneurship is finding good ways to fail. Of course, your goal is not to actually fail, but to see opportunities for failure as opportunities to shock the system and win big.
Develop a shock the system mentality. I learned the importance of embracing failure during a high school wrestling tournament. It was my senior year and I had just wrestled a semi-finals match and was waiting for my best friend, Josh Birt, to wrestle next. Our coaches were having a hard time finding anything positive to say to Josh because he was about to wrestle Travis Pascoe. In high school, Travis won 3 Washington State Championship titles and had a win-loss record of 138-8. Travis annihilated everyone he wrestled that year. In fact, most wrestlers weren’t even able to score a point on him. He was the opponent you hoped you never had to face in one-on-one competition. If you’re not familiar with wrestling, competing against Travis would be like competing against a football, basketball, or baseball team that had completely shut out their last 100 opponents.
Before the match started, I walked over to Josh and asked him if he was ready and how he was feeling. He turned to me, paused, and said something I’ll never forget, “I bet I would shock everyone here if I beat Travis right now”. Wait, what? I was completely caught off guard by what he said. I managed to mumble something like “that’s true” before he went out onto the wrestling mat. As soon as the whistle blew, Josh started throwing Travis all over the place. By the final period, Travis was so exhausted that he stopped the match 6 different times to rest, using up every last second of his injury time. In the end, Travis rode out the clock and won by a single point. Yes, Josh lost. But he also embarrassed an all-star and instantly made a name for himself in the wrestling world. After the match, the crowd gave Josh a standing ovation. The following year, Josh went on to win the NJCAA National Wrestling Championship.
Low hanging fruit is usually sour. The above story illustrates the importance of flipping your perspective on failure. The problem is that most people are hardwired to shy away from failure. We feel a sense of intimidation towards a promotion or competitive job opening and retreat by talking ourselves out of it or sabotaging our efforts. The only way to overcome our fear of failure is to embrace it. Use failure as a flag post. Let it guide you towards opportunities that can drastically advance your business and entrepreneurship development. If you want big things, you have to take big risks. Miniature successes are not sweet. Giant successes are sweet. Rifle through every area of your life looking for the biggest opportunities to fail. Start challenging your perspective. This will give you the courage and foresight you need escape a dead end career track.