© 2013 . All rights reserved. Infinite Possibilities

Be careful not to discover a career before you’ve discovered yourself.

December 7th 2013

Recording can be found here: Click Link


“Be careful not to discover a career before you’ve discovered yourself.” – Moxie Marlinspike

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” people asked me as a child. I remember telling them I want to become an architect. This is a result of my uncle telling me that my lego-building skills could translate into a solid career of designing houses. It also sounded impressive, at least to me. Jason Outlaw, Architect. Over time, it became my go-to response.

I didn’t end up becoming an architect, but followed my curiosity. It led me to dentistry, with pit stops in sociology, urban planning, and stained glass. But today I am speaking as a Freshman Proctor from Weld Hall right here on Harvard Yard. Most of my interactions with my students begin with questions: how are you doing. how are your courses going, how are you getting along with your roommates. The big questions that come up with all of the students: freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors are:

Question One) With whom are you blocking? For those of you unfamiliar, blocking is a traumatic and often tearful process whereby students filter into groups of eight or less so that they can be assigned to an upper class house.

Question Two) “What are you going to concentrate in?” In November of sophomore year, harvard students are required to choose a major, also known as a concentration, from a diverse platter of 48 choices, and

The Third Question) and often the most anxiety provoking question, “What are you post-graduation plans?”

I would like to share with you two new questions that I believe that universities should universally ask their students.

1) What problem or challenge do you want to address in the world? and

2) What is your vision for the future.

Let me explain.

Over the years, I have noticed that professions are great at organizing labor and disciplines nicely organize knowledge, but these constructs are not necessarily the best way to organize our minds and our sense of self. Students often come to me seeking advice on how to connect their coursework to something bigger, something that might build to a sense of fulfillment. I ask them to think about a problem or challenge in the world that captures their attention. It doesn’t matter if the challenge is large or small, personal, or external, local, regional, or international, global. The only requirement is that they have a genuine concern and curiosity for that challenge. I ask them to write it down in pencil so that they may change it as they evolve. I challenge them and to keep this problem or challenge in the back of their minds over the course of their education. Why? The reason is that problems and challenges obey neither disciplinary nor professional boundaries. In fact, problems and challenges are the central nodes that link together the disciplines, professions, and the silos that separate us. Similarly, problems and challenges invite generative thinking, imagination, and ignite novel innovations that help us to improve the world.

Imagine that a freshman declares HIV/AIDS as her challenge of interest. She would discover that while physicians play an important role in addressing HIV/AIDS there are dozens of other disciplines and professions that play equally indispensable roles in reducing the burden of this disease. A psychologist might develop an approach to reduce risky behaviors. An educator might launch a prevention campaign for an entire school district. An anthropologist might study a group of people disproportionately impacted by the epidemic. A policy maker might work on improving access to medicines, An architect might design better clinics for her patients. This student could leverage her general education requirements, her internships, study abroads, jobs, and concentration requirements to unite the corners of her education.

At the end of four years, when she applies for postgraduate education or for jobs, instead of saying, “I got into to world class college, I earned high grades, I checked off all of the boxes, you should choose me.”  She instead will be able to say, “I leveraged my liberal arts education and extracurricular endeavors to gain a multidimensional understanding of the challenge of HIV/AIDS from 40 different perspectives. She might say, to an institution, you too are concerned with the challenge of  HIV/AIDS and I believe I can add value to your organization. Those two lines of reasoning are very different.  Ultimately, declaring a problem or challenge of interest gives her a framework to bring coherence to wide variety of classes and experiences in which she is engaged, and because she chose the challenge, that coherence is based upon her own internal compass, and her own sense of concern. Imagine if every Harvard student declared a problem or challenge. Imagine if students at universities across the country did the same. The liberal arts education system could truly produce a critical mass of people trained to think about our most pressing problems but from a transdisciplinary mindset.

The second question that I believe we should begin asking students is:

2. What is your vision for the future?

Terrance McKenna once said, “We are living in condensations of our imagination.” One of the unique privileges of being human is that we can reshape the world with our hands and our ideas. If you pause and take a look around this room, it is breathtaking to recognize that every object in our presence started out as an idea in someone’s mind. That chair on which you are sitting. The heaters keeping us warm. The internet router on the wall. The very institution of Harvard University, all of these started as mere ideas.

I believe that challenging our students to create a vision is important because vision is a template for the future. Perhaps we need to add a new category to the general education system. One of those courses must ”engage substantially with the study of the past.” Perhaps we should create the conjugate requirement that offers the opportunity for students to “engage substantially with the future.” As we conclude the industrial revolution in the united states, and cross the threshold into the information age, our new economy, is an economy of ideas where vision is the hard currency. Having a gen ed requirement that encourages students to engage substantially with the future, has the potential to unlock creativity, to foster innovation, and to restore the curiosity systematically squeezed out by the primary and secondary school system. Instead of asking them, “what prefabricated career path” might you pursue? Let’s ask them instead to draft a blueprint for the future that is uniquely their own. Who knows what they will create!

So I will end here. As you sail through this day, and advance through your education and grow your career, no matter what stage you are at, ask yourself and the people around you – two simple questions: What problem or challenge do you want to address in the world, and what is your vision for the future.

We can’t wait to feel your impact.

Thank you for your time.

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