A few years ago, I heard a fantastic quote that really stuck with me:
Do today what others won't, so that tomorrow you can do what others can't.
The source of this quote is unknown, though a quick search revealed it might have come from San Francisco 49er's receiver, Jerry Rice. Regardless, the message to me is clear -- success tomorrow comes from preparation today.
This is a message I feel compelled to share with young adults trying to find their way in an ever-changing business environment. Today, it feels like career decisions are made based on the paths of successful and famous business tycoons, such as Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos -- go to school (or drop out), start a company, make millions and become famous.
Of course, this path to success is not only misleading but dangerous. The narrative leaves out the trials and tribulations and hundreds of hours of work that led up to the success, much of which included pursuing interests and challenges that nobody else was pursuing at the time.
Moreover, not everyone that found business success did so through starting a company. There are far more millionaires who work in organizations than those that sit atop the organizational chart. And those individuals had to devote time and energy becoming great at what they did -- and better than others -- to advance in those jobs.
I see this misled attitude in students at the university level the most. Informal surveys of students show that many are in school because, like generations past, it was ordained that doing so was a needed path to success, and just the simple task of graduating meant they were taking their first step toward a prosperous career.
The problem with this idea these days, however, is that the cost of university has risen so much that, when considering debt and opportunity cost, the return on investment has greatly leveled out. And, given the rapid adoption of the internet and online learning, many professions and careers have become or are becoming democratized.
So what should you do if you aren't sure about a career path? Here are three alternatives to consider as you ponder this question.
For many generations, going to college right after high school was standard protocol, and it was more urgent when the average adult lived to be 50 or 60 years old. Today, however, adults are living functionally well into their 80's, and the average life span is predicted to increase.
Because of this, we should stop considering it critical -- or even important -- that we start college right after high school. In fact, we should consider starting our careers later, because let's face it, when you are 18, it is very difficult to imagine what you will do for the next 60 years of your life.
Instead, consider working in a field that interests you, which will give you perspective and understanding into that industry and those jobs. When you find something of interest, then you can assess the type of additional education you need, if any, to advance in that field.
If you still feel inclined to continue learning as you decide on a career path, consider pursuing a skill or skills that are highly transferable across jobs and industries, such as communications, psychology or statistics, just to name a few. The nice thing about these skills is that you don't need to spend a mortgage and years of your life to advance. You can learn these skills online or as part of a massive open online courses (MOOCs).
Regardless, beyond specific skills or talents, soft skills are what employers seek, and they are what will help you continue to be a life-long learner able to add value to any organization with which you work.
Skip the Degree Altogether
Lastly, you can consider a career that doesn't require any university at all. Money.com recently published a list of top-paying jobs available without a degree. Among these are air-traffic controllers, dental hygienists and diagnostic medical sonographer, just to name a few.
These jobs offer great salaries and plenty of availability at the moment, mostly because they are challenging and require a good amount of on-the-job training to advance. The difficulty is what scares people away, but it should be exactly why you should consider them. Because, as we have discussed: They will require you to do and learn things today that others are not, so that tomorrow you can do what others cannot.