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Career advice for young people?


Would you encourage your kids to take up programming? Would you discourage them? Engineering? Architecture? Science? Medicine? Music? Design? Art? Social work? Writing? What advice would you give to a 14-year old today?

This discussion came up this morning on a technical book author's list I'm on, where someone said his teenage son was expressing an interest in programming, with a goal of writing games. Someone else brought up the obvious question--"Is that something you really want to encourage your kid to pursue?", with the implication that a career in programming wasn't as promising as it used to be, and the subfield of game development even less so.

You can imagine the responses, ranging from, "Who cares about the career prospects? He's 14!!" to "The game industry IS a healthy industry..." to, "If it ain't illegal or dangerous, then go for it...", but the consensus was that "The skills of game creation are going to be beneficial regardless of what the kid ultimately does."

My advice was predictable, and was along the lines of:

"How many of us over 30 are working in the same field that looked attractive to us (or our parents) when we were 14? I'd encourage anything that requires thinking, creativity, and focus."

But really, I'd encourage anything the kid is interested in. And this is where the controversy is... whether "good parenting" is about taking a heavy hand in steering your kids toward a responsible means of making a living, vs. being supportive of their passions that might ultimately lead to a life of being, well, a starving musician. (Or whatever the equivalent is for any other pursuit that my parents would have considered a "nice hobby, bad career choice.")

Parents will probably always be fighting over this, largely based on their own experiences which range from, "If only my parents had prevented me from following this silly pursuit... I'd have a mortgage and my kids would go to good schools, etc." to "If only my parents had encouraged me to follow my dreams at any cost, rather than becoming a slave to the man (etc.)" And you always hear the story of the guy who, on his deathbed, doesn't wish he'd spent more time at the office.

Whatever our personal philosophies, there are new realities. The parents of the 1950's believed we'd have not just a career for life, but potentially a single job for life. Today, that's absurd. And one thing is certain: the rate of change is accelerating.

The advice I would give (with the disclaimer that Skyler will not be nominating me for any parent-of-the-year awards) is that the most important preparation skills/orientations today are:

* Creativity

* Flexibility

* Resourcefulness

* Synthesis

* Metacognition (thinking about thinking)

The future is unpredictable, but not optional. Unlike my parents, I assume my kids can be jobless at the drop of a hat, and had better be ready to deal with that. Or better yet, to make the idea of joblessness irrelevant by starting their own business or being independent contractors. And I'll give one more plug for Dan Pink's advice to develop "a whole new mind."

What's your advice? As the parent of a teen, I can use all the input I can get.

Posted by Kathy on December 15, 2005 | Permalink


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Would you encourage your kids to take up programming? Would you discourage them? Engineering? Architecture? Science? Medicine? Music? Design? Art? Social work? Writing? What advice would you give to a 14-year old today? Preparing Kids for the future..... [Read More]

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We are not fortunate enough to have a teen with a reasonable career ambition. Trying to keep him grounded in reality hasn't worked for us.He has a job and is okay with money but has no idea the kick in [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 21, 2005 8:54:30 AM


The bottom line.

Do what you are passionate about. But be ready to start a startup and drive innovation in it.

Teach taking calculated risks.

Posted by: Vishi | Dec 15, 2005 1:49:07 PM

All of the above, but also the ability to write clearly, coherently and of course passionately.

The ability to communicate whichever skill or passion someone chooses to follow is becoming as important as the skill in itself.

Posted by: PeterHW | Dec 15, 2005 2:03:30 PM

Vishi's comment "Do what you are passionate about" illustrates what may be the biggest single destroyer of passion - doing it for money.

Whatever you do for money will eventually lose its appeal. Do you think that sex workers get the same kick out of having sex that the rest of us do? Passion is destroyed if you have to produce it on demand. Passion is destroyed if the customer/boss tells you what to do, where to do it, and how to do it. Passion is destroyed if you're doing it for a customer/boss that you would just as soon not be dealing with, but you need the money, so...

A job is simply a source of revenue. Use that revenue to pursue your passions, but it's unrealistic to expect that the you can earn a living doing something that you're passionate about without the passion burning out over time.

