Tag Archives: ambition

Peaking Along the Career Parabola

A few weeks ago, I was writing an email when I caught myself mixing up “their” and “there”. Not only that, but I’d also misspelled two other words and left one sentence incomplete.

Well, this is it, I thought. I’ve finally hit the wall. Burned out. Peaked.

This past week, a college friend and I reminisced about our school days: working hard, playing hard, going out every night, and still finding a way to pass our finals. “We were so smart back then,” she sighed. And so energetic. I went home that evening and crawled into bed by eleven, the new default bedtime for my elderly, depreciating self.

workgraphSo, yes… two years out of college, at the ripe old age of 23, I am now officially over the hill. In the parabolic chronology of life, I’ve already surpassed the tangent point, the point of no return. Just a few years ago, I was juggling five classes, two extracurriculars, a term-time job, and an active social life. Now, I have one job, no classes, and a schedule interspersed with lengthy midday naps. Gone are the days when I could forgo the spell check and formulate coherent sentences on the first try. I can’t quite remember the quadratic formula and I definitely don’t know how to graph parabolas anymore. All I know is that I’ve passed the peak. Pretty soon I’ll be forgetting my own name and calling people “loosers”.

Sadly, we all must go the way of old geezers a la John Madden. (A gem from last night’s Super Bowl: “If you can become a head coach at any age, you can coach when you’re young.” Thanks, John.) A friend recently sent me an email about “Kitchenheimer’s“, the phenomenon “when you’re in the kitchen going around in circles because you can’t remember what you were doing there.” In the email, he wrote, “I bet this happens to you all the time.”

It does. In my defense, I’ll pull an anti-Benjamin Button and blame it on accelerated aging. But for everyone else, I hope you fare better than me. Here’s a roadmap to what the future holds from a work perspective, as you traverse across the x-axis through the parabola of your long and storied career.



(1) Hustlin’: Young, eager, energetic, and bright… full of vitality, ambition, and grandiose ideas.

You are still in this phase if you can do any of the following:

  • Make it through a week of work without drinking coffee
  • Get really excited about networking, company dinners, and conversations about “synergy”
  • Need less than 6 hours of sleep to function
  • Start a foundation to save polar bears in your free time

(2) Peaking: Slowing down, spacing out, and taking more bathroom breaks… The only hope is to hover around the top before the rapid freefall.

You may be peaking if you do any of the following:

  • Consider work with a combination of bemusement and utter apathy
  • Spend at least 15% of your time at work on fantasy football/eBay/Perez Hilton
  • Take more than 20 seconds to remember the work you did yesterday

(3) All Downhill From Here: Lethargy, complacency, and embracing monotony… Work has become as exciting as pressing a button every 108 minutes. Boop.

You may be on your way to sloth-ville if you do any of the following:

  • Volunteer to be laid off even though no one asked you
  • Think daily about pulling a Milton from Office Space
  • Derive your greatest joy by stealing something from the office every day

Now, this same graph can be applied to other aspects of life as well: for example, that loving feeling. Just like productivity, acuity, and energy, our loving aptitude should decline as we age. Then again, with technology these days, a trip to the pharmacy can extend the hustler stage and keep you at your peak for much longer… (pun intended).

So, will there ever be such a development for our work lives as well? Can I come back from futility and rid myself of spell check dependence once again? Will the Type-A ambition return? Will quadratics be superseded by cubics? (If you get the last reference, then be assured that you are definitely still hustlin’.)

I’m hoping yes. Forget about Kitchenheimer’s… If John Madden can make it work, then I should at least be able to save some polar bears before it all goes downhill for good.

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The Sellout Life

We all know friends who cheerily (and perhaps smugly) proclaim that they have life all figured out: The dream job? Already got it. The ideal career? On their way. The five-to-ten year plan? All mapped out in Excel, with colored tabs.

For those of us who do not have it all figured out, it’s easy to hate these people.

basketFor some of these friends, we wholeheartedly agree that their jobs, are, indeed, perfect… for them. Such modern vocational eccentricities as basket-weaving, tornado-chasing, and non-profit work/teaching typically qualify as “dream job” worthy. Thus, for our panda-saving teacher friends who love their jobs, we salute and applaud you. For our wicker-wielding basket weavers, we wish we shared your passion. The stories of consultants-turned-pastry bakers have inspired us to keep making cupcakes while we churn out our Powerpoints. We are unequivocally happy for our friends who have followed their dreams, and (usually) forgone the riches.

