kaleidoscopic career

“What do you want to be when you grow up?"

I smile fondly whenever I think of that question, especially since I think it applies to both our childhood and adulthood. As a child I was incessantly interested in everything. I think it came from a combination of reading a wide range of fiction novels and having an untainted view of what different heroes of society could look like. A wild child no doubt, shifting eagerness from ambitious astronaut to travelling theatrist to wild herbologist to analytical laboratorian.  

As I sit by the Nile sipping on a cold hibiscus refresher, I’m glad to say that the starry-eyed child, lover of all variety and novelty, is still sitting here today. The waves bounce tenderly on the limestone like a joyful bumblebee in a patch of happy lilacs. What a tender moment. This tranquility has opened a river of internal reflection: I can’t help but consider the career branches that have provided so many crazy opportunities in the past year. Floating around the Middle East peacefully during another pandemic peak still doesn’t feel real.

Like many kids in our younger years, I didn’t really know what a career meant. In my mind you went to school, made a choice from a set of predetermined pathways, and then you were off to the races. That’s what made everyone concentrate on the predefined buckets: you were going to be a great doctor! A lawyer! A banker! All these titles flood our brains like a relentless avalanche.

During a career discovery session in Grade 10, I told my homeroom teacher Mr. Matheson that I wanted to be a chemist. Using my expert archaeology skills developed from my last piece, I've dug up the somewhat embarrassing fossil of my early write-up here. A year later at 16, I was so proud of my applied calculus analysis of radiometric isotope dating, written in a personal narrative style. A true math and science nerd in the making, but with tones of literary expertise?

What’s most interesting about these artifacts is the reasoning: aside from the naivety of compensation benefits, I notice myself highlighting the hands-on side of chemistry. I think the main reason why I was so drawn to science at the time was this culture of experimentation. The three sisters of scientific study: genesis, analysis, synthesis — I loved them all.

This quick exercise tells me a few things: 1) I have always enjoyed testing and experimenting; 2) It was very hard to predict any future paths; 3) It was less mentally stressful to play with the crowd and adopt a linear career mindset. You can already tell there was some dissonance: 1 and 3 contradict each other entirely. I didn’t notice this until around February 2020, where I found myself constantly questioning: what else did I want to learn? What was next?

The hilarious thing is that the narrative of “one core career path” extended well into my university years. The consequence of the business bubble yet again, but I can’t put all the blame on the system. Mimetic desire expands from studying what your own close circles are interested in, and so you begin chameleonizing those desires to try to fit in this pool of crazy ambitious creatures. There are pool signs scattered around you: "Consulting is the golden route, after all."

I mean, why stop to think about if you actually care about what you're going for when there’s so much to do? That's how the killer ambition trap begins.

As mid-20s professionals, we grapple with what seems to be our adult life’s biggest choice. A dilemma of trying to optimize for everything: financial, intellectual, and social capital. But what happens when the dreams all collapse once you get to work?

What I’ve noticed over these past years is: it doesn’t matter whether you’re on the corporate industry vs. the corporate services side — you bond with your coworkers over shared suffering instead of shared striving. The phrase “slaving away at a 9-5” is so painful to hear, yet so commonly heard, and implies that there’s often not a single discernible shred of joy that young career folks can pick out.

And no, I don’t believe fleeting moments of victory count towards a sustainably high level of fulfillment. There’s something deeper than just going to a party and broadcasting: “I work in tech” or “I work in finance”. That's not telling, and frankly a bit boring. Many of us have a bigger yearning and need for something more meaningful, which is largely what fuels this whole Great Resignation trend from traditional careers.

Lately I’ve been gravitating towards this concept that I call: kaleidoscopic career. While I respect those who identify their career identities with the tagline of “the generalist”, the taste of this language doesn’t feel sufficient for my own case. Generalist means spreading expertise over skillsets, functions, and roles. But in a kaleidoscope world, the whole notion of career is cracked open: rotating allows a whole new range of shapes and textures to be revealed, colouring our lives in very rich ways. In this career kaleidoscope, beauty is created from, and with, your own perception. In such a design space, you have freedom to choose whether your career follows a symmetrical outline or embraces asymmetrical chaos. Viewing a career from these angles eases the process of learning and unlearning what your particular needs are, and magnifies the cost of inaction.

I want to be equal parts technologist, writer, and comedian. I want to retain my scientific nature but embrace emotional intuition at the same time. I want to express myself technically and creatively, whether through code or words. Above all, I want to build cool shit with cool people.

What do I want to be when I grow up? We’re back full circle to this piece’s seminal question, one that rears its multidimensional head in discussions and dreams alike. As the sun starts to set here in Luxor, there’s one thing that fills me with hope in my twisting & winding career arc:

Experimentation is the only constant, and it’s only just beginning, only just ramping up. I will always believe in you too. :)

Published by Sam (samwong) 5 months ago on Tuesday the 28th of December 2021.

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