Category: Career

The Irony of Higher Education

Very few people, if any, would argue that education is a bad thing. In most middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, that someone will pursue higher education after high school is virtually a given; those who choose not to become branded with a negative stigma. Increasingly today, even a Bachelor’s degree isn’t enough as a default expected education, as a Master’s is rapidly becoming the norm.

I myself have a Master’s degree, and yet I am among the first to encourage people not to pursue such without a clear goal in mind for which it is required. In my case, I only decided to attend grad school because, through a few strokes of good fortune and luck, I was awarded a full fellowship. Had I been taking out loans for that extra credential, I wouldn’t have gone forward with it.  I often ask people who do put themselves into serious financial debt to pursue an advanced degree what their motivation is, and conventional wisdom seems to be that the higher our educational attainment, the more options we have.

The problem is, those of us who actually spend the money, time and effort to attain that advanced education far too often don’t see it this way. Instead, we pigeonhole ourselves into the state of mind that we need to pursue a career that is “worthy” of our education. Service? Certainly not, why that’s below us. You don’t need a Master’s to do that. Culinary? Of course not…my career adviser doesn’t have any contacts there.

Quite simply, the more education we have, the fewer jobs we feel are noble and worthy for us. How many law school students do you know would feel good about knowing that in five years, they will be teaching elementary school children for $30,000 a year? Of course they will not be satisfied with that—they would be “overqualified”, right? But what happens when the attainment of those jobs we consider to be worthy doesn’t lead us to happiness?

I use the law student example because I have come across several JD’s who wind up doing exactly that—teaching elementary school—after spending a few years at cutthroat firms. They all have told me the decision to leave law for education was not easy, often harrowing, and that the single biggest thing holding them back from pursuing what was truly in their hearts—teaching kids—is the fact that they spent the time, money and effort to earn that JD.

So it turns into a grand irony—while those with no higher education may be “limited” to the service industry or vocational trades (within which there are countless options, I may point out), those of us with the advanced education become even more limited by the limit of what we may deem acceptable. I know many an extrovert who may be happiest as a hotel concierge, meeting people from around the world and being wined and dined at five-star restaurants, who instead toils away behind spreadsheets and regression analyses all in the name of getting a “return” out of his or her academic credentials.

I’ve learned to stop looking at careers with a judging eye, and instead have realized that there is no limit to what any individual may be happiest pursuing. And while I am not against education in any way, and I indeed agree that on the surface, it gives anyone more options, I think it is important that we remember that options are not meant to be limited by the status we have achieved. If you have a Master’s and the career that makes you most happy doesn’t require it, who cares? It can still serve you well in so many other ways, and I am a firm believer that if you follow your heart and passion, just due financial rewards will come. Who’s to say that the MBA who decides to join the front desk of a hotel won’t be in charge of the check-in procedure and overall customer experience within a few years? No career has to be a dead end.

Education does in fact give us more options, but only if we truly accept the full breadth of those options. To do so, we must excuse judgment, push aside prejudice, and have the courage to pursue whatever it is that will maximize our career and personal happiness, no matter what kind of expectations we may have had upon making the decision to pursue advanced education.


The BIG Taboo.

So check it out…I’m in the negotiation stage for a couple of job opportunities. I’ve always been one to ask for things up front, because to me that’s a sign that you’re interviewing the company as much as they’re interviewing you. If you plan to stay there for awhile, or be really into your work (which is what they’d want), that’s fair enough, right? But yo, it’s always awkward! For some reason, in our culture, negotiation seems taboo!

(Great quote I read in an article: “There’s a limit to what deference can get you.”)

Which is why it amazes me that America is one of the most prosperous countries and world’s business leaders…we’re born sheltered! What is business? Negotiation, right? And whereas people are raised in most countries to negotiate, from a young age, here we’re a very accepting culture. We grow up avoiding what we perceive as conflict, or of facing up to things that may involve any sort of confrontation, with things, people, ourselves…whatever. We’re told what the price is, and we pay it or not. SO uncomfortable with bartering and negotiating, with facing up to things. We are raised to feel bad for doing so, or for doing things like asking for something that’s supposed to be complimentary anyway. Hell, I was at Denny’s a few weeks ago (what ‘cha know about that 3am Hearty Ham Slam, yo? That ish is like the ham version of steakum, and you need a damn straw for the eggs…hits the spot tho), with a group of 4, when they told us that the kitchen was backed up. One of the girls I was with asked if they would comp us some salads or something (which is a reasonable enough request given the hour), and I felt bad!! Why?!?!? Sure enough they accommodated us, extra croutons and all. It just made me think about how kids in other countries grow up bartering and negotiating for EVERYthing. That should give them a huge leg up in real-life negotiations, which makes me wonder how WE’re the economic power.

