Today’s Indian youth is in a state of confusion and understandably so: they see tremendous opportunities in the job market, but have no idea how to go about exploiting them to their long-term benefit.. For the first time in 60 years India’s economy has developed to a point where people can think of building long-term careers instead of getting stuck in ‘steady’ and ‘stable’ jobs that are utterly boring and tiresome. But due to inadequate understanding of how to build a career, and the utter lack of proper career counseling in schools and colleges, our young people try to ‘discover’ a career through trial and error.
In this article we will consider the essential ingredients of a successful and happy career.
It is important to distinguish between a temporary job taken up to make a quick buck, and a long-term career that requires serious thinking and planning. It is perfectly all right to do uninteresting work for short-term needs such as, paying off your family debt or earning pocket money during summer vacation. But it is a grave mistake to sign your life away to a so-called stable but boring job just because it assures a ‘good pension’ at the age of 60! A career is like a way of life; you spend 8 hours on average out of 12 hours of productive wakeful time every day at your work-place. That is 65% of your most productive time. It clearly needs be treated differently than a job!
‘Passion for work’ is a commonly used phrase these days. There used to be ‘crimes of passion’, and people engaged in ‘passionate love’. To add to that now one is said to require passion to succeed in workplace. Simplified in our context, ‘passion’ means a ‘serious interest’ in the career you want to pursue.
What makes a type of work interesting? Usually when you feel the work tickles your brain in some way, or it challenges your abilities, it is likely to be interesting work. Another aspect is whether the work keeps you engrossed. For example, many computer science graduates lose track of time and place when they are busy writing their first computer programs. You don’t get bored doing the work. Of course there will be dull moments in any type of work, but as a rule of thumb, it would not exceed 40% of the work time.
If you are yet to choose a career, you probably need to take a few months off just to survey the great variety of careers, understand what ‘day-to-day activities’ are performed in each, and what kind of challenges typically come up while performing the work. For example, a System Administrator installs computer networks and software, configures the systems for use by his/her company’s employees, and troubleshoots any problems reported by them.
A long-term career must allow learning and growth. Learning comes in the form of acquiring skills, collecting knowledge, honing aptitudes, and developing understanding and expertise. This learning can be in a variety of areas depending on your chosen career path. For example, in engineering jobs, one can learn about technical matters as well as about management and leadership. Real-life work gives you experience, and experience gives you confidence in your knowledge, skills, and beliefs. Good careers provide a wide variety of experience.
‘Growth’ is slightly more subtle. People misunderstand growth as increase in remuneration and promotions in the hierarchy. Growth actually has to do with your intellectual growth as an individual: becoming more skilled at your work for instance, or getting smarter in problem solving and team management, or being able to handle multiple tasks at the same time, or improving English language skills, and so on. Growth also involves personality development such as, getting better control of your negative emotions, or building confidence to communicate directly with customers and senior people, or mentoring and helping junior team members for their own career development.
But there is one problem with ‘learning and growth’: one doesn’t always know what he or she should expect to learn at different stages in the career. Sometimes the expectations are misguided. A good organization offers a transparent learning framework (which makes recommendations on what to expect at what stage), and proper career development that encourages ‘overall development’ of its employees rather than building ‘specialized expertise’ only. To some extent, you need to have faith in your organization with regards to this aspect: what appears to be ‘uninteresting to learn’ actually might be a critical piece in your overall growth.
Work environment has multiple facets. One is the typical office or factory set-up which is essential to carry out the tasks involved in the job. For example, a Mechanical Engineer working in an automotive factory would necessarily spend time near the shop floor where the cars are assembled on the assembly line. A programmer would get an air-conditioned room or cubicle and a computer to perform most of his work.
The second aspect is the ‘culture’ of the work place. Work-place culture is discussed a lot but understood the least. It is about how the company treats its employees, whether it offers flexibility in work hours, whether it offers amenities such as subsidized drinks and food, whether the organizational structure is highly hierarchical and stratified, whether the company offers open communication such that anyone can talk to anyone irrespective of title and level, whether everyone is respected as an individual, whether employee problems and grievances are taken seriously, whether good work is appreciated, whether senior management provides the employees the big picture, and so on. This aspect is extremely important in creating a positive pull towards your workplace. One should feel ‘eager’ to get to his or her work-place every morning and start working alongside the colleagues.
