Choosing the people you’re going to spend your (working) life with

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Choosing the people you’re going to spend your (working) life with

three-hats-hangingMy son Tom has lived in China for three and a half years, but he hasn’t married a Chinese girl, and doesn’t plan to spend his life on the other side of the world. Like many young people who graduated from college during the financial crash, he’s conscious of a precarious human future, and more aware than most that what happens in China will shape the world we share. He’s trying to figure out what to do next, in the work he does for our family business and in terms of his education and personal life – not to mention finding a way to escape the pollution of Beijing.

He and I were talking about his plans with a friend of mine last week. “Are those really the people you want to spend your life working with?” she asked, after he’d described one idea. This struck me as one of the most important questions for career planning, but I had never before given it conscious attention. I’ve thought about what I wanted to produce, and accomplish. I’ve often had to do what was possible in the circumstances to make a living. I didn’t realize, until my friend mentioned it, that I had also found a way to spend my life working with people I admire and continually learn from.

Here’s the question to ask yourself: Whom do you want to spend the time of your life talking to, answering to, and managing? If you choose a particular career path, who will your colleagues be? How about your suppliers, and your customers? Are they people you enjoy, learn from, or at least can bear to be with? My friend pointed out that if you develop green-tech products, for example, you might spend a lot of your time dealing with building managers and janitors. If you start an online business, you’re going to hang out with geeks.

Tom has to figure this out for himself, as does my daughter, whose education in forest management means that her summer colleagues have been outdoorsy people doing research on obscure plants and animals. My kids are well aware that research shows how much happiness at work correlates with the relationships you form there, and this conversation has all of us thinking about why Berkshire Publishing is a special place to work. It’s very simple. We spend a lot of our time in contact with some of the smartest and most insightful people on the planet, many of whom have become dear friends.

This is one reason I do what I do and one reason I’ll keep doing it, even as I transition Berkshire Publishing to other things. Creating encyclopedias on topics that strike me as really important – in fields I want to learn about – has meant building networks across the globe and has given me an incredible, invaluable education.

A job that provides life-long education is important because makes life interesting, and makes us interesting. I’m not talking about professional development courses but about what happens every day at work. This doesn’t mean an academic job, either, but being curious, and staying curious. Learn from the people you work with. I have a friend whose years in business were made enjoyable by the way he took every opportunity to learn from the people he met. A trip to a factory – wearing one of the “factory suits” he and his colleagues kept in their fancy offices – meant a chance to learn about a new business. Of course this was part of due diligence when making investments, but my friend also saw it as a chance to learn about how things work, and about how people in very different circumstances see the world.

There are other practical questions I wish I’d asked when I was in college, and at the various transition points in my life. “Can I make a living doing this?” is one, and unfortunately it’s not something that English majors talk about. My fellow students at the College of Creative Studies at UCSB are now professors, but we all hoped we would strike it lucky with a novel in our twenties. No one pointed out that publishing novels was rarely enough to support one person, let alone a family. I wish we’d talked about how to combine literary aspirations with other work, and how to do it well. I wish I’d known that I’d be good at running a business of my own – having never known an entrepreneur, the idea didn’t occur to me and only came about by accident because I found myself in the Berkshires where there were (and are) very few professional jobs.

“How long are the hours?” is another important question. Some people want time to pursue other passions – writing, rock climbing, childrearing – so a 7-11 career as a New York lawyer might not suit them. Nor will being an entrepreneur, in most cases. Successful entrepreneurs are workaholics, or at least people who love their work enough to want it to be part of their routine from dawn till dusk, weekends included.

“Is there travel involved?” Some people absolutely want a career that involves travel, and others do not. If you think of a trip from coast to coast of the United States as causing jetlag, a China career is not for you. International work also means online meetings and phone calls at all hours of night and day. Again, a game-stopper for some people.

Finally, a question that I hope my children and their generation will keep asking: “Will I make a difference?” Making a difference does not mean working for a non-profit. It doesn’t require being in a “caring profession.” In any field, there are ways to make a difference, and I love seeing people who understand the big challenges of the future – climate change, international security, social development – and work in traditional businesses and government. We should make every profession caring, in the sense that we all need to be responsible to one another and to the generations to come.

We’ll see what Tom decides about whom he wants to work with, in China and the United States and maybe even in England if he does decide to go back there. And I have a new appreciation for the business I’m in and the people I work with.

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