A Case For Quitting Your Career
In the middle of January, I found myself in the most unexpected of places - the intensive care unit waiting room of a hospital in Philadelphia. My father was very ill and my mind was (obviously) racing. I don't know exactly why - maybe my reaction to the stress was to distract myself by thinking about something else - but while I was there I marveled at the medical devices being used as part of his treatment. And I don't know why, but I started to ask myself, "why do so few smart people I know want to work for medical device companies?"
In addition to reflecting on this myself, I put a few questions related to this topic onto facebook and soaked up what people wrote. Anecdotally, it seems as if there's a mismatch of talent in our country. A disproportionately small amount of the world's bright talents tend to enter industries which have a disproportionately high impact on human society.
After reflecting on some of the reasons which might be deterring more smart people from taking their talents to an area of greater purpose, here's my no-pulled-punches, call to action to my smart friends: you can quit your career. Join those of us on wacky, non-standard paths.
Taking a pay cut is not that bad
I'll be the first to admit that I grumble about my student loan debt all the time. I'll also readily admit that I'm very lucky to make a good living - my pocketbook is modest, but not hurting. That said though, I took a pretty hefty pay cut when I started my current job. But to all my MBA / Law friends there who feel conflicted about those strategy consulting, I-banking, corporate, big law jobs...don't worry. It's not that bad to live on a budget, especially if your budget is still substantially higher than the income of the average American family. The pay cut is nothing to be afraid of. And besides, a high-paying job or glitzy perks are usually a good indicator that the company is making up for something else about the job that really sucks.
You're not actually learning that much more
Prestigious firms like to talk about how much you learn while working for them. I think that's misleading. First of all, people in smaller or scrappier organizations tend to learn a lot, very quickly because they're thrust with more responsibility. Second of all, I think how much you learn at work has much more to do with your own disposition than the company. People who take risks, work hard, and have a learning mindset learn wherever they go. If you need a perfect company culture to learn, you'd probably get just as much of a boost in learning by staying put and changing your attitude.
You don't need a name on your resume to prove that you've made it
One of the things I've learned is that someone's resume or educational pedigree isn't a good indicator of who I'd pick to be on my team. As many folks who responded to my facebook questions pointed out - there are many kind of intelligence and there are smart people all over the place...that didn't go to elite schools or work for top firms. Don't think you need to work for a so-called prestigious firm to "make it." At the end of the day, your deeds and results prove your character and your talent. Not a line on a resume.
Doing hard stuff is not that scary
I wouldn't have admitted this at the time, but working at a cushy company was really easy, stress-free, work. At the end of the day, my actions didn't have measurable consequences on real people. It's certainly hard to work in gnarly, complex, environments fraught with problems - which tends to be the case in consequential industries. My father said, "There are many problems, but there are also many solutions." I think that wisdom applies here, too.
Of course I realize that my examples are hyperbolic. And of course, I'm not suggesting that everyone quit their jobs, move to Portland, and become sustainable food-truck owners, inner-city teachers, design-thinking consultants, non-profit staffers, or anything else that fits this rosy picture of a impact-driven career. I'm also not trying to suggest that the world doesn't need bankers, consultants, corporate lawyers, or people to start cutsy billion-dollar tech companies that don't really serve anyone but the affluent.
What I am saying, though, is that there are too many really bright people (at least among people I know) that are in jobs that are an insult to their talent and that the world would probably be better off if those people did something more consequential.
I don't normally soapbox (anymore) in blog posts and I'm normally not so poignant. I get that, and I get it if anyone reading this feels taken aback or offended by this post. I sincerely apologize for that.
But here's what really gets me, and why I am so vigorous in my passion for this idea. It goes back to when I was in the ICU in Pennsylvania, after spending the last few hours of my father's life at his bedside.
I kept thinking, If more of the world's smartest people chose to build medical devices instead of being consultants and investment bankers, would my papa still be with us?