Uncle Rico’s Mountain Range

I got a nice little raise last week without asking for it. Like intercourse, the unsolicited kind is always more meaningful. It was an appreciated form of validation six months into a new job and career.

Still, my entire salary as a Salesforce admin is probably a healthy year-end bonus for some of my friends and definitely a fraction of the annual stock compensation of those in big tech.

That sounds like jealousy, but it’s not. I would rather my friends be rich than poor. I would rather just about anyone in the world be better off than not, unless you’re orchestrating a genocide or touching a screen that’s not a touchscreen instead of using your words.

My — condition, let’s call it — has always been a pliable imagination. It’s too easy for me to visualize my success in other paths or circumstances. Call it Uncle Rico Syndrome.

When I was the same age as Uncle Rico in his prime, the public education system was structured a certain way: ballpoint pen and paper, Scantron tests, more Dewey Decimal System than World Wide Web. If you were good at writing and multiple-choice tests, the system would make you feel smart.

At one point in junior high, I remember my class rank was 7 out of 777. I ended up in the teens out of a graduating class well over 1,000. At Northwestern, there was some regression to the mean, but I still got two challenging majors and felt above average entering the world outside of syllabi and exams.

Fifteen years later, I’m on my fourth career (fifth if you want to bifurcate journalism into newspaper reporting and television production). I am enjoying the first technical job of my life and being valued for some of the analytical and logical parts of my brain that had been underused while on the clock.

The reality though is I could have gotten a job like this a year or two out of college. It’s hard to start over when you’re 36. Well, not really. You just do it. It’s hard to live in Tigray right now.

My mental hurdle is a heightened awareness of opportunity costs. I’m at the age now when the benefits of sticking within one field, industry and/or company would be compounding into bigger titles and money.

That’s probably the No. 1 career advice I will give my son when he enters the workforce in 20 years to compete against cyborgs. If you want to try different things, I wholeheartedly support that. I’ve met numerous people jaded or underwhelmed with their professions, but they could never find a good time to reset. It’s kind of like the inverse of my path: I haven’t been able to grasp the right rung to start climbing.

I would never tell my son to cling to a five or 10-year plan while batting away what-if questions at night. Based on my experience, however, I would make him aware there are what-ifs on the greener side of the mirage too.

Suppose I spent the first 10 years out of college in corporate communications. Maybe I’m not shaking with excitement every Sunday night, but I build expertise and enjoy my colleagues.

Meanwhile, all sorts of companies that didn’t have a booth at the career fair senior year are launching or catching fire: a search engine freakishly good at answering any curiosity, a media aggregator that brilliantly tasks users with creating all the content for free, a DVD rental shop that suddenly decides to stream shows over the internet, software that transforms people’s houses and cars into hotels and taxis.

These businesses weren’t anywhere near my myopic radar in 2006… but they need corporate communications now. And suppose my linear resume lines up with a job at one of these companies, and doors open like dominoes within that company because the space is so dynamic that roles I never heard of, let alone considered, are invented all the time. These might be the very opportunities I was scared to miss if I stayed in corporate communications.

Whoa there, Uncle Rico. The mountain is farther away than it seems. There are infinite paths to infinite peaks. I’m not trying to tell my son the best or only way to a standing desk at Google is to play in one sandbox, or that Google should even be his goal.

I just feel it’s his old man’s responsibility to make a lesson of himself and offer some perspective. Especially in the find-your-passion-YOLO climate, recognizing the opportunity costs of not making a change is pretty easy. You can see other options.

What might not be as obvious are the opportunity costs of making a change. Some of those options aren’t in plain view yet, just over them mountains.

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