Why You're Better Off Taking a Safe Career Path Jul 2017

Young people, indirectly or otherwise, are sold on the idea of “following your passion”; that you can’t go wrong pursuing your interests. A person should become a musician if he likes practising music; a writer, if he likes writing.

It might be an India-specific thing but high school graduates are prone to think that modern society wrecked their only chance of pursuing their dream when they weren’t allowed to take a college course in that direction, in their “field of interest”. Safe careers are believed to be the antithesis of a purposeful life that their “passion” could’ve given them. I believe the popularity of the sentiment was heightened when “3 Idiots”, a Bollywood movie, portrayed in a fairy-tale way, that everyone should do what they’re made to do. It’s easy to see the movie and shout: “Yep! That’s me.”

I have grown to detest this outlook because it’s far-flung from real-life practicalities. There’s nothing more annoying than to hear yet another young student crib about how he “couldn’t become a DJ” because “his parents won’t allow it”. Here are my counterpoints to this school of thought:

  1. How sure are you that you want to become a writer? No, thinking that it’s cool doesn’t count. Stephen King started writing and pitching stories to magazines when he was a kid. By the time he was 14, the rejection slips from the magazines had grown so thick that a nail wasn’t enough to keep them on the wall.

    I don’t mean you can’t become a writer at a later point, but take into account the maddening process of becoming competent, and then, becoming better.

  2. Is the profession as cool as it seems superficially? No amount excitement for the field can compensate for the dreadfulness if the job is awful. You might think that law is interesting but most lawyers aren’t arguing in courts, they are reading and finalising contracts, and doing paperwork—lots and lots of it. You’ll have a little practical clue about any profession until you start working.

    For what’s it worth, assume that it isn’t going to be great because most jobs aren’t designed for the personal fulfilment that can make people happy.

  3. Can you cope with the stress of not being able to pay the bills? Some careers pay good, some less so, and some are terrible at it. You can feel strongly for your ambition, but unfortunately, that has no bearing on how decent it’ll pay. It becomes wearing to struggle to pay the next month’s rent.

    Many successful people, who went through terrible times like this, found it to be worth the effort. But, who knows how many unheard stories are there of people who never made it. I don’t think that it’s entirely about “luck and timing”, but some career choices are an uphill battle when it comes to making a living from them.

  4. Are you aware of all the opportunities that lie ahead? No, you’re not and it’d be regrettable mistake to make the choice as early as high school. As I have progressed in my career, I have realised that the complexity of modern (information) industries offers 10x, if not 100x, the opportunities I had in mind when I was in college. You could be making a wrongful choice by observing only the tip of the iceberg.

    It’s disappointing that students are never taught how they can make decisions as they go. It’s hard to sense where you can grow until you set your foot in the professional life.

  5. Why the heck do you need to join a college anyway to become a writer? College education won’t prepare you to become one any more than buying pencils and sketchbook will for becoming an artist. The number of writers who would attribute their success to college education is practically zero; same with filmmakers, artists, and musicians.

    The only reasonable output of college in terms of career is a) network b) a certificate that companies can appreciate who can’t think of mending their ways.

  6. Isn’t it possible that you can learn to enjoy something? Even though I loved exploring computers, I didn’t see programming one day and decided outright that I need to become a developer. I dreamt of becoming a detective, a stock trader, and a professional blogger, before thinking that I can become a programmer. I started enjoying programming when I started building things and the process of finding that out was slow.

    By all means, one can consider programming as dull and boring, but that opinion usually comes from someone who didn’t invest time in understanding its delightful aspects. I think anyone can cultivate an interest in programming, provided she spends enough time building things.


I don’t imply that people should make raking money their foremost aim, but it’s foolish to imagine a freewheeling life in which you’re doing “what you want”. There’s a deep struggle to succeed in some (many?) careers which is never apparent in popular entertainment.

A “safe career path”, as a despicable as it sounds, offers better odds of succeeding at doing what you’d want to do. You’ll get to devote less time having a 9-5 job but it’ll be incredibly less stressful and you’ll have a cushion to fall onto. And who knows you might find something enjoyable in your career—path that was elusive earlier (Point 4).

Young people are forced to make a choice early-on, but I think it’s a horrible idea. Making a career is more about exploration of what’s out there and sensing an opportunity than meticulous planning. To understand what’s out there, you need to take the first step. The longer you’ll take to make it, the worse it’ll be.

As far as dreams go, you weren’t forced to relinquish them when you took a career that you didn’t want. That happened because you didn’t felt strongly about it to try it on the side.

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