Choices: what kind of education, what kind of career

Looking back, and forward

Ted Howard

When my two daughters started to look at colleges, I told them they had final say on what college to attend. I did set two conditions which they must meet if they wanted the Bank of Mom and Dad to pay any of it. First, their course work had to be rich in the liberal arts. Second, they must major in something that an employer would value. My older daughter attended The College of Wooster, majored in mathematics and minored in computer science. My younger daughter attended Amherst College and majored in chemistry. I considered a third requirement, four years participation in the arts, but it was not necessary as they were already committed in that domain. One was a dancer and choreographer, the other was a musician and sketch artist.

Both graduated in four years. Each got a good job or good grad school appointment. Both are in satisfying careers; one struggled to get there, the other is living a career and life that most of us would die for.

Why these criteria? By the first, the liberal arts requirement, I hoped they would be challenged to develop their abilities to think in the “abstract and conceptual” mode. In the “get a job” criteria, I hoped they would get comfortable with hands-on detail, get comfortable working in the concrete and operational mode. The one daughter developed a greater comfort in the concrete and operational mode. The other operates effectively in both, often simultaneously.

The distinction is this. A carpenter operates in a concrete operational mode. His mantra is “measure twice, cut once and then nail it together.” A philosopher works in the abstract and conceptual world. His mantra is “cogito ergo sum.” Then he writes a bedazzling paper. What I wanted for them was the opportunity for each to discover what kind of work would be most fulfilling, making stuff or figuring out the general rule.

When I was in college, I worked exclusively in the abstract and conceptual domain. I paid a big price for that when I graduated. I got several great job offers. The position I took, with Dun and Bradstreet, pitted me against peers who had a much more pragmatic education, almost a trade school education. For a long time, just holding my own was a challenge.

Entry level jobs do not always offer much opportunity for “thinkers.” Entry level jobs are a playground for “doers.” I did a lot of correspondence school work. I took a salesmanship program from a commercial vendor. I was also somewhat of a slow learner in the game of cultural awareness. I found personal growth programs for this deficit. The truth is, I was clueless and only learned by getting beat up. I finally got past that when I did my MBA and learned some of the basic task skills that any competent employee must master. I attended a program that focused more on the how-to and less on the underlying theory.

The dilemma I see today is this: The only place one can be challenged to master the art of abstract and conceptual thinking, which is required more and more as one climbs the corporate ladder, is college, while the ticket out of that first great job is often dependent on mastery of some very basic task skills.

If you start in a big accounting firm, typically as an auditor, you will never get promoted out of auditing if you cannot do an audit. If you start in a consumer product company in the marketing department, at some point you must prove yourself as a sales representative. If you start your career in an engineering role, you will have to be a master of the board work—which I know is now done on computers, not drafting tables—before you get to lead a project. But would I be willing to pay today’s tuition to learn these basic skills? Core skills can be learned in self-study—I learned accounting by reading a text at my kitchen table as a part-time, stay-at-home dad and tested out of all the required accounting classes for my MBA. The internet school Kahn College is one of many free, good sources for many basic, 101-type courses. Rosetta Stone is a cheap, good way to begin a language.

Looking back on my education, all of it: college, grad school, the proprietary schools courses, etc., I never asked myself what kind of work would be most fulfilling. The irony in my college years is almost laughable. My summer and part-time work included: pouring and finishing concrete, cooking in an Italian restaurant, delivering mail, driving an ambulance and driving a ten-wheel snow plow in the snow belt of upstate New York.

As a consequence of not making an honest inquiry, I wandered a lot. I did have several passions. One was boating. I thought designing boats would be a great career; my parents blocked that path. I was also very active in aviation and might have considered that as a career, but again, I let circumstances block that path. I wandered quite a bit attempting to fulfill my parents’ expectations for my career. Eventually I did find myself, but at the cost of 20 years. It would have been worth the time to think long and hard about what really fulfilled me before I got too far into my formal education.

Ted Howard is retired from a career in Executive Search. He is a husband, a father, a dancer, a pilot, a golfer, a gardener and a student of Latin and Greek and their respective cultures at CWRU. He majored in English (BA) at Cornell and took an MBA at Clark. A good day includes a morning of Latin, an afternoon of golf and an evening of tango.