A job changes you. Suck it up.

A university professor advises potential students to not apply for a prestigious (=expensive) university, probably including his own. Seriously. Why? Because due to the increasing tuition cost, they won’t be able to pursue their dreams after graduation.

The burden of student loans they amassed while getting their degrees would be too great to take the risky but motivative path of joining a startup or founding their own business. Instead, they are forced to choose a more financially rewarding position, at least in the short term. Several years later after paying their debt, they can do something they want.

The scenario makes sense. But does it work?

According to my own experience and tales from elsewhere, no. There is a fact that isn’t advertised very often: Once you live inside a framework, you will become a part of it. The scary part is that you realize it until you lose the framework. You might think of yourself as a prisoner biting his time, but rarely you realize that you are also making yourself a guard for that small eco-system.

Joni Mitchell’s classic song says it right (though originally it was meant for something different)

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

Till it’s gone

In The Shawshank Redemption, a long-time prisoner gets freedom at the end of his life, only to realize that his life existed only inside the prison. He chooses to hang himself.

These prison walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.

And the more high-paid a position is, the more risk-averse it becomes. Every single prestigious job requires you to work inside a “proven” framework. You have rooms to assert your creativity, they tell you, but that creativity must be applied to finding a solution inside that framework.

Yet the first and most important thing you need when starting a new challenge is an out-of-the-box thinking, because you are joining the game as a latecomer. But is that easy if your creativity has already been modified to work inside your previous box?

Of course, the world isn’t divided between prison and freedom, and most of us choose a stepping-stone approach instead of a complete makeover. In my case, I started as an electrical engineer (which ended up in disaster), then switched to a technical support for an international company, followed by a technical writer in Taiwan, sliding into a nomad technical translator as of now.

I learned I was no engineer the hard way, but leveraged whatever engineer-ity inside me for subsequent paths toward a more satisfying life. Even though the initial match-up ended up in disaster, engineering has been with me all along. I totally embrace the life I have now, but…sometimes I still think what my life would have been if I had chosen a completely different degree or the first job. I know, the life I have now is the only and the best. But still.

The first thing we should ask ourselves before agreeing to a less ideal career in exchange for security isn’t “How long does it take for me to get back on track?” It is “Will I be okay making this choice a part of me for the rest of my life?”

Does it sound too much like a marriage? Yes, it does. And leaving a career is not unlike having a breakup or a divorce either. It is doable, even multiple times, but each time the scar remains—and forms us along the way. Eventually things will turn out for the best, but the idea that we can “clean up” several years of experience in us is utter nonsense.