Oh, the places you'll go
after grad school!
Pathfinding
Do What You Are

Do What You Are

Apr 25, 2013

The secret to career satisfaction, argue authors Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron, lies in doing what you enjoy most. Some people are lucky enough to discover what this is very early in life. I know a woman who at age 12 decided she would be an archaeologist, and proceeded to dig up the family yard. But this was no fleeting childhood aspiration. She went on to obtain a PhD in archeology, learned dead languages, worked on digs all around the world, and has now upgraded from suburban backyards to historic sites across the Middle East.

Not all of us benefit from such early career certainty. Instead we might wind our way through a broad liberal arts education, or an assortment of summer internships, or many taxing years in graduate school, all while asking:  What can we do? What should we do? What do we want to do? But the authors of Do What You Are advocate a different approach, nicely summarized in the book’s title, which is to find out who you are, and then do that.

And just how does this book tackle the “who are you” question, one that has perplexed philosophers and hookah-smoking caterpillars alike, in just 400 pages?

Do What You Are bases itself in the work of a mother-daughter team, Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, who nearly 100 years ago neatly divided all of humanity along 4 dimensions and into 16 distinct personality types. Certainly this is an oversimplification, as there are clearly more than 16 types of people. But by focusing on just four basic aspects of human personality, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) hones in on the “who are you” question, and since the 1940s has helped millions of people discover what best motivates and energizes them.

Many of you have likely encountered the MBTI before, and some of you may even know your Type. For those who don’t, the MBTI process is basically a questionnaire that seeks to place you along four different dimensions, as summarized here:

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Dependable Strengths

Mar 27, 2013

The Dependable Strengths process was born out of an ethos that may at first seem plucked from a kindergarten classroom:  within each person is a unique form of excellence.  Each of us has a special combination of skills, abilities and qualities. Some may be widely celebrated on YouTube, some are employed quietly, and many, unfortunately, go unrecognized.

I recently took a two-day Dependable Strengths workshop at the University of Washington. I learned that these strengths emerge early – in kindergarten, even – and are consistent throughout life.  They motivate us, they emerge naturally without prodding or directives, and if suppressed in one context, they will find an outlet for expression. I once worked in a lab with a woman who kept two dozen different colors of lab tape on hand to color-code everything she worked on. Clearly, she has an internal drive towards organizing systems that her daily bench work didn’t satisfy.

What would happen if we took our pattern of strengths seriously? What if, instead of letting them languish beneath value judgments of the work we “should” be doing, we let our dependable strengths guide our career choices?

The process of identifying dependable strengths begins with a simple assignment: list Good Experiences you’ve had in your life. In the Dependable Strengths context, Good Experiences are special events that meet specific criteria (hence the capitalization).

A Good Experience is something that you:

1. Feel you did well.

2. Are proud of

3. Enjoyed doing

Here you might encounter a judgment bias, as I did when compiling my list.

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On finding a path

Mar 12, 2013

For a neuron, branching out is no simple thing.

First, the neuron has to seek out viable targets. Neurons employ a variety of searching strategies. Some are designed to find the closest target as quickly as possible, while others roam around, unfettered by time or space or parental pressure. However the search proceeds, a neuron has to find its targets before it can make connections. Think of this as the exploratory pathfinding phase.

When I began exploring nonacademic careers a year ago, I started by searching for targets. I had no clear idea of what I might find, only that there lay a vast, hazy world of jobs out there that did not involve pipettes. When I came across a path that looked intriguing (technology transfer? tell me more), I explored it through informational interviews, web resources, and more. In some cases, I learned quickly that a particular path was not for me, and I stepped back. Often, exploring one path led me to a whole new set of ideas. The whole process looks a little like this:

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