But then, what of the friend who is also our colleague? What about the cheerful pitch-making investment banker? The smiling number-crunching accountant? The unrepentant coffee-fetching sales assistant? Who, in their right mind, could truly enjoy the soul-sucking work of betas and cash flows and Xerox malfunctions? Yes, there may be lifelong accountants working in windowless cubes who have found a way to squeeze joy out of balancing a balance sheet. There may be i-bankers who enjoy not sleeping, consultants who enjoy not having a home, and lawyers who enjoy not being honest. But most of us look at such friends and immediately discount them as sellouts, money mongers, ladder climbers, naifs, and/or deluded cherubs. We cannot possibly believe that they would actually like their tiring, mundane, “sellout” jobs.


Author/Artist ——————- Advertising/Marketing

Public defender —————– Corporate lawyer

Doctors without borders ———- Plastic surgeons

Microfinance ——————- Investment banking

Physics professor ————— Hedge funds

Human rights worker ———— Consultant

Fifth-grade math teacher ——— Accounting

We’re trained to think that the left is somehow better than the right, that “selling out” is a condemnation worthy of disgrace. But no, it’s not impossible to like accounting, and it’s not wrong to have ambitions to be a principal controller. It’s easy to be cynical about our jobs when we haven’t figured everything out yet, and it’s even easier to be cynical about the choices of others, especially when they take the convenient “sellout” route.

In the end, though, we should probably be fair in how we treat our cheery, smug friends; we ought to congratulate them on their convictions, and embrace the environmentalists along with the i-bankers… Either that, or we shun them both for having figured out their lives before we did. Weaving class, here I come.

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Random Thoughts on… Writing

I started writing at age six, with my short story “The Chilly Penguin”. My mother tacked it up on the refrigerator, with my drawing of a penguin, and dreams of a writing career took off. In elementary school, I wrote such masterpieces as “Ananse the Spider-Dog” and “Life or Death”. In those pieces, I admit the punctuation was a little hazy, the adjectives were limited to “scary” and “happy,” and the text suffered from phrases like “his eyes literally popped out of his head” (from “Life or Death,” age 12). But I kept on going.

In middle school, writing was just venting in the form of prose. While cleaning out my room a few years ago, I found a journal that I don’t remember keeping. On the cover, it said: “Keep Out. You are invading my privacy.” I felt like I was actually invading my own privacy when I started reading it, because my voice sounded so unfamiliar. Staying true to my OCD-ness, apparently I used to rate days on a graded scale (some things never change). I also kept my journal entries in sections. For example, every day I had the following sections to write about: events, guys, news, rating, crisis, quote to remember, reminders. I only kept the journal for 6 days though, because there were no entries after Tuesday, November 3: “Events/crisis: Mike asked me out online. Rating: 92.5 A.” A note from my friend Maura was also attached, folded into a paper football:

“Hey, what’s up? N2MH. I’m in History now and I just finished my test. I’m sure that u care!? I didn’t know what #16 or 17 (one of those) was. It was easy though. So whats happenin? anything new? Who do u like? Or is it still Sean…or who? U know the 2 people I like right? don’t tell anyone though cuz not a lot of people know. Only like u, Laurie, Danielle, Shauna, Steph, and Devon know…”

The note was signed: “WB, LYLAS, 26611” …I have no idea what 26611 means, but I’m glad that I left “LYLAS” behind in the ’90s.

Even though my unintelligible notes from middle school may have had something to do with it, the ultimate downfall in my writing ambition began in high school, with my ninth grade English teacher, Ms. Bailey. A large and commanding woman, Ms. Bailey instilled upon us the impervious system of punctuation and grammar. We studied only examples of flawless writing, where a ‘who’ was different from a ‘whom’ and abbreviations such as “they’re” and “it’s” were always written out in their long form: they are, it is. I could no longer end a sentence with a preposition. I could no longer put in dashes without counting the words in between the dashes (they must not exceed eight).

“You are high school writers now,” Ms. Bailey would say. “You are adults, and you are writing for adults. Where is your topic sentence!”

I also learned that in high school, there were many more rules for writing that weren’t written in The Elements of Style. Just like our dress code, which stipulated a no-jeans policy, the social code stipulated a no-emotional-crap policy about writing. People didn’t like reading about “my best friend” dogs or “and now she’s dead” grandmothers. The awkward silences during class made it evident that no one quite knew how to respond to Brian’s essay on his uncle’s debilitating illness. It felt wildly inappropriate to point out that he needed a better transition from his third paragraph to his fourth. After that, everyone wrote about happy things, like baseball games and carnivals. Like Ms. Bailey said, in high school, the adult audience was very particular.

