Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Practical Career Guide for First Benchers

This is partly a response to "All That Glitters" by an IITian and partly a message to my brother who is an IITian.

Although I used to sit mostly on the back bench during school, I fit the first bencher stereotype more - good scores, liked by teachers, great expectations. I currently have a career tragectory that I am happy in. It hasn't stood the test of time and that is a caveat, but otherwise I'm perfectly qualified to write this guide.

The problem


What to do in life?

The dilemma is faced by every first bencher just after their schooling and throughout their college years. For me it extended till about an year after that.

Image by moritz320 from Pixabay

It is a dilemma because there is choice overload and there is opportunity cost. There are virtually an infinite choices on what to do in life, especially so for the first bencher. The "back bencher" has it easy because a lot of choices are eliminated by steep barriers and therefore their options become simpler. But the first bencher knows nothing called impossible. They feel that they can do anything if they put their mind to it. And so they have all the options they can think of.

But the opportunity cost is real. No matter how productive you are, you can't sleep 8 hours in 4 hours. There is an opportunity cost to every damn thing. And that's where the crux of the problem lies.

What to choose to do in the limited time alive? What things to prioritize? Happiness? Sure. But what brings about happiness? Does money bring happiness? Does autonomy, creativity, and intellectual satisfaction bring happiness? Does good relationships bring happiness? Can one not have all these? What if I do what everyone else is doing for a while and figure out in some time? What if I get stuck in that rat race? What is the meaning of life?

Existential crisis apparently is sort of depression.

Potential solution

I'm very wary of prescribing one size fits all solutions. There is one approach I have followed in my life which I've found to work very well for me. I call it "being ambidextrous".

The fundamental tenet of this approach is to shun exclusionary thinking. Exclusionary thinking is when you think "if I take up a 9-4 job, I can't become an entrepreneur", "if I get married, I can't do adventures", or "if I become a doctor, I can't become an engineer". There is always a way to pursue two or more interests together.

The challenge is in finding that way. Sometimes it is hard and will involve moving geographies, spending money, losing sleep, etc. But once you find a way to follow your heart in all directions your heart wants to go, you will have a happy heart.

Should I not make money?

There are a few basic things you need in life
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Shelter
  • WiFi
You really need to take care of this. And that involves making some money. But the money required for meeting these basic needs is trivial to make for first benchers.

Then there are some other needs which also require money
  • Friends & Family
  • Health
  • Entertainment
  • Transport
These are some areas where frugality really helps. With good accounting of income and expenses, careful planning, and hard work the money required to take care of these can be kept low. When you don't need a lot of money, you don't have to make a lot of money.

What about ambition?

There are two ways to look at this. One is that ambition is bad/unnecessary. That success is hyperromanticized. In this outlook, you try to make time for simple things in life. You call ambition as society's unreasonable expectations from you.

The other is that ambition is helpful. That it gives a direction in life. That it gives meaning to life.

But do you notice the circular reference in that latter approach? How do you choose your ambition?

Here also being ambidextrous has helped me. It is important not to go too much behind meaning. It is also useful to have a few ambitions. Maybe a better word is goals. Not all goals need to be achieved. Goalposts can be shifted. In fact, if you grow up, you're bound to realize some of your goalposts were wrong.


I've had two mentors tell me that confusion is a sign of thinking mind. So if you're confused, that's a good thing. Another thing is that the confusion never ends. Mid-life crisis occurs at all ages and at all junctures in life. The approach to deal with this that I suggest above is greatly influenced by Zen Habits.

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