In a Crisis – An Opportunity For A More Meaningful Life

Sheltering in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, my coffees with current and ex-students (entrepreneurs, as well as employees early in their careers) have gone virtual. Pre-pandemic these coffees were usually about what startup to join or how to find product/market fit. Though in the last month, even through Zoom I could sense they were struggling with a much weightier problem. The common theme in these calls were that many of them were finding this crisis to be an existential wakeup call. “My job feels pretty meaningless in the big picture of what matters. I’m thinking about what happens when I can go back to work. I’m no longer sure my current career path is what I want to do. How do I figure it out?”

Here’s what I’ve told them.

In a Crisis – An Opportunity to Reflect
If you’re still in school, or early in your career, you thought you would graduate into a strong economy and the road ahead had plenty of opportunities. That world is gone and perhaps not returning for a year or more. Economies across the world are in a freefall. As unemployment in the U.S. passes 15%, the lights are going off in companies, and we won’t see them back on for a long time. Some industries will never be the same. Internships and summer work may be gone, too.

But every crisis brings an opportunity. In this case, to reassess one’s life and ask: How do I want to use my time when the world recovers?

What I suggested was, that the economic disruption caused by the virus and the recession that will follow is one of those rare opportunities to consider a change, one that could make your own life more meaningful, allow you to make an impact, and gain more than just a salary from your work. Perhaps instead of working for the latest social media or ecommerce company or in retail or travel or hospitality, you might want to make people live healthier, longer and more productive lives.

I pointed out that if you’re coming out of school or early in your career you have an edge –  You have the most flexibility to reevaluate you trajectory. You could consider alternate vocations – medical research or joining a startup in therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices, or digital health (mobile health, health IT, wearable devices, telemedicine, and personalized medicine). Or become an EMT, doctor or nurse.  Or consider the impact remote learning has had in the pandemic. How can you make it better and more effective? What are ways you might help to strengthen organizations that help those less able and less fortunate?

Here are the steps you can take to get started:
Use the customer discovery methodology to search for new careers.

  1. Start by doing some reading and research, looking to the leading publications in the field you’re interested in learning more about. News sources for Digital Health and Life Sciences are different from software/hardware blogs such as Hacker News, TechCrunch, etc.

If you’re interested in learning more about a career in Life Sciences, start reading:

If you’re thinking about educational technology start by reading EdSurge

And if you’re thinking about getting involved in social entrepreneurship, read The Stanford Social Innovation Review as well as the social entrepreneurship sections of publications like Entrepreneur, Inc., Fast Company and Forbes.

  1. Get out of the building (virtually) and talk to people in the professions you’re interested in. (People on the front-line of the Covid-19 fight (e.g. first responders, health care workers) might be otherwise engaged, but others in the field may be available to chat.) Learn about the job, whether they enjoy it and how you can get on that career track.
  2. Get out of the building physically. If possible, volunteer for some front-line activities. Think about internships in the new fields you’re exploring.
  3. If you’re thinking of starting a company, get to know the VC’s. They are different depending on the type of startup you’re building. Unlike in the 20th century where most VC’s financed hardware, software and life sciences, today therapeutics, diagnostics, and medical devices, are funded via VC firms that specialize in only those domains. Digital health crosses the boundaries and may be founded by all types of firms. Get to know who they are.

Some of the Life Science VC blogs and podcasts:

For edtech the VC firm to know is Reach Capital

  1. Inexpensively pivot your education into a new field. An online education could be a viable alternative to expensive college debt. Coursera, EdX and ClassCentral have hundreds of on-line classes in medicine, health and related fields. Accredited universities also offer online programs (see here.) If you’re in school, take some classes outside your existing major (example here.)

My advice in all of these conversations? Carpe Diem – seize the day.

Now is the time to ask: Is my work relevant?  Am I living the life I really wanted? Does the pandemic change the weighting of what’s important?

Make your life extraordinary.

Lessons Learned

  • Your career will only last for 14,000 days
  • If you’re still in school, reconsider your major or where you thought it was going to take you
  • If you’re early in your career, now is the time to consider what it would take to make a pivot
  • In the end, the measure of your life will not be money or time. It’s the impact you make serving God, your family, community, and country. In the end, our report-card will be whether we left the world a better place.