It seemed that as I got older, writing became less about what I wanted, and more about what everyone else wanted. Frivolous days of writing about spider-dogs and cold, tuxedoed fowl were way in the past. Instead, the audience became the ultimate judge. “Serious” work was shunned in high school, then embraced in college. As a person first and a writer second, I could not help but be influenced by my readers’ expectations. I learned this the hard way when I passed in my first essay in college, which I titled “Shit Happens”. I felt that the title was rather meaningful, as I was analyzing Tim O’Brien’s experiences in the mud fields from The Things They Carried. However, the title was not so received well by the expository writing professor.

Rejected. Bad grade. Humiliation.


Throughout college, the inner writer in me died a bit. I forgot all the reasons why I started writing, and I went on to study economics and go into corporate finance instead. I’d like to think that my entrance into the finance world has singlehandedly ushered in the recent crisis, but I am probably giving myself too much credit (if only the markets could pick up some of this credit… Ha. Ha.).

In September, I started this blog with the intention of getting back into writing. Through the past few weeks, I’ve been going back and reading some of the writing I did when I was young, from old stories like “Life or Death,” to my middle school notes adorned with doodles of flowers. There is something about the pure, unadulterated voice that makes these pieces fun to read–it’s the knowledge that my writing then had been true, natural, and unfazed by matters of practicality and rules in writing and life in general. I wrote then simply to tell a story that I wanted to tell.

Today, the punctuation has become routine and easy, and the writing has become hard. I guess if you’re solely writing for the approbation of critics and professors then you forget why you started writing in the first place. So now, I’ve tried to take a different approach. I no longer worry about whether I used too many parentheses (though arguably, yes, I could cut down), or whether I threw in the litter too many clichés (is it a cliché to use a cliché to discourage clichés? Or is that irony?). I no longer worry about adhering to writing rules and expectations. I’ve learned from my ongoing, love-hate relationship with writing that I’d rather share with others those issues that matter most to me. I’d rather write for fun, for the pure enjoyment of telling a story I care about, because I want to.

I want to write about the smog in LA, the nightlife in New York, and my great, great hometown sports teams in Boston. I want to write about how strange I think parents are when they name their children after fruits. I want to write about chilly penguins, sweaty ostriches, uncensored mud fields, middle school dramas, and the achingly mundane world of accounting. I want to write about rising ambitions, falling stocks, my wavering opinions, my undetermined priorities, tacking stories up on the refrigerator, love, true love, ironic love, clichéd, sentimental love, love for people with good intentions, love for loving what you do, writing, imagining, constructing, creating, how I enjoy it all, and how much fun I have with all of it… this is what I want to write about, and this is why I started writing.

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Chasing the Dream, Quitting Your Job

Following up on an old post, “Why Young People Hate Their Jobs”, the recruiting firm Experience Inc. recently published a study which reported that 70% of college grads leave their first job within two years. The Experience survey, however, also reported that young people aren’t leaving their jobs because they’re unhappy, but simply because they’re not in the career they “expected” to be in.

So, we’re happy… but we still want to quit our jobs.

It sounds like an illogical argument, but it makes sense. People like to say that your career finds you; that deep down, you know what you’re meant to do. Warren Buffett knew he was meant to invest. Bill Gates knew he had a budding idea in Microsoft. JK Rowling knew she could bring to life a character named Harry Potter. But not all of us are Buffetts, Gates, and Rowlings–we may not all be confident that we can revolutionize PCs or make billions in the stock market. We may have to find our own career, and deep down, it may not come to us naturally. What if Buffett had chosen to become a professor instead? What if Gates settled for doing IT support? What if Rowling had stayed at her job at Amnesty International? None of us want to shortchange ourselves by settling for a job that doesn’t meet our high expectations… even if we are happy.

So, yes, I am happy with my current job. But I’ve been thinking about what I want to do, and I’m not convinced that I’m going to stay in my current role after two years. One plan I have is to go to business school and develop a start-up. Another plan is to work within the public sector, focusing on education. A third plan is to quit my job, live on the beach, get a Costco membership (those free food samples serving as my daily meal), and become a writer. Three rather different paths… and for me, each one is intriguing in its own way.

I suppose the downfall is that we have all these grandiose plans and ambitious visions, but at what point do we give up and settle down? It may be wrong to discourage dream-chasing, but sometimes you have to tell those poor kids on American Idol that, no, they can’t sing. Ambition is tricky–it can help us do great things, or it can unwittingly remove us from positions where we could excel, in pursuit of positions in which we cannot.  As much as I’d like to think I could pull an Orwell and write great prose amongst the lowlifes in Paris, I don’t think I’m ready yet to trade in my corporate job for a cardboard house and a pen.

Still… chances that I’ll accomplish either plan #1 or 2? I think 70% is fair.


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