tl;dr I think people should become software engineers.
Achievement is a weird concept. To start, what we consider to be achievement differs from person to person. But you know what doesn’t change? Capability.
There’s a lot of research about what constitutes success in people and how to measure potential. I personally try to keep up-to-date on Angela Duckworth’s research — I even have an active JSTOR account to do so — but I recognize that Angela Duckworth isn’t the arbiter of how to measure latent success. There are a lot of people in the world. Some of them end up successful, and some of them don’t. At a certain point in life, it becomes abundantly clear which ones end up successful and which ones do not.
I’d say around mid-30s, you will have a pretty clear picture who in your high school ended up having the life they wanted — whether it be art, music, medicine, finance, engineering or whatever. Obviously, there are a lot of structural factors, but I’m going to shelve those ideas for now. The question I’m super curious to ask is: When did our success become abundantly clear? When did success become certain if it ever was? If we can predict how we are going to be when we are 60 when we are 30, then at what point in your life does the ambiguity fade?
One things happens and then another things happens and then bam you’re 30 and you don’t really get a say in how much you will achieve anymore.
I used to consider myself a determinist. The metaphor I used to really like to describe determinism was chess. In the beginning you have infinite openings to choose from. Some moves are better than others, but you can’t really know for certain. Unlike chess, we can’t hook up a supercomputer to calculate a decision tree for us. By the time you reach the endgame, the game is more-or-less set. You’re either up two pawns or you’re not. Your king is either active on the board or stuck behind a rook on the 7th rank.
The early game of chess is like adolescence. I start with adolescence over childhood because we don’t really make choices when we are a child. We more-or-less act on instinct. When you are a teenager, you have infinite possibilities for how you want to move forward. You could study whatever you want, make friends with whoever you want, do whatever you want knowing your parents have your back. The midgame is like young adulthood. You have been influenced in many ways by your childhood. A lot of things are set like what college you went to or who are your best friends or who are your exes. There’s a lot of baggage from the early game, but it’s still manageable. By the time you reach the endgame, you have carried so much baggage from the first two phases of the game, that the end of the game becomes increasingly clear. Redemption is always still possible, but unlikely.
Obviously, I’m no longer a determinist. I consider myself more-or-less a proponent of the Sartre freedom gospel (or whatever is the opposite of determinism). The only time you can exercise true freedom in your life is when you are young. When you are older, you are shackled to family. (I think that’s precisely the reason why Sartre and Beauvoir chose not to get married.) You always have freedom in your life, but your freedom diminishes as you age. One facet in particular in which it diminishes is achievement. As you age, you have progressively less and less the freedom to achieve, unless you give up your family to pursue something for yourself. You always have the choice to strive for achievement. The rewards to do so are just minimal to the point where it’s probably not worth it.
There is the first stratification in life when what college you go to. If you go to a good school, the opportunities coming out of college are pretty good. At least, you have a lot easier time getting what you want when you go to a good school. Then, that brings up the second stratification, which is what is your first job out of college. People say your first job out of college isn’t that important; I disagree. Sure, you can technically go to business school and switch jobs, but then you are also hitting a hard reset on your career, basically wasting whatever you could’ve done out o college instead of out of business school. If you don’t want to go to business school, you could also switch around until you get the job you want, but that also takes a lot of time that could’ve been avoided.
I personally prefer the path of least resistance, which is to just stick with the first job you get out of college until you retire. Your career is important for sure, but you know what is also important? Being Tik Tok famous. Or getting a following on Film Twitter. I don’t know. I wouldn’t know since I’m only still in my 20s, but personally I think by the time you reach age 30, you don’t really care about what you do for a living anymore. It’s just a job, which is superseded by more important responsibilities like family and community. My preferred mentality is: Just get a job that can feed your family; what you do isn’t that important; whether you enjoy your work or not is even less important. Why does it matter if you have achieved anything or not? I think it’s just better to call it a day and live far from society.
