The man in the clip is Robert Zubrin, a staunch advocate for the exploration of Mars. I don’t remember when I saw this video, or how exactly I stumbled upon it; all I remember is how I responded with admiration and sympathy. Here we see a man who grew up with a vision, one that was snatched away, which drove the driven man into becoming an angry man. Carrying a torch whose flame was ignited by betrayal and is sustained by discontent, he fights to regain what he sees humanity has lost: the thirst for exploration. The spirit of wonder.
And the spirit of exploration has not just been lost in the context of space exploration. We see it every day. We see it in the way we choose fast food, the easy, convenient, and readily available foodstuff, rather than discover the joys of cooking (the only way you can every truly “have it your way”, despite what a certain burger brand says). We see it in the way certain fashion brands dominate the local Philippine market, despite their pieces being obviously made for much more temperate climates.
And we see it in the way people choose jobs.
A lot of us employees have lost that hunger, that almost reckless pursuit of something that we love and can be great at. “Career” has become nothing more than a buzzword, splashed onto resumes, parroted in interviews, all in the hopes of getting a job. The focus is on pay, not promise. Perhaps we are forced to compromise to survive circumstances beyond our control. But sometimes, the circumstances we currently face are not something we actually have to.
Consider the movie Interstellar. In the film’s establishing sequence, we see that humanity is in danger. The earth, its mother for so long, is starting to cross the line from “life-supporting” to “uninhabitable”. Dust storms sweep the land on a regular basis. The staple crops of mankind–wheat, potatoes, rice, and corn–all start to die in succession due to blight. The educational system is pressuring more people to become farmers rather than engineers (not to say that farming is an unimportant career choice, as the movie itself stresses). The dream of space exploration is dismissed as nothing more than a fever dream.
The story moves forward from there, leading the viewers down a path of coincidence and deduction, which concludes with the discovery that the dream is still alive. NASA is not defunct; it’s just gone underground, toiling away, in the background, as quixotic an institution as any you can imagine. On earth, humanity wages a war against extinction; while that war is fought, NASA is engineering a fallback.
And so it is with your job.
Sometimes, you just need to jump ship. Maybe the company is folding, and you can’t be around for the end. Maybe you’re not getting a high enough salary, or maybe the prospects for career growth are weak.
Or maybe it’s just not a good fit for you: you find that you have to contort yourself the cog-shape needed to make the corporate machinery run, and it’s deforming you day by day; you can’t breathe normally; you can’t stretch; you can’t stand; and you can’t stand it.
This is not to say that the automatic reaction should be to escape. Of course, there are still reasons for you to stay and persevere. You still have to fulfill your duties to the company; you cannot simply leave your co-workers hanging; and there may be clients who are counting on you to come through for them. The point is, you should be able to come to a point where you can deliberately launch yourself towards a new stage in your career, and a new opportunity for growth and exploration.
Of course, not all endeavors end up successful. Not everything is in our control. Sometimes the journey doesn’t end well, and you, the explorer, are stuck in a less-than-ideal situation.
In The Martian, an astronaut is left marooned on Mars. The Red Planet is uninhabitable: no food grows there, the atmosphere cannot support life from Earth, and it seems all circumstances and conditions are conspiring to ensure that he does not survive. However, through ingenuity and determination, he improvises, conceiving and implementing a survival strategy (growing food) and an exit strategy (reaching out to his fellow astronauts so they can rescue him). I can’t say much more about the film, since I haven’t watched it as of this writing, but that’s the gist.
So that’s what employee-astronauts should do when we end up in a company not suitable for them, but cannot leave it immediately. When they find themselves in that situation, unable to set off on a new leg of their career (whether due to a training bond, financial pressures, or something else), they must rely on our existing skills and talents. If they started their career path right, their skills and talents will be adaptable in most, if not all, of the companies they end up in. So while you’re in a poor-fit company, make the most of it. Do a bit of terraforming where you can. Survive (and thrive, if possible).
At the same time, keep your options open. Maintain communications with fellow employee-astronauts. Eventually, when the opportunity to leave comes, one may just get a useful referral from one of them and end up in a more habitable place. Of course, as professionals, employee-astronauts should also be prepared to suggest opportunities for others. It’s all about paying it forward.
One definition of career is “a job or profession that you have been trained for, and which you do for a long period of your life”. A lot of us remember that definition, and we let it shoehorn us into staying in a particular company, or a particular occupation, longer than we really should.
Another definition is “To move forward at high speed, often with minimal control”.
Which sounds more exciting?