October 11, 2010 | File under: Advice and Lessons • Schooling
It’s easy to get an education for a traditional career. Want to be a lawyer? Three years of law school is all it takes. Recognizable job titles correspond to particular courses of study and often lead to employment with well-known institutions under a common job description —- engineer, teacher, etc. The educational system favors careers that can be neatly packed into a box and summarized in college catalogs. But if you want to forge a path of your own in a non-traditional or entrepreneurial line of work, it’s not easy to find guidance in school. School teaches you to stay inside the box.
I’ve always been a stay-in-the-box kind of girl. I did as I was told, completed my assignments on time, memorized like a champ to receive good grades, and was rewarded by easily advancing through school all the way to law school. I was the epitome of “book smart,” and the pieces of paper I earned reported that I was qualified to perform my job as a lawyer. Moreover, having attended a law school with an excellent placement office, the transition from school to work was effortless thanks to the job opportunities that fell in my lap. I barely had to do anything except show up at an interview and demonstrate that I was not a sociopath.
Yet despite my “book smarts,” my capacity for creative thinking is far eclipsed by people that have demonstrated the initiative and ingenuity to break out of the traditional career mold. Owners of small businesses, entrepreneurs, artists, inventors of new products or processes, and founders of useful services —- these people may also be the products of mainstream education, and may have gained some skills necessary to their work through that process, but their paths are all their own and are not taught in school.
Schooling does not make non-traditional careers easy, especially when the risks necessary to follow an independent path conflict with the pressure to pay back debt accumulated through higher education. It is much simpler to take that job that pays a dependable salary and that presumably provides a moderate level of security in the long term. Stay inside that box and you will not be confronted with the unknown.
Schooling also rears us to believe that mainstream careers will provide satisfaction and predictability. But neither of these things are necessarily guaranteed, and learning that a career has not lived up to these expectations takes time —- time that could have been spent developing other work. By the time the realization has hit, many people have assumed responsibilities such as having families that limit their freedom to start fresh armed only with an idea and and the motivation to make things happen. At that point, many people are boxed in.
The easy road is undoubtably attractive when you are immersed in school and bombarded with pressures to take the opportunities most accessible and endorsed by the massive institutions that churn out graduates every year. The naiveté of youth also reinforces the messages delivered to students. Colleges certainly like to report that their alumni make a pretty penny in the city and have risen up the ranks in their companies. But later on, when someone discovers what is inside the box is simply not enough, when carearing has turned against you, will it be too late to step out?