You Can Only Control You

Over the last few months I’ve had several opportunities to talk to groups of students and young professionals about their careers and the future. The most frequent question they ask me is when I think the industry will turn around.

When will oil prices go back up and companies start hiring?

Given the current employment situation for petroleum geologists, it’s foremost on their mind. But I’d submit that on a personal level, it’s the wrong question. Because when you’re just starting out — and even when you’re starting over — what you need isn’t an industry recovery.

What you need is a job — a place where you can deploy your talents and gain experience.

Now, I can already hear the grumbling: “That’s easy for you to say. But if the industry is in the doldrums how can I find that job?”

There’s no question that an industry recovery makes the job hunt easier. But, individually, there is nothing you can do to effect such a recovery. You don’t control global supply and demand. You don’t set oil prices. You can’t dictate when companies decide to start hiring.

You do control your responses to the current employment environment. You can use creativity and ingenuity to uncover and create opportunities. There is a way for you to develop a path forward in the current situation. Don’t shift control of your career to something, like an industry recovery, or someone outside your control.

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Over the last few months I’ve had several opportunities to talk to groups of students and young professionals about their careers and the future. The most frequent question they ask me is when I think the industry will turn around.

When will oil prices go back up and companies start hiring?

Given the current employment situation for petroleum geologists, it’s foremost on their mind. But I’d submit that on a personal level, it’s the wrong question. Because when you’re just starting out — and even when you’re starting over — what you need isn’t an industry recovery.

What you need is a job — a place where you can deploy your talents and gain experience.

Now, I can already hear the grumbling: “That’s easy for you to say. But if the industry is in the doldrums how can I find that job?”

There’s no question that an industry recovery makes the job hunt easier. But, individually, there is nothing you can do to effect such a recovery. You don’t control global supply and demand. You don’t set oil prices. You can’t dictate when companies decide to start hiring.

You do control your responses to the current employment environment. You can use creativity and ingenuity to uncover and create opportunities. There is a way for you to develop a path forward in the current situation. Don’t shift control of your career to something, like an industry recovery, or someone outside your control.

Instead, focus on what you need to do to find that job.

You Can’t Have Everything

But as you seek out and create opportunities, do you know what you want for your career, or even more importantly, for your life?

Perhaps you want power, a corner office with significant responsibility and intellectual challenge, high pay, a supportive spouse, brilliant children, a nice house and cars, ample time for leisure and to pursue personal interests.

Yep, me too.

I’d also like to win the lottery.

In product design, there’s a famous ternary diagram with the vertices labeled Good, Fast and Cheap. Designers then inform their clients that they get to choose two of the three to optimize the product. You can have a product that is good and produced quickly, but it won’t come cheap. You can’t have all three.

I find this diagram a useful metaphor for designing our lives, because while I believe you can likely have what you want most in life, I’m pretty sure you can’t have everything.

Here in the United States, we are having a societal discussion about work and life. These are important conversations to have as technology changes the workplace and new generations of workers have different expectations and desires.

But these discussions concern matters we can only influence, not control, and I would submit that no matter how circumstances evolve, we should understand what we want and make decisions accordingly.

The point is that you get to decide what is important to you and optimize your life for those values.

Personal Experience

It was 1995 when I finished graduate school. I had a freshly printed master’s degree in the midst of a pretty dismal job market for geologists. And it was going to get worse as oil slid to just over $9 per barrel in 1999.

My career was my top, perhaps only, priority over the next two decades, but there weren’t many corporate jobs available. The result is that I built a career in the non-profit world, first in academia and then at AAPG.

That decision meant that I was not optimizing for maximum financial gain.

But what it did offer was the opportunity to accumulate knowledge and experiences. As a result, I have worked geological basins on every continent except Antarctica, and I know and have worked with people from all over globe. I also had the opportunity to work in the U.S. Congress as a Congressional Science Fellow, travel extensively and move frequently to see many parts of the world.

One result of my focus on career was that I did not get married and start a family early in adulthood. That wasn’t my conscious plan, but it was the result that emerged from my decisions and the path that I chose.

I have had a rich and fulfilling career, doing what I felt was important, but I came home from each of these adventures to an empty apartment.

But priorities change and opportunities arise, and one of the biggest surprises of moving to Oklahoma was getting married nearly three years ago to my beautiful wife and bringing three impressive step-kids into my life. It was an “Insta-family” as my Dad put it.

This decision has been a rich addition to my life and career — more than I ever realized — and is accompanied by new tensions as I seek to balance my commitment to career with my new commitment to family. This is something many of you are dealing with, too.

Why am I telling you a part of my story? Because, as I continue to learn, life rarely unfolds according to a grand plan. There is no future point where everything falls into place.

“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself home,” is how Matsuo Basho, the 17th-century Japanese poet, put it.

Your life and mine are built moment by moment, decision by decision. You get to choose. Choose wisely.

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