There’s comfort in labels. Many people feel like society demands you to have a one word answer for what you want to do and so you naturally gravitate towards the one that gives you the most freedom and flexibility.
Labels provide the illusion of self knowledge.
Saying you are interested in marketing is fine at a social event when someone isn’t deeply interested. But don’t lure yourself into thinking that the label means that you’ve made progress on your career. It’s lazy and self defeating. Marketing is such a broad term. Are you interested in producing content? Running social media accounts? Facebook ads? Strategy? Analysis? It would be like saying you’re moving to LA to pursue a career in entertainment. But are you interested in acting or being a camera guy or the financial side of things? Do you want to do music? TV? Movies?
Think critically about what those labels actually mean. Simply slapping a label on something doesn’t mean that it’s defined. What goals are involved? What specific steps do you need to take to get there?
If you’re answering all these questions with a big “I don’t know”, don’t worry. That’s normal. But it also indicates a deeper mindset that should be addressed.
The ‘pick a major’ mindset.
As soon as you start college, there’s this pressure to pick a major. You don’t want to waste your time and money so people learn very early on to box their learning process into a set category. The question is ‘what label do I need to make sure I’m studying’ instead of ‘what questions and problems are interesting to me?’
For some people this mindset works. They know they love mechanical engineering and they are relieved to pick a track.
But for most people, there isn’t one hard skill or focus area that they know they want to pursue. For these people the pressure to pick one track feels constraining. The result? You pick something so general and vague that it gives you no guidance in any of your activities.
Letting options blind you to opportunities.
People are reticent to talk about specific problems they’re interested in solving because they are early in their career and they aren’t sure if they want to do that forever. If you say want to do marketing, that sounds broad enough for you to be able to do a lot of things without being hemmed in. You can change and adjust within that label. But it also gives you no guidance for action and no accountability. Get more specific. What problems do you want to solve for people?
What if you were to say, ‘I’m going to take Facebook ad campaigns and I’m going to make 10 versions of every campaign and AB test them where I change all the variables – the copy, the image, the audience, etc to find which one is optimal for each audience’. That’s a real thing that many real businesses pay people for.
People might hear that and say, well what if I get bored with that? What if I don’t want to do that for ten years? What if Facebook doesn’t even exist in a while? I don’t want to solve a specific problem because then I’ll have to always do that. Instead I’ll solve no problem by being sufficiently vague. Don’t worry about that. If you spent all your time learning how to optimize yellow pages ads for ten years only to have the phone book disappear because of the internet, you wouldn’t be left out in the cold with nothing to do.
Succeeding in one specific thing will translate to another completely different specific thing – more than succeeding at nothing translates to doing well in anything.
All the intelligence that you gain from consistently producing results in a certain field will transfer to something else. Of course there’s always a learning curve you have to navigate because every skill has specifics about it that are unique that that skill. But the underlying intelligence will always transfer.
Allow yourself to obsess.
In school, obsession is a bad thing. You can’t say ‘I’m going to take a whole year and do nothing but read about cryptocurrency and completely lose myself in it’ or ‘I’m going to take six months and do nothing but design e-book covers and play around with light and shadow’.
You can’t get good grades this way. You can’t graduate this way. You aren’t allowed to be obsessed with something temporarily – especially when it’s not going to be a part of your career in the future. Being well rounded is more important.
So there’s this weird tension where you need to pretend like you have a specific path while not doing anything specific at all.
The opposite is really what’s fruitful. At any given moment, you should be lost in highly specific work while at the same time recognizing that what you do for a day, a month, a year, five years, being lost in that specific thing is not dictating your entire career trajectory for the rest of your life. Be unafraid to obsess over one thing in the short term while not needing to commit to any one path in the long term.
Don’t focus on the labels. Don’t focus on the things you ‘ought’ to study. Real life is interdisciplinary.
Think in terms of exciting projects. Focus on the kinds of problems you want to solve.