DUFRESNE: The hardest thing

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Students often ask me what to do after graduation. They want to do intellectually engaging work that helps people. Should they apply to law school or work abroad? Teach or try consulting? Although the details depend on the individual student, the core of my advice remains the same: do the hardest thing.

Many students mistakenly think about their professional careers the same way they have thought about their academic careers. They want to find the subject that interests them the most and at which they excel. But most students do not have enough data about themselves or about career paths in the real world to make a reasoned decision based on subject matter alone. Also, many Yale students are genuinely passionate about many issues, and for good reason.

If you are one of these students, don’t worry. You should think of your career choice not as a single, one-time-only decision, but rather as a series of small, stepwise decisions, made one at a time.

At each decision point, all you need to do is find a job that pushes you outside of your comfort zone to add a skill — a “tool” to your “toolbox” — that will help you grow the most. If you want to learn to work in high-pressure situations with people who come from backgrounds unlike your own, then it does not matter if you are teaching in an underfunded high school or working in a refugee camp — all that matters is that day in and day out you are working as hard as you can on your interpersonal skills, your efficiency, your grit. Mastering these skills will help you land a new job in a different substantive area at a higher level of responsibility. You can switch fields many times, and eventually work towards a job that combines your substantive interests with the skills you enjoy using the most. In other words, the best route is often is a zigzag.

Resist the temptation to pre-define yourself, to put yourself in a box. Sometimes students say to me, “I am the kind of person who is analytically strong but not that creative.” Sometimes your self-perception is well-founded, but often it is not — it’s just fear. What you were good at in college at age 20 does not indicate what you’ll be good at in the real world at 28.

The first time I went to a prison to give a “Know Your Rights” presentation to a group of 70 or so immigration detainees facing deportation, I felt like a fraud. My Spanish was far from perfect and I had started learning immigration law only weeks before. After several years of work at top corporate law firms, I had “directly represented” on my own only one client before. Why would these men want my legal advice? Within a few weeks, I was good (not perfect) at the job: mostly because I didn’t have a choice. There was no one else to advise unrepresented detainees; it was me and my friend or no one. Years later, I represent children, draft and advocate for legislation and teach at Yale. Different subject matter, same skills. And believe me, after working in a prison, nothing I do at work seems too scary to handle.

As I learned from taking on a job I didn’t feel quite prepared for, it’s crucial to take risks. Many students I teach are risk-averse. It’s really hard not to be perfect. And in high school and college, it is possible to work hard enough and to avoid enough challenges to make it through without failing in any real way. All you have to do is choose your courses well and stay up all night. Post-graduation, this strategy of being perfect will hold you back.

Indeed, the best times to take risks are when you are young and aren’t yet responsible for taking care of your children or aging parents — when the costs of failing are relatively low. If you have an idea for a startup company or want to go abroad to do something borderline crazy, you have a right to be scared, but you should probably do it anyway. It is easier to sleep in a tent in the wilderness when you are 22 than when you are 40.

Preparing to leave Yale is frightening. It can be tempting to look for a straight and narrow path, to shy away from risk and ambiguity. This strategy may have worked well in the past; after all, you made it to Yale. But as you prepare to leave, start to practice something. Practice looking your fear in the eye, taking a deep breath, and doing the hardest thing. You will make loads of mistakes, and then you will do great.

Alexandra Dufresne is a lecturer in Ethics, Politics & Economics and Political Science. Contact her at alexandra.dufresne@yale.edu.

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