Climbing the fig tree27 March, 2013
“I saw my life branching out before like the green fig-tree in the story… I saw myself sitting there in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
As a web developer in my twenties I often feel overwhelmed by the sheer breadth and depth of the potential career paths open to me. Working in an underskilled, high-value industry where money is practically thrown at anything resembling a good idea feels just about as close to being the kid in the proverbial candy shop as one can get.
Yet I’m starting to feel increasingly like Esther Greenwood sitting in the fig tree. Admiring the abundance of choices but at the same time frozen with indecision and the fear that the branch will break when I set out to pick one of them.
While I and everyone else working in the tech industry scurries around, reaping its bounty, picking the low-hanging fruit, part of me can’t help but wonder: where is it going? Will I still be doing this in twenty years time? Do I even want to be doing this in twenty years time? Will I have exhausted the desire I have now to write code?
Will the fig I choose have wrinkled before I even get to it?
It’s certainly unproductive and paranoid to assume that when things are going well the rug will suddenly be pulled out from underneath you. Tragic is the figure who spends all summer worrying about provision for winter. Nonetheless, the need to look up in one’s career is universally relevant and essential. To assume that there will always be jobs, demand and money is at best imprudent and at worst dangerous. Most of all, to assume that what you’re doing right now will still be a personally rewarding and challenging career in twenty years time - or to assume that you will be swept into new and exciting and challenging areas by forces beyond your control - is wishful thinking.
I’m not saying you should sit down and plan out a roadmap for your entire career, or even that you could if you wanted to. But it is important to have some idea of what you hope to find when you reach the upper echelons of your profession. To not consider what lies at the end of the branch is to reactively feel your way through your career based solely on your current circumstances. But by picking a fig to progress towards you afford yourself context and foresight that will inform the choices you make along the way.
In the short term this can mean recognising where areas relevant to your current job will flourish and adjusting your climb accordingly, say, learning a new programming language because you think it will be a big deal in a few years time. And in the longer term, having that aspirational fig at the end of the branch will help you make life decisions that go deeper and are ultimately more rewarding than the impulsive snatch and grab of the young careerist.
Just as it’s important not to be frozen with indecision, it’s pointless to start climbing without aiming for something that transcends the situation you’re in now. Otherwise you might reach the top and still starve to death, albeit whilst looking at a nicer view.