One Good Idea Can Launch a Career
OpinionThe Bottom Line

One Good Idea Can Launch a Career

Education is a union card – it gets you in. But what you know is what really matters.

I was good at mathematics, but I had no idea how to establish a career based on it. In college I majored in accounting but didn’t like it. I worked for a couple of CPA firms and found the work boring. However, I learned how to add a column of numbers quickly. I did that at various businesses week after week and could combine groups of numbers without having to add them individually.

After my sophomore year, I switched to statistics, which suited me much better, but I knew I needed more education on the subject. I went to graduate school and became a statistician. After my first job I concluded that I liked it okay, but I didn’t want to build a career on it. I didn’t want to work on the theory of statistics, or teach it, or deal with only data. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

Somehow, I found a new area of work called operations research. That area was using mathematics to solve business problems. It seemed like a better fit for me, so I went back to school again to major in operations research, often called management science.

With a Ph.D. in hand, I started jobs in operations research and the work was interesting. I moved from job to job doing interesting assignments, but I always concluded that I could not see myself doing that job for the rest of my life. However, in the process of doing these jobs I learned about business, how to make a profit and why and how new ideas improve a company. There is a learning process that occurs by being in business. You learn about investments, about manufacturing, about persuading people on your ideas, how to evaluate a process, and many other activities. You just tuck them away in your head for future use.

Sometimes you get lucky and you find what you’re looking for. Other people may search for a lifetime, still looking for the perfect job. What I found was consulting in bank operations. I worked for a bank and studied different aspects of the bank’s operations. The Ph.D. helped to get that job, but it was my abilities that really mattered. Studying the payment operations in a bank suited me, and it challenged me. There was, fortunately, much going on that made my mob interesting and often exciting. My decision to stay with a career depended first on the assignment, second on my boss and third on whether it would produce anything useful. I found all of that in the new world of electronic banking.

I knew nothing about this new world. I had the right credentials to be invited into that world because of my education and my banking background, but I had no idea whether it would be interesting or not. In fact, I moved my family from the New York area to Atlanta to do the work for a year and believed we would be back in the New York area thereafter. However, the work was more than interesting for me. It was exciting, challenging and the people I worked for wanted me to continue, so we stayed in Atlanta, and we have been here ever since.

Some people know intuitively what they want to do with their lives. I have met medical doctors who wanted to be a doctor at an early age. I met professors who always wanted to teach. I was not like that. It took me until my mid-30s before I knew what career I wanted. It was frustrating going through the process, but the end result was worth it. I have no secret on how to find an idea to launch a career except to broaden your outlook, to do as many different jobs as possible, and be open to new opportunities. The broader the net, the greater the chance that your career will be captured in the net. That’s why a liberal education is valuable when you don’t know what you want to do early in life, and that’s why a technical education is useful for those who know what they want. I have no idea why some people know what they want to do, and some people don’t know. I wish I did. The only advice I can give is to know yourself and be happy if you know what you want and be happy if you don’t know.

The bottom line: Education is a union card – it gets you in. But what you know is what really matters.

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