Taking the Scenic Route to Success

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

During the past year, I have been fortunate to lecture at several of Canada’s top universities. I love seeing the reactions to my scholarly thinking from the brightest and – in some respects – most untarnished minds of our nation. Untarnished, in this context, is defined by freshness; these minds are unbiased by the suppression that an entry-level job may instill in those willing to conform in order to succeed. 

Without exception, the most remarkable experience from my presentations is the long line of students who wish to ask me “just one question” on what they can do to increase their chances for success. They all desire success – with its peak located within the shortest possible distance between the point of “now” and the point of “position of significance.” I offer the best current thinking that can be conveyed to each student in less than a minute, but if I can sum it up in a single sentence: your life and career will be much richer if you avoid taking the shortest – and most linear – route to success.

A 60 Year Work-Study Program

Alternative and twisted career pathways most often take longer. Therefore, persistence, patience, and passion are vital ingredients in executing your strategy. My father’s experience is an admirable example: An initial degree in metallurgy became less relevant to his growing passion for civil engineering, so he earned a land-surveying license and took courses while working in order to obtain his PE license – and that was accomplished before finishing a baccalaureate in night school. After decades of running his firm, he decided to acquire a Master’s in environmental studies in his 70s. Even better, he fondly describes how his art history elective made his visits to Florence “a bit more relevant.” Having recently retired in his 80s, he describes his career path headline to me as “a 60 year work-study program.” My mother concurs.

Before you start ranting “but that was back then,” the career trajectories as of late actually benefit from evolving your own interests to align towards several disciplines. My own formal training was in the biological science of physiology and the applied science of public health, followed by a mid-career MBA. I had continuous and fulfilling challenges in developing useful drugs and managing organizations as a CEO in different countries. Over the years, I became an accomplished photographer. The multifaceted experience taught me that in science, the evidence speaks; in business, the numbers speak; and in photography, the images speak.

Then there are my three daughters. The eldest excelled in a double major and minor in history, education, African studies, and political science respectively; the middle left a musical career to become a clinical psychologist; the youngest spent her 16th birthday summer in Ghana and Tanzania teaching English to “help find her way.” Evidently diversity dominates even in this third generation.

Forgo Linearity to Foster Critical Thinkers

Do today’s students have a desire that fuels patience and persistence? Does their social framework accept risk and provide broad guardrails on a wider road to career fulfillment? Or is it straight line thinking? Burt Malkiel, the two-time Economics Chair at Princeton and former Dean at Yale School of Management, finds today’s finance students overwhelmingly career-oriented. Students feel as though they “must” take as many finance courses as possible to better prepare them for Wall Street. “It is fine to take a few finance courses,” Malkiel notes, but he also advises to “diversify as much as possible into the liberal arts.” He believes avoiding the bold straight line phenomenon will enhance not only one’s critical thinking, but also one’s imagination and inventiveness – “[preparing] for a much richer life.”

What’s Bluefish Got to Do With It?

Some early day university experiences still weigh heavy in my philosophy of diversity. First, there was my physiology professor at Yale, Arthur DuBois. Most celebrated for his work in respiratory mechanics and application of Boyle’s law to invent lung function measurements of resistance of airflow, he spent his summers at the Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole on Cape Cod studying the physics of bluefish propulsion. While I am personally more interested in eating bluefish, this man amazed me and fuelled the importance of diversity in my forming mind.

Then there was his contemporary, Julius Comroe, in San Francisco. While he was perhaps best known for his contributions on how pressure receptors in the body controls breathing, I remember him fondly for his creative writing in a regular column called Retrospectroscope. One piece in particular, “How to Make Hasenpfeffer,” is stunningly germane. In summary, the article examined the first publication of some of the most celebrated scientists of the time. His finding: Close to 90% of their first published papers had nothing to do with what was considered the scientists’ most important contribution. His lesson was to take the first step to get involved in science – any science, in any field. The rest will follow.

Quoting Professor Carl Schmidt, here minds us “in making hasenpfeffer, the first step is to catch the rabbit!” Mirroring my take-away in developing talent: Catch the rabbit and diversify away from straight lines. 

Dr. Ted Witek is the former president and CEO of Boehringer Ingelheim Canada. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

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Dr. Ted Witek