What Should I Be When I Grow Up? December 2012

I’m only 22. Woahhh.

This year, being the first year that I’ve been a full time, salaried employee, has been the first year that I’ve “settled”. It’s the holidays now and since I’m back in town I’ve spent the last week and a half catching up with friends from high school and college. They’re all now just graduating, recently graduated, or graduating soon. Their lives are all completely ahead of them. Some are flying into careers at light speed. Others have no clue what they want to be when they grow up.

It’s causing me to do my own self reflection. I’m somewhere in-between. I’m solidly in the trajectory of having a career, yet I also don’t have a clue what I want to be when I grow up. I ask myself if I want to write code for the next thirty or forty years? No. Do I enjoy writing code? Yes, when I’m enthusiastic about the project. Do I like my industry? Somewhat. I have mixed feelings actually. The tech scene is great, sometimes. It pays addictingly well. It’s forward-thinking, innovative, intellectually stimulating, yet relaxed and surprisingly casual. There is so much room for career growth that if you don’t get raises and promotions every year or two, you’re probably doing something wrong. You can quit your job, do a startup, and have no fear that you won’t find a job if your company doesn’t make it. And if your company does make it, you’ve got the possibility of becoming phenomenally wealthy. It’s a win/win situation.

That said, the industry, like any industry, has its flaws. The male-female ratio is painful; in the last three years I have met about three girl software engineers only. In contrast, I’ve probably met hundreds of male engineers. Digital technology also changes so quickly that it’s a constant battle to keep up. On good days, it’s a fun and exciting; always something new – conditions are rapidly changing as innovation happens in the blink of an eye. But on bad days, you come back from an intellectual vacation of not reading Hacker News or other such tech media for a month or so and feel like you’re entering a new world. Be careful; don’t blink. And because of this constant change, you must develop a skill of weeding out the constant sea of random tech fads from the actual industry-upheaving trends that have a remarkable way of disguising themselves as fads at first glance.

So. What do I want to be when I grow up? No clue. I’m content with engineering this phenomenon we call software, for now. But at the end of the day, it’s a means to an end. I’m just as fascinated by biohacking, physical electronic devices, urban planning, and brick-and-mortar institutions of innovation, economic development, and education. As software is the current medium of technological innovation, these are the up-and-coming mediums of innovation of the next decades. Once you’ve got the approach to solving problems mastered, it’s all the same at the end of the day. And frankly, I’m a bit torn; I began my career as a hacker of computers. I stumbled upon the software industry by accident because I wanted to build something, and at the time, that thing was virtual. Now I want to build things that are physical. Electrical. Biological. What will come next?

I find myself trying to remember that I’m only 22. That life and career are ahead of me, not behind me. I can do what I want. Anything I want. It’s a terrifying feeling of unknown, but it’s also an exhilarating feeling of adventure. In this world, the norm is to choose a major, graduate, get a job, and accelerate into a career. Changing careers is uncommon. Trying out different industries is unusual, if not discouraged. But why not try it all? Why give into the first successful profession that offers itself up to you? What if there is more out there for you?

At some point when you begin your career, and as you age in general for that matter, I think you start to see your skillset and perspective feel much more solidified and constant than it seemed just a few years prior when you were constantly exposed to new topics through school. I’ve certainly noticed this about myself. It is this very phenomenon that I’m trying to avoid; it’s the ultimate stagnation. The death of one’s inner curiosity and ambition. It’s important to realize that your skillset is never final. Your perspective of the world is never done forming. If there’s something you want to do in life but don’t have the knowledge, certification, or connections, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It means you just need to do a little research, studying, and networking. There’s nothing that is permanently out of reach. Opportunities being “out of reach” is a temporary phenomenon. It’s curable through education and intellectual enlightenment.