What is success, what is a career, and how do you find them?

I recently attended a career seminar and we were asked to define what a career was. The snarky side of me wanted to pull out Webster's dictionary and mechanically repeat the definition. As a group of engineers, however, we started defining a career by setting upper and lower bounds on what a career was. The upper bound, we decided, was life. Clearly a career was not a life, so it must be something strictly less than that. We then decided on a lower bound, which we defined as something that enables us to have a roof, food, and clothing (think Maslow's hierarchy of needs). Somewhere between these two approximate bounds, we reasoned, must be a career. More to the point however, what is a career? Eventually, through much argument (and a few graphs, analytic models, and other such stuff you might expect of engineers), it was decided that a career is something different to everyone, each person has different hopes, dreams, and goals. Now to the subject of this post, what is success? Everyone wants a successful career, but how do we determine if we're successful? Is it something we can put a metric on, a feeling, judged by yourself, others? It turns out, at least for me, that this was a much harder question to ask and drove me to do some introspection. I realized that I've had many definitions depending on what stage of life I was at. I'm not certain there is really a single definition. So I'm going to start examining a short version of how I got to my career and how I defined success along the way.
Hopefully through this process I can figure out what success really is.

As a child, I'm not sure I really knew what success meant. In a town with very little occupational variety, I knew what medical doctors were and that people went to work at the General Motors plant. From television, I also knew that astronauts were cool (who doesn't want to be an astronaut). Any of those careers were awesome from what I understood from my mom. My scout troop even went to tour the General Motors plant to see what a factory job meant. I didn't really like the idea of factory work (I wanted to make a difference, change the world, etc.), but I loved the industrial robots (what kid wouldn't right?). I had no idea how to get to a career in robotics (nor did I know that it was a career), so I just dismissed this idea as not realistic. At this point my idea of a successful career was one that was well respected, and earned enough to be comfortable (from an American kids perspective, having a television set, and eating well every night). One thing my family instilled in me is a love of reading. I spent a huge amount of time at the library studying everything (thank you mom and grandma for taking me almost every afternoon). This was awesome. I didn't understand everything, but I just enjoyed knowing about it. Even though I didn't have a huge professional influence I just enjoyed reading about stuff, literally everything from history to the Otto cycle. Probably the funnest result of this was the presentation I gave for extra credit in my fifth grade science class (David Lamar, if you read this, thanks for putting up with me!). I gave a twenty minute synopsis of quantum mechanics. Not because I was an expert, but because I found something new and I was super excited to share with the class. Looking back on this experience I see that many of the things I love now had their roots in the things I liked to read about in the library.

Going into middle and high school, I began to view success as simply going to college (I absorbed from my surroundings that truly successful people go to school). From my viewpoint (modest means), I had few options, since I had to rely on either student loans or scholarships for college. Since my mom raised my sister and I on a teachers salary, there really is no hope of saving for college for two while having a roof and eating. Career guidance was another issue, you can't strive for what you can't plan for. I suspect children with lots of professional influences really don't have this issue (I could be wrong). I took computer science courses, math, etc. and all the usual things that are in a required curriculum. The one thing that was missing from all, how to go into one of these fields if I really like it. Through my summer jobs on my dad's construction crew, I discovered a few things: 1) I didn't want to be a construction worker (good paying job, but not for me) 2) Architecture is interesting. So, I initially went to college to become an architect. Unfortunately, I didn't also want to be an artist, so I changed schools. I ended up just taking lots of courses to find what interested me. In retrospect, I see that exposing kids to as many careers as possible and connecting them with mentors early on is critical to success in that career (and in college). If I had a better mentor I would never have gone to school for architecture, but at least now I know how to sculpt and draw fairly well.