13 Responses

  1. A really good post.

    I thought about many of these things when the DoD world collapsed after the Wall came down. I decided to teach, but unfortunately, I only have a Masters and not a PhD. Couldn’t compete with the laid off PhDs who were taking teaching jobs to survive. So I stayed in the /DoD world until I retired at age 63 and joined a startup in 1998.

    I’m 85 and for most of my career had really challenging and and interesting work at the 5 companies for who I worked. I’m still being challenged in my post retirement career as an early aviation historian.

    Roy Mize

    Mountain View, CA (Silicon Valley)

  2. Hope you’re well.  Very good post.  Moved me.Ann

  3. People will always need food, clothing, education, health care. There is the global warming crisis that needs to be dealt with.

    There are many worthwhile ventures to launch.

  4. I’m surprised you didn’t mention your colleague Bill Burnett’s book:

  5. Your colleague Bill Burnett’s book is a must read on this exact subject:

  6. As somebody in the later stages of the career, I resonate with the message to the junior colleagues and the reflections on our own scorecards. Thank you for putting this so thoughtfully.

  7. Thank you Steve – Out of the box thinking – the roof has been blown off.

    As always lots of nuggets, at virtually every career tier. Hard but pertinent questions for a shaken Global Economy that will not be returning to Business-As-Usual anytime soon.

  8. Reblogged this on rPod Coworking Space.

  9. Tandem to your thoughts Steve.
    WHAT you do could be as important as HOW you do it. Changing the ethics and practice in our workplace environment could be a direction for adults beginning / changing a journey. To care or not care.

    The model for ‘Making a living’ is WHAT you teach your students. The HOW to make a living when You can’t make a living (during crisis) relies heavily upon whether or not the student cares about the people and world around them. If students care about people inside or outside the workplace then we might be able to create models for start-ups / small businesses that rely more on how to grow and shrink a company during growth periods or a recession respectively. Teach them HOW, then they’ll see WHY they’re doing it.

  10. This blog could not have come at a better time for me. I have been struggling with these feelings and confusion, and Steve’s nudge towards pivot and revaluation has helped me proceed now. Thank you Steve for this generous gift!

    Please stay Healthy and Safe. Continue to lead us.

  11. This is an excellent post, Steve. Thank you. Here’s a few additional resources which I hope may help folks:

    Key thought leaders to follow:
    – David Feinberg, VP of Google Health
    – Greg Corrado, former Head of Google Health
    – Eric Topol, Scripps Research VP (follow his twitter – it’s one of the best sources of up-to-date publications)
    – Malay Ghandi, former Rock Health founder, Greylock OP, now Evidation Health. Read his blog post on “Building a big healthtech company”, it’s superb.

    Some key researchers to follow
    – Google Deepmind Health
    – Google Health
    – NVIDIA Health
    – Stanford labs: Fei-Fei Li, Nigam Shah, Russ Altman, Serena Yeung
    – MIT Lab: David Sontag, Peter Szolovitz, Regina Barzilay

    Top Journals publishing prodigiously in AI for healthcare (subscribe to their feeds)
    – Nature Medicine
    – Nature Digital Medicine
    – Lancet Digital Medicine
    – Occasionally Nature/Science/Lancet will publish, but it’s rare. Though these are usually the best papers.

    Top Conference Workshops
    – NeurIPS Machine Learning for Healthcare Workshop
    – CVPR Healthcare Workshop
    – EMNLP Healthcare Workshop

    Some sites/books to stay on top of this growing landscape:
    – Fierce BioTech
    – “Deep Medicine”, by Eric Topol. Outstanding book.

  12. I shared your post with my students at the University at Buffalo and received very favorable, action-oriented replies. We use your content in my classes and pivoted its use to find ways we can help Buffalo during the pandemic.

    Your work has been vital in our work this semester. We have already worked with a non-profit to secure and distribute PPE to over 7,000 families in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. We also pivoted our Entrepreneurship Clinic to offer project-based internships to replace traditional internships for first-year MBAs (about 20 internships and growing), and the clinic will offer free consulting to assist companies with their recovery.

    There is much more to come and I am inspired by the work of students focused on providing meaningful solutions for our community.

    Your post is a needed call and as always I appreciate your insights!

  13. SteveHope you are staying safe. Just wanted to find out your views on cryptocurrencies and blockchain. I am exploring the possibilty of a crypto startup using the stablecoin concept for funding universities given the covid 19 impact on the finances of higher education institutions .Would appreciate your take and guidance on the matter.I await your response with interest. BestCarl Carl Pilgrim

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