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For recent graduates - Many paths to a career
Q: I am a student at California State University, Monterey Bay. Graduation is two years away and already, all my classmates all seem to know what they want to do next. I feel like I am the only one who doesn’t. How did you figure out what you wanted to do as a career?
—Trevor, United States
A: In 1967, when I quit high school at age 17, I knew what my next project would be: founding Student magazine. But I did not know what I wanted to do in the long term. The headmaster’s parting words to me were, “Congratulations, Branson. I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.” I am still not sure whether that could be classed as career advice or not, but it did give me the impetus to prove him wrong on the first point.
When I set up Student magazine, I wanted to work as a journalist; however, we needed to keep the magazine afloat financially, and soon I had to stop reporting and focus on production and financing instead. I stayed involved in the editorial side by landing some of our most important interviews but, for the most part, during Student’s early days I honed my skills at business, negotiating and management; all of which would later prove useful as we built the Virgin Group.
I did not feel confident about my business skills, but I did take up the challenge without hesitation. I made that leap probably because my family instilled in me from an early age a sense of adventure that has served me well. My mother was determined that my sisters and I would become very independent, self-reliant people. She was constantly encouraging us to try new things; always sending us off alone on marathon bike rides and long hikes.
Until that point, my personal challenges had always been practical. At school, I had struggled with dyslexia and myopia, and the education system at that time did not recognise learning problems or provide help. So instead of studying, I spent my days dreaming up business plans. During school holidays, I had attempted brief ventures like growing Christmas trees and breeding small Australian parrots.
I was also willing to take on the business manager role at Student because I cared deeply about the venture. My friends and I did not start up the magazine in hopes of making money. My early ventures had taught me that money was only a tool for getting a business going, and that the real reward was doing something fun, creative and positive. I felt that most media organisations were not concerned about young people and did not look to their interests, and I wanted to make a difference.
Three years later, as we started up our record stores, I had the same concerns. I felt that many companies were taking advantage of young people by charging high prices while distancing themselves from those customers. So we sold records at discounted prices and we tried to make our customers happy and comfortable, rather than pushing them to make their purchases and get out of the store as quickly as possible. We explained what we were doing to anyone who asked.
At that time, our business model of offering better value at low prices, welcoming customers and communicating with them frankly was so unusual that it was nearly revolutionary. After Virgin Music and Virgin Records did so well, my ambitions broadened and I began to dream about setting up similarly fresh, fun, competitive ventures in other industries.
Our group soon took on many diverse industries, reimagining everything from nightclubs to airlines to mobile phones, all intended for people who embraced our youthful spirit. We worked hard, partied even harder, had fun and made a positive change. Looking back, my team and I were not interested in pursuing particular careers or succeeding in certain industries. We wanted to make a positive difference in our customers’ lives; we discovered our talents and built our careers while pursuing that goal.
I’m proud of where Virgin is today, but I’m even more proud of the journey we took to get here. It was one of discovery and positive action. Today, you and many other young people face the problem of choosing which career path to pursue in a changing world, where the traditional models of business and government are in flux. The rise of the Internet is still constantly opening up new opportunities, and where the West once dominated global markets, a new order is taking shape with the emergence of China, India and Brazil. These changes mean a lot of uncertainty.
Rather than try to position yourself for this changing future, use your remaining years at college to assess where your true interests and passions lie, and to look for opportunities to further develop your knowledge and talents. If you love music but can’t carry a tune, use your knowledge of music to promote your favourite band or bring them to your city for a concert. Do not worry if your path ahead is still not clear when you graduate; careers take many different directions, with unexpected twists and turns along the way.
As you enter the workforce, remember to stay alert to all opportunities while remaining focused on your interests, and your passion and knowledge will help you to find your way; and succeed. It may take some time, but what a great adventure! As Mary Schmich of The Chicago Tribune wrote in one of her best-known, most quoted columns: “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.”
Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com /richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to RichardBranson@nytimes.com. Please include your name, country, e-mail address and the name of the Web site or publication where you read the column.
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