Career advice for undergrads
Apr 13, 2017
3 minute read

I spent a few days this week at my undergraduate alma mater, Furman University, to participate in a conference at the Riley Institute on national security versus civil liberties. The conference was unique in that all of the participants were Furman alums, including Lt. Gen. John Mulholland and V. Adm. Mike McConnell.

While I was on campus, I spent a few days chatting with current students. I enjoyed this more than I expected to. I found the students hungry for career advice, and so I obliged. Here’s what I told them.

  1. The main benefit of getting a liberal arts education is that you don’t have to get on a career track. Therefore, resist career tracks. If you do find yourself drawn to a specific career track, there’s probably a faster way to pursue it than to go to a school like Furman.
  2. You don’t need a 30-year plan. I have at no point in my career so far been doing what I had expected to do even five years prior. Something like a five-year planning horizon seems right to me.
  3. The very best way to make career decisions is to be mission-driven. Have something you are trying to achieve. Then decisions about what job to take or whether to go to grad school become a lot less agonizing. They become straightforward—does this step advance the mission more than my alternatives?
  4. Undergraduates very often do not have life missions yet. This is OK. You shouldn’t try to fake one. While you are still trying to sort that out, I think a good step is to ask two questions. First, what is the most interesting thing going on in the world right now? Second, how can I put myself at the center of that? For me in my twenties, the answer to the first question was GMU’s unique economics department.
  5. When you find yourself at the center of what is most interesting to you, try to indiscriminately create value. It’s not necessary to get credit or be well paid right away. You’ll get a lot more opportunities for both work and relationships if you’re a positive externality machine. Hopefully, these opportunities will help you discover a personal mission.
  6. One of my regrets as an undergraduate is that I was not as ambitious as I should have been. People are capable of a lot more than they think they are. Not everyone can be Elon Musk, but almost everyone can be more like Elon Musk. There’s joy and meaning to hard work—I have a growing sense of this now that I lacked nearly two decades ago when I started college.

This is my current thinking, subject to revision as I am not exactly an old man looking back at the end of my career. Your mileage may vary.