50 Years, 2 Skills, and 1 Big Mistake: Career Advice Most College Students Never Hear

How do you plan for a good career? Professor Larry Smith has some ideas. But beware...they're tough.

How do you plan for a good career? Not just your first job out of college, but a lifetime of doing work you enjoy and find fulfilling? Career guru, professor, and economist Larry Smith has some ideas. But beware—they’re tough.

Have you ever seen an “improv” theater show? They’re (usually) fun and funny performances the actors make up on the spot, often using suggestions from the audience. But outside the world of theater, improvisation is far from entertaining. In particular, if improvising is your job search “strategy,” it can be an invitation to disaster.

Far too many college students and recent graduate decide to “try whatever comes along” in their job search. Even worse, many intentionally choose improvisation as their career strategy. That is a huge mistake.

Here’s what I mean: there is the student who tells me he hopes a good job will be posted in the college’s employment center when he graduates. I ask what he will do if not. He figures he’ll “send out some letters” or travel until “things pick up.” Then there is the recent college grad who has worked at three companies in three years because she is trying different jobs to “see what sticks.” This is the career improvisation I’m talking about. But great careers aren’t built on improvisation. In fact, even mediocre careers aren’t built on improvisation.

This being said, it is easy to see why career “improvisation” is happening more often these days, especially among recent college grads. As the global economy has become ever more competitive and volatile, and many technological innovations upend existing industries, there is a tendency to think that the future is unknowable. And if the future is unknowable, then improvisation is the logical solution to weathering those changes. This is a truly seductive line of reasoning. But there’s a difference between being flexible and adaptable in your career journey and leaving your professional success up to chance.

Thinking about a tumultuous and complex future—not to mention trying to anticipate future career opportunities that don’t even exist yet—is a very difficult and time-consuming process. But if you merely assume that thinking ahead won’t be meaningful or even valid for very long, it’s easy to decide to avoid the time and aggravation of trying.

And so, too many college students decide to “make it up as they go along.” Their underlying strategy is to hope they get lucky in their career, assuming their occupation is in long-term demand, that there will be good jobs available when they graduate, that they will interview well and have the right credentials, that they’ll get the job and eventually promotions will come naturally with time and endurance. That’s a lot of hoping and not much planning. So, how do you plan ahead for your career and future?

Looking a few years into the future only gets you to the starting line of your career. It is alarming to see how many people chose careers based on what is happening now. If I object that this is too short a time period, they patiently tell me if they even looked a decade forward, it is impossible to see what exactly will happen next. Who could guess, they ask, what new disruptive technology might get invented? But you’re not trying to psychically suss out exactly what will happen. You need only to think broadly about might happen. More importantly, you need to look 50 years forward, not five or 10.

Let’s look half a century forward and identify the skills that will almost certainly be in demand. There are only two.

What will slow down technological change? Nothing. What will make the world simpler? Nothing. So we are left with a dynamic, nearly chaotic, and ever more complicated world, where many things will change and many disappear. There will be ever more problems to solve, and they will have to be solved faster than ever. So one skill that must be in demand 50 years from now is innovative problem solving—solving new problems using new methods. If you can be an innovative problem solver, you will work as long and as much as you want. But your skill as an innovative problem solver will be limited in effectiveness unless you can advocate for your solutions. In other words, you need impeccable communication skills. And those are the two skills you can confidently expect to be in demand over the next half century. Don’t just improvise. Don’t leave your career up to chance.

Of course, both of these skills in turn require you to be passionately interested in your chosen domain of problem solving. How else could you continually call up new solutions? How else could you persuasively argue for them? My book No Fears, No Excuses: What You Need to Do to Have a Great Career takes the 50-year rule as its guiding premise and explores the answers to those questions.

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About Larry Smith

Larry Smith is a professor of economics at University of Waterloo. A well-known storyteller and advocate for youth leadership, he has also mentored many of his students on start-up business management and career development. The most notable start-up he advised in its infancy is Research in Motion (RIM), maker of the BlackBerry.


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