It’s not life or death
I’ve been doing a lot of coffees and dinners with old friends and also attending events as a mentor for college students and entrepreneurs. There’s an interesting pattern in the type of conversations I’m having. Whether they’re 22 and picking their first job out of college or 34 and deciding whether they should leave a big company and do a startup, it always feels like there’s only one right answer and that decision is life or death. But careers are full of transitions. Research shows that more than ever, people are changing companies, changing roles, even changing careers. So I want to encourage everyone to take a deep breath and realize that these decisions are not life or death.
Some common myths I’ve believed at one point in my career:
#1 You must pick a path and stick to it to be successful.
I often get asked this question by my younger friends , should I be a product manager or a designer/engineer. I love engineering/design but I think product management sounds fascinating. What if I pick the wrong role?
Honestly, there is no right or wrong answer and you can change your mind. This is particularly true for those who are just starting out and picking their first job out of college. If you don’t like the role you picked, go try another one in a year. Most likely your experience in one role will make you a stronger candidate for your next role. Some of the best product managers I know were engineers or designers at the beginning of their career. Some of the best engineers I know love design and have great intuitions that make them a pleasure to work with.
As a hiring manager, I love a candidate with empathy for other roles, practical skill set that can come into play when they’re needed, a good work ethic and an adventurous, self motivated spirit. So do your research, think it through, make your pro/con charts but don’t take it too seriously because you can change your mind. Sundar Pichai, who was my favorite manager of all time once said to me, “If you’re really agonizing between two paths, they’re both great choices.” In the end the only question that matters is what do you want to learn in the next year and what do you love spending your time doing?
#2 Careers progressions are linear and you can fall behind.
Part of what adds the pressure to make the “prefect” decision every time, whether it’s what college to attend, what company to work for, what project to work on, what role to invest in, is this idea that you’ll fall behind if you make the wrong decision. I get it, I remember crying when I didn’t get into the college I wanted at 18. But it turns out that going to a state school gave me a great education with no debt and I’ve had a great career since. When I left Google for FB, my parents cried about why I was leaving such a wonderful company who clearly valued me for a company with a reputation for being fratty. It all seems so crazy, in hindsight, how emotional and dramatic those decisions were.
Fact is we are all living longer, healthier lives and have ~50 years to build our careers. That is a long time and there’ll be lots of decisions along the way. It is ok to take risks and it is ok to be curious and try new things. Don’t worry about the “levels” set by school or other organizations. The only thing you have to worry about is: do you love what you do and are you learning as much as you can. That may mean taking a step back into an individual contributor role when you’ve been a manager for a while. Or it may mean taking a chance on a new environment even though you’re very established and comfortable where you are. My advice is be curious, surround yourself with great people and let yourself be guided by internal measurements rather than external validation whenever possible.
#3 There is a wrong answer.
I think regrets are a flawed concept. To have regret about the job you didn’t take or the person you could’ve married is to idealize a decision and a path you didn’t experience. We all know from experience that whatever path you choose, it’ll be challenging. There’ll be moments of frustration, of boredom, and hopefully some magical eureka moments as well. You may regret the path not taken in your bad moments but just recognize that is a false premise. The decision you made is the right decision because you made it. To assume anything else is to cause yourself unnecessary angst.
However, it is healthy to do post-mortem analysis about your decisions and really understand what you got out of each experience. Post mortems may be painful but they can help you avoid bad patterns and understand yourself better. Just like any other skill, you can get better at making career decisions.
That’s it for now. I hope this helps, especially some of my younger friends and readers facing transitions.
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