A few years into college, my scholarship funding ran out. Without a college fund nor trust fund, I really didn't have many fall-back options. As many people without funds for college, I joined Army ROTC and at the same time the Army National Guard. One of my first assignments in my ROTC military science class was an essay, the assignment: define what you see yourself doing in 20 years. That made me realize my goal of success was wrong, I needed to throw in happiness. I drew a picture of having a yard, kids, a wife, etc. I think I even had a white picket fence. This to me was happiness. I still wanted a well respected career, enough food to eat, and to make a difference, but now I realized happiness is critical. About two years later, I also learned that happiness isn't everything (just like money). I love mechanical stuff, especially cars, engines, etc. (hmm, any chance it's because I loved that section of the library?). When I was young I had an old AMC Jeep CJ-5 that I purchased with my construction job. The engine died of natural causes, so I went in search of a new one. I found a Chevy 305-ci V-8 in a junk yard and rebuild it by hand (after the machine shop bored the block for me). This was an awesome experience, but it was expensive. I carried over this expensive habit to college (to my detriment). I was already poor, now I was bleeding money. I had a '98 Ford Mustang that I loved to drag race at open track nights. It was costly as well (both in time and money). I loved both but neither would help me get by in life. Eventually I got this through my head and erased happiness as the sole criteria for pursuing a venture (unless you're just independently wealthy, or can make your hobby your career this typically has to be the outcome).

Since funding difficulties led me to the U.S. Army, I had the wonderful opportunity to redefine my definition of basic needs. A roof is nice, but not required. Sleep was also nice, but I learned exactly how long I could go without it and remain functional. Food, well...food in college already redefined my definition of what was edible. Success in the military meant leadership, knowledge, and of course being physically fit. So now my definition of a successful career has multiple parts: respect, happiness, leadership, making a difference,and knowledge. I realized that success was totally definable by me. But where did I want to go, what did a successful career look like to me? Well, that is what this post is about right? Thankfully, I had an epiphany, I am the final arbiter of what I deem successful. I knew what I could do, and I knew that I could do anything if I worked hard at. I now understand that success can only come from within. I always loved computation, and at this point, I knew the path to becoming a computer scientist so I set out to become one.

External ideas about success shouldn't drive you to do things. The mold that society gives you will contain you unless you have the realization the only mold you fit to is you. Success is what you think it is, nothing more, nothing less. So could I have come to this realization before I was 23 years old? Sure, but I didn't. Largely I think what we're exposed to as we grow up sets these expectations. Had I known that there was a career path of Computer Scientist (and that I could actually become one) as a high school student, I might have ended up where I am much sooner. The funny part about my early education is that I loved programming. For some reason though, career paths were never explained to me or even hinted at by anyone. Then again, my path to where I am is far more winding that this short post lets on (perhaps I'll write a full version sometime), and I wouldn't be the interesting person I am without it, so I really wouldn't change a thing. I, however, have been quite lucky in life so far to end up where I am. For me there are a few pieces that seem to be ubiquitous to a successfull career. The first is believing that you can do anything, if you work hard enough (you could also call this pig-headedness, stubbornness, grit, tenacity). The second, is understanding what is out there to work hard towards (hard work isn't enough, you must have a vector towards something). The third, after understanding where you want to end up, is to have a plan (multiple) on how to get there. The fourth is curiousity. If I hadn't been curious, I would have never checked out the history, physics, chemistry sections of the library. I certainly wouldn't have tried to build my own engine, or attempt to learn quantum mechanics as a fifth grader.

A few parting thoughts. If you're from a community with very little occupational variety, or that is highly segregated into "haves" and "have nots", then you are likely to view success (and subsequent career options in general) very differently depending on which side of the tracks you're from. This was never so stark as the contrast from my Soldiers in the military to grad school. As a platoon leader I wanted to get to know the people I led. One of my customary questions was to ask why they joined. One of the most common answers: money. A second answer which strangely was also quite common: health insurance (being a healthy 20-something, I didn't realize how expensive America's healthcare system is). When I began my doctoral work I realized almost all of my fellow doctoral students had doctors (PhD,DSc or medical) as parents. This drove home the reality that early childhood and young adult experiences really do determine your career progression (although funding has a significant impact as well). So I conclude this post, not by setting a perfect definition of success (or of what a career is) since I have none to give you, but with a personal call to action. If you think your career is interesting (at least to you), then get out there and share it with people (especially ones that are different from you). Young people deserve good mentorship. At the very least, children and young adults deserve to know know what the possibilities are. They need people to guide them to whatever their definition of success may become. If you want to become a computer scientist or engineer, drop me a line I'm happy to correspond or find people for you to correspond with.