For the execution of the voyage to the Indies, I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics or maps.
— Christopher Columbus
“I want the freedom to choose; I want to maximize my options,” a student once said to me, in anguishing over his job search and explaining his career strategy. I averred that maximizing options is a risk management device, not a career strategy and that his approach would yield little freedom and a great deal of chaos. Instead of freedom, he would become a slave to opportunism. I said that one will have to choose eventually; and the sooner he did it, the sooner he would gain the sense of release that comes from commitment. But the reply fell on deaf ears. Some talented people can get lost in the stream of opportunities that float nearby. Instead, getting found inevitably entails making a commitment, getting rooted in something such as a direction, some values, a vision, a partner, or a place. As you head into this recruiting season, will you be lost? Or will you be found?
This is Columbus Day, 2010, a rightful recognition of an extraordinary captain and explorer. It is said that he discovered the Americas. But that implies a purposeful aim of finding the Americas. Instead, he wanted to find India. Columbus was lost. He significantly mis-estimated the circumference of the Earth and ran aground on the major westward barrier between Spain and India. Lucky for him. We should celebrate his courage and leadership skills. But to say that he really knew where he was going may be saying too much. Arguably, the Americas found him.
Columbus sailed without the benefit of intelligence, mathematics, or maps. He journeyed on instinct and courage, qualities that certainly can help the business leader and the job seeker. He also had the theory that the world is round and believed that by sailing west, he would reach the Indies. He was a man with conviction and direction. Given how little Europeans knew about the world in 1492, Columbus was bound to find something new.
The example of Columbus offers a provocative model to the MBA job seeker: what do you want to find? How do you want to be found? Sheer audacity will carry you far—but you also need direction. In a previous blog posting, I emphasized that this is still a challenging job market and that the searcher with clear goals—or at least some kind of direction–will have the advantage. You must learn to say “yes” to a particular path if you want to compete well for job offers. “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there,” said Lewis Carroll. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the cat.
“I don’t much care where,” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the cat.
…” So long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
Unlike Alice, Columbus did care where he was going. He clearly had direction. But as a practical matter, he had no idea where he was. He was lost. But the Americas found him. No matter how lost you may feel, consistent direction will help you get found. Remember Columbus. Sail onward.