"In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
― President Dwight D. Eisenhower
As the end of my last undergraduate year approached, I started posing a question to my friends: “We all have predictions about the societal changes technology will engender in the coming years, decades and centuries. How should someone take into account those predictions when making decisions about one’s career and life?” The immediate purpose of this question, I admit, was selfish—I was wondering whether it was prudent to attend graduate school, when I could instead take advantage of a software job market paying historically high starting salaries that may not last. Their answers (besides proving that my friends are wiser than I am) speak to the importance of taking an active role in how your career unfolds, especially for students.
“Don’t worry about technology or society’s future, because that’s impossible to predict. Instead, go with what you feel is the right decision today.” Several friends used to my overly-analytic nature expressed such a sentiment. Their response spoke directly to my ulterior question, the one I did not ask. It is extremely difficult to predict when, or if, specific events will happen (in my case, a tech bubble burst). Making decisions based on such specific predictions will prove futile. However, that does not mean that predictions, or planning itself, are futile.
As President Eisenhower expressed, though the actual “plans are useless, planning is indispensable.” At the beginning of every undergraduate semester, I made and updated a list of classes I would take every semester left until graduation. Every semester, the list from the previous semester was obsolete, because I discovered new interests and opportunities. However, the act of planning itself allowed me to focus my priorities early, and it provided me flexibility later. I was prepared for several new opportunities—but only because I planned several semesters ahead. Though your plans will prove imperfect, it is essential to go through that process to prepare yourself for the future that does unfold.
“Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely the demonstration of their championship character.”― Alan Armstrong
As students, planning is especially important today, because we stand on the verge of technological change so rapid as to be incomprehensible. One only has to read a few articles on IEEE-USA Insight, or elsewhere, to know that the development of and society’s response to the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, and increasingly intelligent machines—among other technologies currently unimagined—will define the coming decade. If your primary purpose for attending school is to find a long-lasting career (a topic for another day), you should plan to work in such a technology-defined world, both through your education and internship choices. On the other hand, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the potential of such changes, and the task of finding your place within them. Don’t be.
“You’re thinking about it wrong. Don’t just try to predict what’s going to happen, because the future doesn’t exist yet. Rather, think about what you want to happen, and then prepare yourself to bring about that world,” my most entrepreneurial friend articulated. In ten seconds, he expressed where plans, contingencies and predictions fall short: the future doesn’t exist—until someone wills it into existence… His reasoning reflected why I eventually chose to attend graduate school: to further develop the skills I think I need to create things, independent of specific industrial developments.
For you, this reasoning may lead to starting a company, building something useful while at school, or taking a class in something you know nothing about. It may also mean speaking up at your company or university—to propose a new idea, or to address something you don’t like about the company culture. The next time you are making an important decision, I ask you to think about how our industry and society will evolve, and what you want your place in that evolution to be. But then, think about the ways you want to change that future, and how. Finally, do what feels right; it’s the best way to create the change you want to create.
Nikhil Garg is an entering MS/Ph.D. student in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.S. in Electrical & Computer Engineering, and a B.A. in Plan II in 2015. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or gargnikhil.com.