So my idea is to raise my young Steves or Stephanies to negotiate. If they want something, they can probably have it..BUT, they are going to have to make a deal with me to get it. It’s not about being cheap or unneccesarily difficult or anything like that, but just learning to frame their expectations so as not to settle for subpar things/service/treatment/etc, and learning not to be afraid of confrontation.

Little Man: “Dad, I want the new Jordans!”
Me: “Velcro?!?!? Oh HELL no, son.” (j/k…but for real, won’t Mike be around retirement age by that time?)
Me (for real): “Hmm…well, make me an offer. How much are they worth to you?”
Little Man: “I’ll cut the grass.”
Me: “You’ll cut the grass once a week for the next year, INCLUDING weed whacking the edges, son, and it better be clean enough for your moms and I to have a picnic on there without even a blanket.”
Little Man: “But DAAAAAAAD…”
Me: “What, you want pink boots instead?”
Little Man: (pouty look straightens out REAL quick)…”Six months.”
Me: “Nine and you got a deal. And you will SIGN to that, dammit.”
Little Man: (rolls to school lookin’ SO crispy, and he’s ripped b/c I weighed the lawnmover down with sandbags…=)

Okay, so maybe this is a little idealistic, but I believe that raising a youngin’ this way would enable him to become a natural negotiator, and raise him to feel comfortable with conflict or with bargaining. In other words, he wouldn’t view bargaining or negotiating (aka expecting value for value) as ‘conflict’, but as a normal part of life. He wouldn’t feel bad about being demanding within reason (the squeaky wheel gets the oil, right?), knowing the value of his lawnmowing skills, but he’d have to be raised to be respectful as well. Of course that’s important. And with girls, maybe it would keep them from putting up with shit from dudes as they get older. But I would think raising children this way would also teach them the value of things, and to know that whatever they want they can get, IF they going are willing to work for it. No free handouts. And they’ll learn to negotiate, EXPECT value for value, and learn the true value of things without being afraid of confrontation.

Just a thought.

L.A., L.A., Big City of Dreams…

(current locale: Marriott Residence Inn Beverley Hills (CA), Room 424)
(current background noise: air conditioner)

Okay, so that last question from the last post. Not like this is rocket science, but I like the happy resolution: You give the car to your best friend, he drives the old woman to the hospital, and you walk off in the rain with your girl. Since she’s your girl, it doesn’t matter the setting, weather, whatever as long as you have each other. Is that REALLY true?

I have to admit, I’ve been somewhat sheltered growing up in VA. Not like I haven’t seen this or that, but for’real hardened violence/suffering/death…I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid that. Maybe that’s why it caught me off guard the other day when my boy and I pulled up to a stoplight in Fairfax County, and a high speed chase damn near hit us! We had driven right by this cop about 1 minute prior, and the next thing I know as I’m pulling up to the light, I see a cop car swerve up on the grass and come back on the road cutting this guy off in the lane next to us. Then two cops rush out of the car and storm up to this car with two hispanic dudes, both pulling loaded 9mm’s to the temples. It was crazy. I’ve never seen a gun to someone’s head before, and I have to say, it’s not that comfortable. And as the light turns green, the pickup truck in front of us has the NERVE to STAY stopped to watch!! Meanwhile I’m trying to get the hell out of there before I have six bullet holes in my window and see a trail of blood spilling out on the street. WTF is this guy in front of me thinking?!? I guess people really do think that things can’t happen to them, but all I know is that if I see guns drawn and grown-ass men screaming and it’s not directed at somebody I’m associated with, I’m gettin’ the hell outta dodge. I read too many of these reports about stray bullets in NYC…

So that of course has me shook up a little bit, doing some thinking about what’s important in life, which perfectly coincides with the question I’ve been struggling with for a few days…how harmonious should/can the relationship between CAREER interests and PERSONAL interests be?

I was “advised” a long time ago to choose a job over a location. I can see that argument, but now that I’m a little more able to think for myself based on my experience, I’d have to disagree. I do believe there are opportunities that may come along that we just shouldn’t pass up, but even so I think that’s a decision that only the person involved can make. I’m starting to think that being in a place you’re happy, around people you care about and who care about you, is far more important than having an interesting job. I guess everyone views this differently, but I don’t think a career is going to make you happy at the end of the day. You can’t laugh and watch the game with a career. Nor can you cuddle up with a career and kiss it goodnight. I already know the answer to that question for me, and I’m pretty comfortable with saying that I’d rather have a mundane 9-to-5 and a great personal life than the greatest job in the world and a destroyed personal life. Of course ideally you wouldn’t have to choose, and the lucky ones can have both.

This debate has been making my thought process churn lately, as I feel that my job is competing with my life. It’s not the work environment or hours or anything like that, or even the travel, which has been strenuous. It’s more about just being in NYC, which despite being a GREAT city to visit with unlimited things to do, can be a shitty place to live when you don’t have excess cash or at least a few close peeps to share the struggle with, preferably whom you knew before NY. It’s like quality of life just doesn’t register there. But my job is tight. So….