One of the things I've enjoyed about being a doctoral student at MIT has been the UROP program in which we have a chance to work with undergraduates on research. One of the undergrads who has worked with me the past 2 semesters stopped by my office today and in addition to asking for a letter of recommendation for Master's programs also spent some time chatting with me about career decisions more broadly and why some people are more successful than others post-graduation.
As often happens, I had more thoughts about the conversation later in the day while walking home which I wanted to try to capture in this post. Overall, I think it is a really difficult decision of which career path to head down for all but the lucky few who just feel extreme passion for one particular calling and never really face the question. For everyone else, I think either facing this question of what to do with one's life either causes both anguish and great character development, or they take shortcuts (doing what their parents tell them to do, or doing what everyone else around them is doing) and miss out on both. I was mentioning to her that I felt like one of the keys is to try to be focused and persistent when the going gets tough and you found that you've taken a wrong turn or life has thrown a curveball or obstacle at you. After graduating from undergrad, there is a lot less structure to life and so a good deal more self-discipline and self-motivation are needed to continue to excel/work hard when it is the case that many people experience some level of disillusionment or uncertainty along the way.
On the walk home, I was thinking how life's a bit like an obstacle course, where you have to follow what you're passionate about but also recognize that there will be times when that passion wanes. The trick is knowing when to use self-discipline to just power through those periods and when to recognize that you've hit an obstacle or gone down a wrong path and need to really change course. I think at least for me, I've been lucky to have always thrown myself into whatever course I was walking down 100%. I think that generated some kind of momentum that I could then use to change directions slightly while keeping ambition high compared to others who may have gotten discouraged and gone through periods where frustration set in and made it difficult to stay motivated or resulted in periods of disillusionment.
I was also thinking about how being driven toward some goal is relatively easy early in life, but then the flip side of it shows up later. The flip side of being driven is having to make sacrifices. Of course for those with talent or passion the sacrifices seem smaller, but nonetheless, doing anything extraordinary requires making some sacrifices made deliberately or unconsciously in terms of friendships and relationships. So I think being a driven person requires more and more conscious choices later in life where we have to weigh the long-term career goals against sacrificed time/energy for relationships and friendships. I think this is probably easier for guys than for girls to navigate. In the end, I think success in life is probably about many things, of which getting to certain career goals is one part, to be weighed in the proper context of the balance of life. Problem sets and analytical skills we get in spades at schools like MIT, but help and guidance in navigating these softer but much more important life decisions is rare and probably best exchanged among friends and mentors, but this leads to a certain inevitable character of the blind/in-experienced leading the blind. Maybe that is why each generation ends up making some of the same mistakes and learning many of the same life lessons of the ones that have gone before. So in the end, I'm not entirely sure what makes some people more successful in life than others, but I think some of the ingredients are here in terms of passion, focus, perspective, balance, persistence, self-discipline, momentum and friendship. All broad concepts but I think ones that show up in the particular stories of our lives.