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Catch Them While You Can

This was published on Friday, February 20, 2004, in MIT's student newspaper The Tech.

What's Next?
by Ian Ybarra

"Catch Them While You Can"

“I’m too busy.” Next time you use that as reason for not doing something, send e-mail to Professor of Materials Science W. Craig Carter. I dare you. The automated response will make you think twice about whether your “I’m too busy” is actually a reason or an excuse.

It begins, “It has become impossible to answer all the email I receive. Even if your email is important, there may be a delayed response. I will read email frequently, but only answer urgent and emergency emails immediately. I am grateful for your patience.”

That is followed by a brief explanation of why he cannot reply to all e-mail, a suggestion to send him reminder messages if necessary, and a list of seven URLs where he has posted answers to FAQs. Personal FAQs? The man is busy.

Reading the auto-reply made me think back to when I sent my e-mail. By pressing the “send” button, I had really just pressed my luck. I felt disappointment, but only with myself.

Over two years have passed since I was in the Introduction to Thermodynamics class taught by Carter (That’s 3.00, which is now extinct). Although I was among those who had distaste for Thermodynamics, I consciously exerted more effort in that class than in my others. And I did so because Professor Carter honestly stated the difficulty of understanding thermodynamics and consistently demonstrated his passion for teaching it.

The way he spoke about the importance of what he was teaching and the new problems that he and his colleagues were exploring made me sense that he loved his work. And I wanted to hear the story of how he figured out what kind of work would reward him. But I didn’t ask -- not until last week.

We all run across people whose sheer excitement for their work inspires us to find our own callings. We wish we could hear how they struggled with their career decisions. Although we learn more from actually doing the work that intrigues us, we can still glean some transferable knowledge from others’ experiences. However, we must ask first.

Luckily, Professor Carter manually replied to my e-mail and agreed to chat with me for 20 minutes. Still wanting to pout about having waited so long to ask, I raised my chin up and went to his office. Here’s what I learned.

For Carter, many rewards of his work have been made possible because, at several times in his career, he simply chose not to limit himself.

As an undergrad at UC Berkeley, he contemplated switching his major from materials science to mathematics or physics because of a few classes that he enjoyed. Then he followed advice that he “should stay in materials science because it’s so flexible that you can do as much math and physics as you want to.”

Years after earning his triple crown from Berkeley, Carter was working in an industrial laboratory, performing similar duties to those he has now as a professor: doing research, publishing papers, and managing other researchers and funding. But by becoming a professor, he added teaching to that list.

And when I asked if he could happily continue in his current role or if he still wonders what he’s going to do when he grows up, Carter said, “I think everybody ponders that question.” He added, “I would expect that many people who stay in academia do so because it is more or less not making the decision.”

Perhaps that’s the answer we should all strive to give, regardless of the type of work we pursue. For Professor Carter, it involves teaching and developing ways to compute the effects of material properties and processes on material behavior. For others it could be enhancing flight simulators or mentoring children from broken homes or building a better mousetrap. If we find work that constantly presents new challenges that excite us, we might feel like we never endured the stress of deciding what kind of work we want to do.

I was fortunate to hear Professor Carter’s story last week, and I intend to ask for the stories of others who have inspired me before it’s too late. I encourage you to do the same. Catch them while you can, my friends -- before your e-mail draws auto-replies pointing to personal FAQs.

This article originally appeared in The Tech, issue 6 volume 124. It may be freely distributed electronically as long as it includes this notice but cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to for additional details.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 20 February 2004 Permalink

New Times, Same Old Dilemma

This, from February 13, 2004, was my second column printed in MIT's student newspaper The Tech.

What's Next?
by Ian Ybarra

"New Times, Same Old Dilemma"

I have a new acquaintance named Tom. Years ago, Tom studied here at MIT and earned SB and SM degrees in physics. And he vividly recalls wrestling with questions about his future, like we are.

Tom arrived at his first answer during a ski trip in Maine. His girlfriend (now his wife) and he were enjoying some beer and discussing what they should do with their lives. That’s when Tom decided to attend law school. Although that setting is unique to his story, the factors influencing his decision were the same as those we consider now.

This past January, Tom was invited to campus to address about 50 people -- students, alumni, staff, and friends -- as part of an evening networking event sponsored by the School of Engineering’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP). As he took the floor in lifeless 4-163, I knew his pedigree alone would be enough to hold the crowd’s attention.

Mr. Thomas D. Halket, Esq., ’70 graduated from Columbia Law after earning two MIT physics diplomas. He holds positions as partner at Bingham McCutchen, one of the largest law firms in the U.S., and President of the MIT Club of New York. Impressive, yes, but not as much as what he shared that night.

“Coming to MIT was the best thing you could have done for yourself,” said Tom.

Those three letters on our résumés ensure that our technical abilities are taken for granted, and this is one time when the words “taken for granted” are a good thing. In my brief professional experience, I have already watched several interviewers casually say to me, “Well, we don’t have to go over this,” and skip the quantitative questions. Apparently, it happens even at Tom’s level. He said people always assume he’s the technology expert in the room, even if he’s never heard of the issue at hand.

Clearly, this will be a competitive advantage for us in both technical and non-technical work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help us decide which we will pursue. Tom commiserated, acknowledging the misfortune of encountering the largest forks in the “decision tree” while we’re so young. That made me sit a little shorter. What’s worse than having to make choices that render the greatest impact on our lives when we are least prepared?

“We are prisoners of our time,” Tom said. He explained our cell bars are market conditions and social paradigms which include current industry salaries, job glamour, and further education required. In his time, two factors were the renaissance of professional education and the not-yet-developed Wall Street market for high-salaried, number-crunching jobs. The tides have since turned. We are offered plenty of high-entry-level wages for using Excel through days, nights, and weekends in industries such as financial services and management consulting. Moreover, computing developments have raised IT salaries to similar levels.

