I’ve recently spoken to a number of ambitious young people who know where they eventually want to go in their careers but aren’t quite sure about the next step to get there. They all know where they are now isn’t where they want to be and that where they want to be will require some big changes and a lot of work. Some of these people are right out of high school and others are several years into the workforce.
Discontent can be good. It can drive us to action and can let us know that we need to go somewhere else. It can be dangerous when it leads to putting our lives and careers on “autopilot,” though. If we want to land where we are going, we’ll need to turn autopilot off.
Autopilot programs are systems installed in airplanes (and now cars!) that enables the pilot to keep flying the plane without controlling every variable himself. There are two broad categories of autopilot in the aviation world and they can be thought of simple and complex — but both autopilot programs. Simple autopilot programs keep the plane on a heading, flying in the right direction (some can keep the plane at one altitude, too). They don’t guide the plane around any bends or changes in direction. They just let the pilot keep going in one direction. No changes in altitude, no changes in bearing.
The complex autopilot systems are what you see in modern airliners today. The pilots are responsible for running through checklists, making sure everything is safe and operational, getting the plane in the air, and often leave much of the remaining flight to the autopilot system. It will set up everything to the landing.
Both are analogies for how people, especially young people, come to view their careers.
Turn Off Simple Autopilot
Some people turn on simple autopilot — they go in the general direction of a destination, but fly on by the turns, curves, altitude changes, and everything else they need to address to get to where they are going. At first, this seems great. It looks like progress because you are, in fact, going towards the destination. Until one day you aren’t. All of the years of graduate school or of working your way up in the company are no longer helpful when you realize you overshot your career destination by years and miles. Even worse, it’s hard to turn around. You have commitments and things holding you back.
This is the danger of putting your career on a general, simple autopilot and outsourcing it to other institutions like the company for which you work or the schools in which you decide to enroll. Simple autopilot feels like progress. It feels like enrolling in an elite university or landing a prestigious job at a fancy firm. It feels like getting a promotion or signing up for a coding bootcamp. It feels like slowly adding things to your resume over the years.
But simple autopilot is a great example of confusing process and substance. Just because you are going through the process that gets you on the right vector does not mean that you are actually getting closer to your goals.
A lot of the young people I mention at the beginning of this post fall into the trap of simple autopilot. They don’t know what to do next for their careers so they just enroll in a new program or change jobs. Yes, it is getting them further from their starting location and closer in the general direction of their destinations, but it doesn’t actually get them to the destination when it is repeated over and over again.
To turn off simple autopilot can be scary. You now have to adjust your bearing, maybe change the speed at which you’re going, and increase or decrease your altitude. You feel overwhelmed for a moment as you realize all of these things come pouring into your mind that you had outsourced to the system before. Once you address each of these adjustments, you are in control and the overwhelming feeling subsides as you get closer to your destination.
Beware Complex Autopilot
The temptation here is to simply upgrade your autopilot to a better system. Sure, you could just enroll in college and then graduate school and then get a job at a prestigious firm, but who really is that thoughtless about their careers?
Instead, you want to make altitudinal changes. You know when you need to leave one career path for another.
You want to make directional changes. You know when you need to pass on great opportunities for better ones down the pipeline.
Sure, you don’t need to manage every single part of your career, you reason, that’s what guiding systems like mentors and advice columns are for — to help get you out of where you are to somewhere new. You know the waypoints, you’ll let the systems figure out what’s in between.
But the danger for complex autopilot for your career is the same for what it is for pilots today. You can become over-reliant on tools and systems and when the going gets tough, you’ll be less-prepared to manage your career yourself than if you had flown it to where it is now.
Tools and systems are exactly that — tools and systems. We want to use them when they make sense for us and put them by the wayside when they don’t. Too often, people become over-reliant on the tools and systems they used through their education and their training and find it difficult to break out of these. Our CEO Isaac Morehouse wrote with Dan Sanchez at FEE last week of at least seven mindsets that tend to grab people from school onward. I propose that you add to the list the “Autopilot mindset.”
Getting out of the autopilot mindset takes the same steps as turning off autopilot in a plane. You have to brace yourself for the mental work of managing multiple interplaying systems. You need to figure out what your next waypoint is. Maybe it is getting in front of people who can help you found a company. Maybe it is meeting venture capitalists in your space. Maybe it’s figuring out how to quit your day job and supplement your income with another job that allows you to work how you want.
You ease into each of these, understanding that your work, education, and personal life are all separate elements to the unified system — they play into each other but each are adjustable themselves.
Then you turn the system off and take control, yourself. Address that which is most urgent to getting you to the right waypoint. Quit your job, move to the new city you want to be in, take up a side job, or get introductions to the right people.
Praxis is one tool to get your life off autopilot and get you to the next waypoint. Work with amazing companies around people creating products, value, and their lives. Get one-on-one coaching and a great education. All while earning money. Apply today.