For most of my life, I’ve had a mild obsession with exceptional things like great literature, Jimi Hendrix albums, champion athletes and people who are in love with what they do. Since I was a kindergartner, I’ve also had a less mild obsession with trying to be exceptional myself. I frequently argued with my parents when they tried to tell me that it was okay to get a “B” once in a while, because I thought I could do better. Going into my last semester at the University, I still think “failure” when I see any sub- “A” letter on my Wolverine Access transcript. It’s not surprising, then, that I want an exceptional career. And I’m not special in that regard. Most students share my goal.
After several semesters being surrounded by smart, ambitious Business School students, I’ve noticed that there are striking differences in the ways people define an exceptional career. And the way people define success can have a big impact, not only on decisions about their first jobs, but also how much they achieve and happy they are in their careers.
As it is commonly used, the word “success” is sometimes synonymous with another word — “winning.” Success is beating the other guy and getting the big salary. Success is what happens when other people think you’re a success or when you can convince them of it.
As a junior, I attended a recruiting event for the Boston Consulting Group. Hardly ten words were out of the BCG representative’s mouth before he was compelled to announce that he was a partner at the firm and that he’d gotten his MBA at Harvard. He then delivered a presentation that was fixated on his firm’s corporate mantra: “We’re Winning.” Some of my sharpest classmates ate it up. High achievers who knew little about BCG Consulting before they entered the B-School competed intensely to land one of the select openings there.
They aren’t alone. I know of many students who are competing for or have accepted jobs that are considered prestigious. Getting a job at a top-ranked employer is a lot like getting an “A+”. It’s a signal that someone performed exceptionally. The money is good. It elevates social status. The addition to one’s résumé opens career options. It’s a good choice for some people.
But what surprises me is that most of my peers I’ve heard from don’t intend to keep those prestigious jobs for long. In ten years, they might want to be an entrepreneur, a restaurant owner, a social activist or someone who works internationally, but they certainly don’t express any wish to still be working long hours as a high-profile banker or consultant.
If a recruiter held a gun to my head and told me to accept a job like that, I like to think I’d still say “no.” One reason is that a person’s first job after college sets the tone for their career. I don’t mean that a graduate’s first job commits them to a particular career. It doesn’t. In fact, the average American switches careers three times, and many do it far more frequently than that. What I mean is this: If a person puts off doing what they really want to do and takes a job that’s socially accepted, that’s what the person, in all likelihood, will continue to do.
That’s precisely what happens to people in many cases. When people treat a job as a means to an end, they often forget what the end was. And the pressure can be intense. I am curious to know what Jeffrey Skilling’s career goals were before he went to Harvard Business School, joined a prestigious consulting firm, made partner and left to engineer massive accounting fraud at Enron. It’s all too easy for graduates to get bogged down in day-to-day tasks, the typical career path of the profession, supporting a family and fitting into their social role.
As for me, I would count my career as a success if and only if I love what I’m doing, think it’s important and can perform it well. Under my definition of success, I can start being successful immediately after college, but I can’t be successful in a job if it’s only a means to an end. Trying to do what you want immediately and over other options can be a risk, to be sure. But as relief workers, entrepreneurs, successful artists, Warren Buffett (the second richest man in the world) and other people who are exceptionally good at what they do would likely tell you, the risk is well worth it.
Brian Flaherty is an associate editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.