Tom chose law school because it promised to teach him how to apply analytical reasoning to human life experiences -- something absent from undergraduate education -- and it presented a much more rigorous academic challenge than business school. We too need more thoughtful reasons than “it pays well!” for choosing our first career branches to climb -- especially since our starting salaries have no correlation with future wealth.

One student asked Tom what he thought about people attending law school without intentions of actually practicing law afterward. His response: “Everyone wants to be Josh Lyman.” Of course, Tom was referring to The West Wing’s brash Deputy Chief of Staff who holds Harvard undergraduate and Yale Law degrees and plays down compliments from females as often as he is right about his politics -- nearly all the time. Tom said that the problem with the really “sexy” jobs is that they are so few and so hard to get.

Yup, it’s a problem. However, I think if we first distinguish between which jobs the masses think are “sexy” and which ones really turn us on, we should go after our dreams without hesitation. If we do work we really love, we will be content even if we never reach the pinnacles of our chosen fields. And if, for you, that’s Josh Lyman’s job, great. That leaves Toby Ziegler’s spot for me.

This article originally appeared in The Tech on Friday, February 13, 2004, in issue 4 volume 124. It may be freely distributed electronically as long as it includes this notice but cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to for additional details.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 13 February 2004 Permalink

Time to Ask the Question

This was my first column in MIT's student newspaper The Tech (it appeared on Feburary 6, 2004). Although I wrote it for MIT students at the time, I'm posting it here because it really applies to everyone.


What's Next?
by Ian Ybarra

"Time to Ask the Question"

We are at one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. We walk the same halls and sit in the same classrooms as our predecessors -- women and men who went on to invent technologies, found organizations, discover and explain complex phenomena, lead teams, author powerful books, and counsel chiefs of the most powerful states in the world. (None have actually become President of the United States, but U.N. Secretary-General isn't too shabby.) We study the work of Nobel Laureates while sitting a few feet from Nobel Laureates.

So MIT alumni, faculty, and affiliates have done great things. But who’s next?

We are. We were invited to MIT from all over the globe because we demonstrated excellence in classrooms and laboratories and on stages and fields. In this intellectual community, we sow seeds with much potential to sprout future success. And already, there are signs of a great harvest ahead.

Take, for example, Kristin B. Domike ’03. As an undergraduate in Professor Christine Ortiz’s research group, she began designing a new endotracheal tube that could help prevent millions of injuries to people who require breathing assistance during medical procedures.

Or consider John A. Reyes ’06, who is starting a college preparatory summer program at his high school in La Marque, TX, to provide kids in his hometown with opportunities he didn’t have.

How about Danny A. Nunez ’06? A gifted mechanical engineer, he will soon be listed as one of the few people on a Ford Motor Company patent for an engine oil-efficiency device that might be installed in Ford’s entire fleet.

Along with the honor of carrying the torch in the next leg of the relay, we accept a new challenge. For the first time in our lives, we have to face the full force of the question: “What’s Next?”

Since we took our first baby steps about two decades ago, our paths have been dictated by the education system we were born into. In the United States, it goes something like this: kindergarten at age five (plus or minus one year), junior high, high school for grades nine through twelve, and then college. Sure, we enjoyed some freedom in selecting a university, but in the big picture, four years at Harvard, Stanford, or MIT are really the same diet of lectures, homework, exams, and grades.

While deciding what’s next for ourselves, we must remember there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. However, there are “wrong” questions. They begin, “Should I ...” Wrong. The only thing you should do is not ask that kind of question. There are too many people who are too eager to tell us what we should do. Besides, we’ll always receive that advice, whether we ask for it or not. I can hear it now:

“Susie, you should be more like your sister. She got a $2,000 raise for working every weekend last year.”

“Johnny, I don’t care if you like drawing. You should get your Master’s in chemistry.”

To find our own answers that will make us happy and proud, we must begin questions with “Do I want to ...” We must do this for both the standard (e.g. Do I want to get an internship or do research this summer? And when I graduate, do I want to attend grad school or go to work?) and the offbeat (e.g. Do I want to sell all of my possessions, go live with Buddhist monks for two years, and write a book about my experiences?).

Before this academic term ends we have three and one-half months to enjoy the simple pleasure of not needing to have every little thing under control. As a senior, I understand the temptation to just attend classes, turn in a few pages of chicken scratch that pass for problem set solutions, and rest assured that if we do nothing else, there will still be many people who will think we’re amazing simply because we go to MIT.

Let’s not settle for that. Let’s take time to decide what’s next for ourselves -- something that makes us happy and proud and, perhaps, remarkable enough for other MIT students to talk about in the future.

This article originally appeared in The Tech, on Friday, February 6, 2004, in issue 2 volume 124. It may be freely distributed electronically as long as it includes this notice but cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to for additional details.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 6 February 2004 Permalink


Recruiting Young Talent

Ian is co-author of RECRUIT OR DIE: How Any Business Can Beat the Big Guys in the War for Young Talent (Portfolio Penguin, August 2007). He speaks at conferences and corporate meetings and advises organizations on recruiting and retaining young talent.

Personal Career Development and Networking

Ian started writing about finding and doing work you love in 2004. After college he served as apprentice to master networker Keith Ferrazzi for three years, assisting with editing and marketing Ferrazzi's international-bestselling book NEVER EAT ALONE: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time. Ian speaks to college students and young professionals, sharing networking tips from Ferrazzi's book and mentorship, as well as Ian's personal story of how he went from an engineering student with no published writing and no contacts to writing for a top business magazine, editing a bestselling book, and getting a book deal of his own within two years.

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Posted by Ian Ybarra on 2 February 2004 Permalink