The third aspect of work environment is the kind of team you get to work with. This would obviously vary a lot from place to place. It would also be very difficult to judge before joining a place, although you can make intelligent guesses during the interview process, since at least one of the interviewers is likely to be your team member. Having a team that is friendly, nurturing, cooperative, and un-competitive is critical in a healthy workplace. It is also fun to work with a team that is culturally diverse, includes individuals that are talented or exceptional in some way, and assimilates a newcomer with open arms.
People often underestimate the importance of ‘work environment’ as described above, and are ready to quit just because they did not get properly ‘rewarded’ in a performance review. It is a big mistake to make impulsive decisions, such as quitting a great work environment, just because you did not get a salary raise or promotion. You may get the salary or promotion you wanted in your new job, but you would lose a great work environment in the bargain.
I recently heard the story of a young man who was prodded by his doctor parents to get into a medical college. They even paid a huge fee to secure their son’s admission. Apparently, the boy had no aptitude for Biology, but was interested in building a lucrative clinical practice. After a year and a series of pathetic failures in Pathology, the boy dropped out and joined a diploma course in civil engineering. He realized he was much better at solving structural problems than at memorizing words like ‘medulla oblongata’.
Do you have the capability to perform the job? If not, do you have the aptitude to build the capability? These are important questions to ponder before you jump onto a career bandwagon. For example, if you tend to spot defects easily, you might succeed as a Test Engineer. Kids who exhibit talent at designing and building handicraft, are likely to succeed in design oriented careers like Architecture, Software Development, Electronic Product Design, or even careers in Fashion Design.
There are a variety of tools and theories out there that guide you on how to determine your aptitude and what careers may utilize that aptitude. The theory of multiple intelligences, for example, is adopted by many primary and middle schools to design education for their students.
The best way to find out if you have the aptitude for a career is to talk to experienced and successful folks in that job sector. Ask them what the ‘basic success factors’ are for their industry.
What is really the meaning of ‘meaningful’? Generally speaking, ‘meaningfulness’ has to do with usefulness or relevance. For example, I think Teaching career involves a great service to the society. Good teachers create a whole army of good citizens for the society. Meaningfulness is very personal: one has to discover what is meaningful to him or her.
As young adults we rarely worry about ‘meaning’, i.e. whether our work makes any difference to anyone else in the world. But after spending 10-15 years, ‘meaning’ becomes an important aspect. Questions like ‘Does anyone really care about what I do?’ or ‘Is my work making a difference to the society?’ start gnawing at us. If the answer is negative to these questions, we risk losing motivation to perform our jobs.
Be sure to give a serious thought to ‘meaningfulness’ before you get into a long term career. It’s not that hard to figure this out. Each of us carries a set of values and convictions. Hidden behind our hunger, greed, ambition, passion, and insecurity, there always is a pure urge to do something with our lives. For each career that you are evaluating, you simply have to ask the question ‘Will this career bring me satisfaction?’ For example, one might decide that ‘software testing’ is a highly satisfying career because it helps improve the quality of software.
In a booming economy, the number of jobs exceeds the number
of available candidates. That is a great situation because candidates can
choose the right job for themselves. It is also good for the hiring
organizations because they are likely to get candidates who are fit for the
positions. Such is the situation in
On the surface, this may seem like a good thing for the job seekers. They can attract a high premium for their services. Indeed today we find that IT workers hop around like rabbits every few months. The biggest carrot for job-hopping is ‘salary’. Most hops happen just after performance appraisals during which the candidate gets a ‘disappointing’ raise.
I feel young talented Indians of today are letting the ‘Salary Factor’ come in the way of building great long-term careers.. They get upset when they do not get the raises they expect. The expectation is invariably based on unscientific and illogical factors. One is how much your peer is earning; or what the ‘industry standard’ is; or the assumption that compensation must always go up (even if the type or work or role is different). People also have little understanding of the financial working of their employer which has a direct impact on employee compensation.
At a philosophical level, money requirements should be determined by your preferred life-style, not the other way round. People allow their life-styles to change as the flow of money changes, making money ‘never enough’. Money pressures force you to ignore other important aspects of a high quality career.
In summary, while money is important, one must not ignore the other aspects discussed in this article; rather you should make money a less important factor in your career-related decisions.
Written: July 2007
Published in Times of
Note: Stuff in BLUE has been added after the publication.