At a neighborhood Starbucks today, I overheard a conversation between two colleagues who’d met for coffee. I deduced from early eavesdropping they were both chemists who’d worked together somewhere until recently. They commiserated about the jobs they’d recently lost, wondered about the fates of others they used to work with.
Then the conversation turned to the family, and he asked about her college-age son.
“He was always the family thinker. I’ve seen that in him since he was really little, and so when he went away to college I frankly didn’t know what to expect,” said the woman in the pair.
“Well, you knew he’d be a good student,” said the man.
“Yes, I wasn’t worried about that. Frankly, what I worried about was the fact that he thinks about things. He ponders. You know what I mean?”
“I guess,” the man said agreeably.
“So there he is at UCLA, far from home, falling under the influence of who knows what, and he likes to just, you know, cogitate, and so I was worried he was going to call and tell us he’d declared his major in philosophy or something like that,” said the woman.
“Philosophy, eh?” said the man. “Wow, that’d be a terrible blow. So, did he?”
“No—thank God. This was a really good surprise. He called last week to say he was majoring in Chemistry.”
“Oh, wow! I bet that’s a relief,” the man said with a pleasant laugh.
“No kidding! Can you imagine? Philosophy?”
“Well, you dodged that bullet,” the man proclaimed.
“We sure did!”
Philosophy? A bullet?
“Did you know that, these days when you’re majoring in Chemistry now, you have to specialize? He’s going to specialize in polymers.”
“Good for him!” said the man.
“Well, I figured you’d say that,” she said. Her conversation partner must be a polymer guy.
“Hey, no point in putting off such an outstanding career decision. Decide now! A career in polymers is a great choice,” he declared.
I sat there filling in the rest of the story. Nineteen years old, majoring in chemistry, pursuing a polymer specialization, giving up cogitating, which he knew Mom would have fits about if he let it continue or made it the centerpiece of his academic career. Instead he declared determinism over ambiguity, specialization over generalization, one right answer instead of many.
We could all regroup in this same Starbucks in ten years, the woman and her former colleague, me in the corner eavesdropping again. I predict she’ll tell him how pleased she is about her son’s career in research after the master’s he earned at Berkeley. “But too bad he seems, I don’t know, unsettled, not happy. I don’t know what else he wants besides this good job, his family, the house. People would kill for what he has.”
We’re encouraged to strap ourselves to certainty, pursue careers with stable prospects, rather than explore. Too bad for those who like to ponder, investigate, delve deeply into under-explored territory, irrespective of income potential. And too bad considering that discovery is rewarding without remuneration.
Leaders are explorers, and if there’s one thing we seem to be experiencing an acute shortage of, it’s leadership.
Study what you love. The rest will work itself out.