When I decided to leave the military after 16 years of service, just four years short of the necessary time to collect a retirement check at the ripe age of 42, people thought I was nuts. What in the world couldn't be endured for just four more years with a payout like that? What made my decision even harder to understand was the fact I rather enjoyed the job I was leaving. Definitely nuts. Either that, or Too XYZ.
It's not that I don't care about money. I tend to agree with Jennifer Michael Hecht's theory that a certain amount of money brings a great deal of happiness, but after that, returns diminish. I always thought "for love of money" was a crass, albeit popular, way of choosing a direction. Turns out the correct phrase is "not for love or money," which I think is much better advice but runs counter to a lot what people will tell you. In this post, I'll talk about my journey to discover the perfect career and lessons I've learned along the way.
1. Look up. I'm a dreamer. Growing up, I went through a ton of potential professions, most of which tried to satisfy some version of the "for love" clause: actress (for fame, a version of love), animal trainer (for love of animals), and diplomat (for a suspected love of glamorous embassy parties).
The one exception was an inkling I might want to be a scientist, primarily because I was a naturally curious kid and had really enjoyed spending my summers working in a genetics lab at the University of South Florida. I had also developed a huge crush on a graduate student, so I guess the "for love" aspect wasn't completely missing.
My father decided to test my resolve by leaving copies of Discover magazine lying around the house. When I didn't read them, he advised me I didn't have the "fire in the belly" for science and should look for another profession.
Did a failure to read magazines really serve as the best indicator? I had won my county science fair. Where was that in the equation? Another way of looking at it might be to look at how I spent my free time, which was largely reading and writing poetry.
All this dreaming meant I was significantly ahead of the average kid in terms of introspection and my parents didn't even have to pay for a therapist.
2. Ignore the roar. Despite my father's advice, I decided to major in biochemistry over English because poets are some of the poorest professionals in America and I really like to eat. Turns out kids have good instincts that we often smother when we get older.
What neither my father nor I realized was that being a "biochemist" encompasses a pretty wide range of jobs. Over the course of my career, I have:
- Served as a first line supervisor for an analysis lab
- Performed original research as a graduate student
- Managed a portfolio of basic research grants
- Taught college level chemistry
- Provided scientific guidance and vision for a medium-sized research lab
- Headed corporate communications for a large research organization
Each of those jobs required different skills and presented an entirely new environment to navigate. When I was choosing a major, I only imagined one of those jobs, the one it turned out I enjoyed the least. Most people don't realize that performing research is a lot of tedious and careful detail work punctuated by the occasional big a-ha moment (if you're lucky). On the other hand, serving as a scientific adviser played to my big picture focus and gave me continual learning opportunities.
Talking to your instructors in school will rarely give you this kind of insight, because most of them have spent their careers solely in academia. They won't be much help to you in deciding on a career unless you want to do research and teach.
3. Flexibility is the key to air power. We say this a lot in the Air Force, because it's true, even though we're trapped in a huge bureaucracy. This is another reason why dreaming is so important.
Here's where my father was both right and wrong. I love science. When I was a teacher, I always got the highest ratings in the department for enthusiasm. The problem with all my jobs wasn't the science, it was everything else. There's more to being a scientist than just science. In fact, that's true of any job.
Nicolas Lore, in his book The Pathfinder, points out most people spend more time figuring out what car to drive than what they want to do with their lives. What you need to do is determine what you really require (not just love), and then pinpoint the job that satisfies your requirements. After working through all the exercises in the book, I realized the perfect career for me is to be...a writer.
One of the joys of life is exploring. I have no regrets about the winding path I've taken to find the perfect career. It's been fun. The thing I really wish my father had told me was not to fret too much about my choices, career or otherwise. A career is like building a house. You need a solid foundation, but you should be prepared for significant additions and remodels over the course of a lifetime. That's what gives it character. The career that doesn't grow with you probably isn't one worth having.
Jennifer Gresham is a 1994 graduate of the Air Force Academy. She earned her PhD in biochemistry from the University of Maryland and recently entered the Air Force Reserves as a Lieutenant Colonel. She published a book of poetry entitled Diary of a Cell, which won the 2004 Steel Toe Books poetry prize. She now writes about personal and professional fulfillment at her blog Everyday Bright.