Posted by: Doug | Dec 15, 2005 2:09:48 PM

Kids need to know:
Where to get information
When to trust information
How to think and analyze

I think most people know how to do #1, #2 a few less. But I am constantly suprised by how few people actually can *think*! They are incapable of analyzing what they, or someone else is doing, and the ramifications of the decisions that have been made. It is simply amazing. Don't worry if your kid gets C's, just make sure they can think, and then show them why getting C's is going to limit them in the future, and as proof of their thinking, they'll at least get B's to save themselves some trouble.

I second the writing skills comments. In college I finally learned to write. I wish someone taught me earlier!

Posted by: JohnO | Dec 15, 2005 2:24:18 PM

Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.

- Harold Whitman

Posted by: Alexander Kjerulf | Dec 15, 2005 2:47:18 PM

I taught myself programming, not only to make a living, but because I found it creative. In order to tell a computer what you want it to do, you have to break down the overall idea into steps, then code one step at a time. You can probabaly speak better to all the advantages that this type of learning bestows than I can....

I enjoyed learning how to do that. Programming teaches you organization, concentration, and perseverance. After a few years it also teaches you that things evolve and change, because inevitably whatever language you learned to program in becomes obsolete.

I imagine that if there is an interest, it should be encouraged and explored. I can think of a lot of things that are worse for teens to experiment with these days....

Posted by: Brian Benz | Dec 15, 2005 2:53:22 PM

Learning how to get things done is a very important lesson. When you have drive to get things done, then you are motivated to learn more and increase your skills. Once you know you can accomplish almost anything then you can take on any job and be successful.

Posted by: Rob | Dec 15, 2005 3:00:55 PM

The first thing I would do is make sure any child of mine possessed some basic skills. They may end up starving even with a job if they can't balance their checkbook [how many of you have a story about the kid behind the counter who can't make change?] They should be able to read and understand the information on health plans, retirement plans, investment accounts, etc.

Beyond that it really depends on the child. As one of 6 siblings, I know that each individual is very different. Some people can live paycheck to paycheck happily and others need a cushion. Some can combine income and passion [Tori Amos, Neil Gaiman, Steve Jobs] happily. Others need to keep work and passion separate. Some can spend 90% of their time focused on one thing [ballet dancers, some scientists] and other require more diversity. Some people can spend months ignoring family and friends to get something going, others can't or won't.

So how you direct a child really depends on how well you understand them. I think you have a good list there. I would add discipline because anything done well will require that. Then I would try to help them find some ways to really check in to make sure they are being true to themselves.

Posted by: Julie | Dec 15, 2005 3:01:59 PM

As a teacher of adolescents I think your list of skills for living and working in contemporary society is great.

Students need to be empowered to create and realise purposeful futures. With knowledge doubling every few years and the influence of IT, nano/bio technologies and globalisation on the workplace adolescents need to learn how to learn and learn how to think, know and understand.

Students can follow their interests/passions while engaging in essential learning that includes thinking, communicating, social responsibility, personal futures and world futures.

If students are following their interests and participating in the world around them then I think the skills you list will serve them well. Other job-specific skills can be picked up when required as they move from job to job...

Posted by: Roger | Dec 15, 2005 3:18:16 PM


Good points you made - all I would add is that we, and especially our kids, should be prepared to change careers drastically several times in our life (one of my daughters has already started - she has now changed her undergraduate degree four times!).
I can't tell my kids any different to what I've experienced: I STILL don't know what I want to be when I grow up, and even at 50 I've had five separate and distinct careers, and I'm prepared to change again anytime it feels right. I have found that doing whatever it is you do WELL will often open up the next door, but do it badly and there will be less opportunity coming your way.

Posted by: Ric | Dec 15, 2005 3:21:16 PM

Ooops - meant to give David St Lawrence a plug too - http://ripples.typepad.com - his "Danger Quicksand" book is worth passing on to the kids.

Posted by: Ric | Dec 15, 2005 3:24:23 PM

I was interested in "programming" at the age of 14, and voila, doing a degree in HCI now. I must admit, I almost went in Psychology and did initially go in Computer Engineering...but nothing I was passionate about. Dad didn't stop me from anything, nor encouraged anything in particular. "Whatever you like" he said. There are a lot of students around me who do something there is a demand for. I never found that approach...good. How are you going to work in something that you aren't passionate about?!