Achievement only is an idea when you have the freedom to pursue it. When you’re young, you tend to think you have the rest of your life to figure out what you want to work towards. I had this mentality in college. I wanted to hit the entire corporate trifecta — finance, consulting, and tech — before I figured out what I wanted to do when I hit age 30. I also wanted to do a PhD or Fulbright. But now that I’ve worked for a little bit, I realized how unrealistic these dreams are. I want to have kids when I reach age 30. If I do the trifecta, then I would have passed through three entry-level jobs when I start a family. Do I want an entry-level salary when I start a family? Very quickly I gave up on my dream of hitting the trifecta. Now I’m just content coasting until I reach middle-management, and then I can move to Scranton and live out the rest of my life selling paper.
People say that you can do whatever you want in life if you put your mind to it. For the most part I agree with that statement (even in the midst of all my cynicism), but with two caveats:
- You can only achieve what you set out to do if you are prepared to make the sacrifices for it.
- You can only achieve what you set out to do if you start early enough.
I think a good piece of life advice is: If you don’t know what you want to do in your life, become a software engineer. Achievement is defined as how much you succeed at what you want to succeed at. Regardless, I think people should be software engineers. What to become a musician? Become a software engineer. Want to become a writer? Become a software engineer. Want to become a software engineer? Become a software engineer.
If you’re a software engineer, you could do anything really. You have money, which allows you to do things. Money is freedom. You have prestige, which allows you to do things. Prestige is freedom. And you have time, which allows you to do things. Time is freedom. Realistically, it doesn’t really matter what you do in life. We all search for careers and ideas that we hope would make us less jaded about the world, but that’s just an idea that keeps us going. We can’t really do anything about that — passion, interest, impact — they’re all just ideas that keep us going in our perpetual state of dissatisfaction. At least when you’re a software engineer you don’t have to worry about your job being automated away. We’re all here on Earth for a finite amount of time. Might as well get something out of it, like money.
If you want to start over when you are 30 and strive to achieve, you technically can, but the burden will be on your family. Do you want to do that to your family? Up to you. You could easily just not have kids, which would allow you to focus more on your career. It’s a sacrifice, but that sacrifice at the end of the day is your choice. It isn’t always mutually exclusive, of course. There are plenty of people who have both a good family life and a good career. There are also a lot that don’t. Is that a risk you want to take? If you want to start over when you’re 30, you are risking the possibility of happiness with the certainty of unhappiness, at least in the short-term. When you reach 40, do you think you will still care about what you wanted to do when you were 30? I wanted to get a 2400 SAT score when I was in high school. That didn’t work out, unfortunately, but I’m honestly pretty fine with it now. I don’t study for the SAT anymore (thank God), and this is just a desire to achieve that I’ve relegated to the past.
Realistically, life is pretty easy if you realize what you want to do early. If you like coding in high school, then you’ll have a pretty good life. If you don’t like coding in high school, you better force yourself to like coding — or realize what you’re passionate about real quick. Even if you realize you like coding in your 20s, you’ll have a pretty good life. The neat thing about software engineering is that you make a lot of money right out of the gate, so you don’t really have to worry about an entry-level job not being enough.
If you realize you like coding in your 30s, well that’s tough luck — you’re too late. When you’re in high school or your 20s, you have time on your side. You can redeem your life if you wanted to. If your dissatisfied with your current job or want to make a 6-figure salary, you can put some money into coding bootcamps and be a software engineer. If you’re in your 30s and have a family, it’s not that simple anymore. You don’t have as much freedom as you did when you didn’t have as many responsibilities. You could sacrifice your family for the possibility of changing up your life, but that’s still a sacrifice you would have to make you didn’t have to make earlier in your life.
With age, we lose freedom in the sense we cannot do as much as we once could. When we are 30, we don’t have as many friends as we did when we are 20. When we are 60, we virtually have no freedom to decide the rest of our lives. We cannot simply choose to work towards achievement because we have other responsibilities to our family. On the other hand, when we get older, we have money, and money is pretty great. Money is freedom, and we are able to live a free life by having money. Tradeoffs!