Posted by: Swati | Dec 15, 2005 4:00:33 PM

Do what you have at least a small talent for, and what you can see yourself being passionate about. Guard the flame of passion for your subject closely. If it should genuinely go out, learn to spot opportunities that may spring from what you've learned. Follow your dreams, but never let your identity be defined by a mere job - always be more than that so that if it all explodes, you're still okay. If you find yourself trapped by circumstances and unable to go do the job you dream of, don't sweat it - do what you can right now, as well as you can, and do the job you want as a hobby in your spare time if possible.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Dec 15, 2005 4:41:13 PM

I agree, learn how to learn. One of the things that we don't seem to do a good job at is realizing that failure is valuable. Dr.s realize this all the time. You wake up one morning with a very sore throat, a slight fever, and just feel rotten. You go to the Dr.s and she swabs your throat and sends that off to the lab. The lab will then say you have strep. or not. Is the failure to not have strep bad? Of course, not. The failure of the test provides valuable information. In this case you don't have strep.

I just finished running two local Lego Robotics tournaments last weekend. (www.ortop.org or www.fll.org) My son was preparing for one of these tournaments and he just broke down and said he hated it. He couldn't understand why I thought that was good. I explained that if he didn't like this then he should learn from it. Knowing that something is NOT your cup of tea is valuable!

Posted by: scubajim | Dec 15, 2005 5:02:11 PM

Doug wrote:

"Whatever you do for money will eventually lose its appeal...Passion is destroyed if you have to produce it on demand."

I have to disagree. I love what I do for money, and the fact that it a) has stakes and b) serves someone other than myself (i.e. users and clients) makes me love it more all the time.

An analogy: which poker game would you feel more "passionate" about winning?

a. $100 ante
b. $1 ante
c. playing for "chips"

Posted by: Paul Souders | Dec 15, 2005 5:07:20 PM

With my 7-year-old son, I believe in exposing him to as many different ideas, jobs, careers, hobbies, sports, etc as possible.

If he shows any interest in a particular activity, I support him. If he doesn't show an interest, I don't sign him up for something just because I think he should do it.

I figure that the more activities and concepts he is exposed to today, the better decisions he will make in the future.

Posted by: Douglas E. Welch | Dec 15, 2005 5:16:03 PM

Oh yeah, one more thing: I wish I had at least ONE "portable" job skill like waiting tables, cutting hair, or fitting eyeglasses. Those aren't necessarily high-passion jobs, but everyone I know with a skill like that can get at least a LITTLE work ANYWHERE. So that's my advice: learn how to learn/think/write (as per everyone else's advice), and learn at least one "real" skill with high portability.

Posted by: Paul Souders | Dec 15, 2005 5:30:10 PM

There is one career which can never be outsourced: crime. That's why I believe the future belongs to the criminals. The other option is to get a job as a CEO(government approved criminal). Learn to lie, steal and manipulate others...wow I just described the majority of jobs out there. Merry un-Christmas.

Posted by: Grinch | Dec 15, 2005 6:48:29 PM

Maybe I'm old school, but the value of learning how to work hard, and get satisfaction from a job well done has served me well. As I get older, I have learned to be content when I am growing, regardless of the cause of growth, or the direction of that growth.

Maybe our kids need to focus less on pursuing dreams, and learn to understand value. I am always most happy when my contribution is valued by those around me. Even when I am doing something I dislike, if it is appreciated (because noone else wanted to do it) I feel good.

Learning to be content where I am right now, instead of always striving for something just out of reach is very important. Not that acheivement is wrong, just remember to celebrate your small victories and not to get too focused on distant goals. Far future focus breeds dissatisfaction.

If I were to be able to teach my kids one thing it would be the value of NOW!!! I can't enjoy tomorrow, by the time I get there it is NOW! Any interest that they can pursue now opens their mind up to new possibilities.

In the old days, we tended to identify with our vocation, this is no longer feasible. I am not a programmer, I am a dreamer who writes software to earn money. In this day of ever accelerating cultural change, and with the job markets what they are, our kids cannot afford to bind their identity to a particular job, career, or pursuit.

What a rambling crock - does anybody buy any of it?

Posted by: Rich Stone | Dec 15, 2005 9:37:38 PM

A simple question, perhaps, but complicated answers nonetheless.

Many years ago as a new recruit in a company, a salesman to our company asked me this question, "My daughter is the 10th standard. What career should she choose". I told him, let her choose. Give her the freedom of choice. Let her try her hand at painting, singing or anything she is interested in and let her decide. The education is for the degree that it gives.

I am sure he did not like the answer, because coming from a freshly minted Engineer-MBA, this was like telling him that I was wrong or worse, it was telling him that here is this guy who has got into a good career and here he is giving bad advice!

Coming back to your question, I would think that multiskilling is the future. As parents, the best thing that can be done is to let the child actively explore the various possibilities, so that one (or some) of them turns up as their "passion". There are many people who grew up, not knowing that a career in "painting" or "sports" existed. What we can do is to let the child "know". The more skills you accumulate the better.

Posted by: neelakantan | Dec 15, 2005 9:40:16 PM

My favorite book on the subject?

No More Prisons

It is not too much unlike a Head First book, in that he's trying to get people to think differently and approach some problems differently.

Wimsatt's take is that contemporary grammar school is a form of imprisonment, that saps children of their will to learn, and instead teaches them to regard themselves less as people and more as components of an institution. Which, makes sense, given that our school system was designed to "build" factory workers.

He advocates home schooling, but from a far-left Anarchist perspective, instead of the traditional right-wing religious homeschooling crowd.

Quick to read and insightful, even if you aren't going to jump on the homeschooling bandwagon. I think that basically, William would agree with you. Kids need to learn to be self-directed, as that is what characterizes successful adults in our times. :)


Posted by: Danny Howard | Dec 15, 2005 10:33:51 PM

Well, nothing wrong with your approach. I also encourage everything my kids are interested in (having five of them that's a whole lot, I can tell you)

Now reading all the comments what suprises me the most is that this kind of thinking has not made way to our schoolsytem(s) yet.

When following your interest/passion kids will learn on all kinds of other things maybe sparking a new interest or new passion. This should be encouraged in our schoolsystem(s), well at least in the Netherlands it should.

Kids know best when to do what, because they just do it (walking, talking etc). Reflecting with them on what they encounter is the way to put in your own life experience. This will learn them how to reflect on themselves which gives them a headstart by miles on people who are not able to do so. But stay away from telling them what to be passionate or interested about. You wouldn't like that either, I think.

Bring this way of thinking into education an DO NOT interfere. Finally they will find the passion that suites them and make a living out of it. And then...it changes.

We parents are mere facilitators.....

Posted by: willem | Dec 17, 2005 7:00:38 AM

Metacognition - thinking about thinking. This is a very interesting thought.

Sort of like a software measurement process in the CMM franework - constantly trying to improve how you do what you do.

Or like watching your mind, or breath (as suggested in some meditation methods).

Posted by: naresh | Dec 17, 2005 1:43:02 PM

In 1974 I became leader of a volunteer-based tutor/mentor program serving inner city kids in Chicago. At first I knew little about this work, and little about issues of poverty facing inner city kids. However, over 30 years this has become my passion, and its what drives me to constantly learn more. That's how I found this blog.

My daily learning focuses on two things: a) how to draw a growing number of adults into learning paths that lead them to places where they can connect as tutors, mentors, coaches, advocates, for inner city kids; b) how to teach this same love of learning to the kids, even if it's not modeled by teachers, parents or community.

I think you've offered lots of good ideas. Thanks.

Posted by: Daniel F. Bassill | Dec 18, 2005 8:35:55 AM

My son has just completed his junior year of college, major is Computer Information Systems and minor is Spanish. We've always encouraged him to follow his passion, and also had a requirement as he was growing up that he have at least one non-school activity. His choices over the years included soccer (which he still plays and watches when he can), saxophone, martial arts, a little volunteer work (I wish we'd pushed that a little more), and probably other forays that I'm forgetting. The point was to encourage him to try things.

We're MOST proud of our son in that he is completely honest. We've tried to lead by example, but it's definitely his decision. Following one's passion, working hard, and living honestly can only help one enjoy life.

My first career was as a musician - following my passion - and it served us well for about 8 years. Then the economy tanked and I needed to retool, so I went back to college and became a geek (started wtih computer classes, since I was afraid of computers and felt it would be good to explore that). That was 20 years ago.

I'm still following my passion, my son has seen that one can certainly adjust to change and still be happy (and in fact thrive), and (thanks to the Head First books), he's also started learning about metacognition.

Oh, and we also stressed to him to get a 4-year degree in ANYTHING that interested him. Many folks change careers multiple times; the initial degree is a starting point.

Posted by: Joe Litton | Dec 19, 2005 6:55:14 AM

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