by Jack Rieger
For the most part, our lives are the direct result of every decision we’ve made up until this moment. We’ve chosen the university we attend, the friends we surround ourselves with and the daily rhythm of our life. But the first really impactful decision we make in our lives has yet to be made: our career.
There isn’t a how-to guide or an owner’s manual that lays out the right way to choose a career. All we can do is look at others who have made those decisions before and ask them for advice. This is the essence of good decision-making: acquire all of the relevant information available and use it to make the best decision possible.
I talked with four ultra-successful individuals about their professional lives and asked them how they ultimately chose their careers. The list includes a university president, a former Wall Street banker, a doctor and the founder of a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping homeless youth. These four people have vastly different views of success, but they have all faced the same decision college graduates make every year and have proven to be terrific decision makers. Here are the subjects:
President Marc Johnson
Marc Johnson is the president of the University of Nevada and has served as president since 2012. President Johnson has worked as an administrator for five different universities in his career.
Carlos Ruisanchez is the current president and chief financial officer at Pinnacle Entertainment in Las Vegas. Ruisanchez worked as a senior managing director for Bear Stearns Companies on Wall Street for 11 years.
Lynette Eddy founded the Eddy House — a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Reno youth — in 2011. Eddy’s organization has improved the life of countless youth, and the organization added a new drop-in center this year.
Dr. Thomas Schwenk
Thomas Schwenk is the dean of the University of Nevada’s School of Medicine. Dr. Schwenk is a family practitioner and the vice president of Nevada’s Division of Health Sciences.
Editor’s note: These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Where did you attend college, and what did you originally study?
President Johnson: I originally thought — as I was thinking about college — about being a dentist. I wanted to go to a pre-dental program. I had extremely good biology teachers in high school that were really my counselors. I went to Kansas State Teacher’s College in Emporia, Kansas. They had a really good biology department and pre-dental program. After two years, my interests changed, so I worked with my adviser and veered off in a different direction. But I stayed with the biology degree and got an opportunity to go to North Carolina State University to study science and society.
Carlos Ruisanchez: I went to the University of Connecticut for undergrad and studied finance and a little bit of engineering. I was the first to graduate college in my family. If I’m being honest, originally business seemed like a field you could have success in if you were smart and had some common sense, and I was curious about the way Wall Street worked. The fact that you could make money and play markets, that was what originally attracted me.
Lynette Eddy: I got an undergraduate degree in hotel restaurant management from the University of Massachusetts. When I graduated, I was the food and beverage director for a couple of different hotels. Then I became the food and beverage director at Harvard and then was hired at the same position at MIT.
Dr. Schwenk: I grew up in Michigan, and I was a math-and-science kid. My father had graduated from business school and was a banker, but not too many other people in my family had much college background. I went to the University of Michigan where I eventually graduated in chemical engineering. Along the way, I decided that engineering wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I started looking into medical school and got more and more interested and decided to attend the University of Michigan.
Did your interests unexpectedly change while in school or shortly after you graduated?
President Johnson: While in school, I got really interested in international development with lesser-developed countries. I went on from there and I got a master’s degree in international development, then earned a Ph.D. in agriculture economics at Michigan State. Along the way, I got to teach as a graduate student and really enjoyed teaching, so I decided to start my first job as an assistant professor at a university.
My decision to abandon dental school was largely a matter of interest. There were two steps to that decision: the first step was that I’m a farm boy, and in the latter years of high school and the early years of college, my father was gone a lot because he was selling farm real estate around the Midwest, so I got a great deal of management experience on the farm. We had an orchard, we hired lots of people, we had lots of customers and we had a retail business. I finally decided in my early years of college that I liked the variety of management as opposed to thinking about life in an oral cavity, so I got off the dental business and went looking for something broader. In the late 1960s there was a great deal of social upheaval, and I got particularly interested in poor countries and the environmental issues there, and that’s what drove me to move from science to policy orientation.
Ruisanchez: Out of school, I went to work at the insurance company Aetna in their employee benefits division as an underwriter. I took that job mostly because it was available. I graduated during a bad recession in 1991 and I had already worked for Aetna as an intern, and they put me through their out-of-school training program. I didn’t want to do that, but it was a job. I was naive and didn’t have much perspective in the world.
I wanted to get into Wall Street because that was the first thing that attracted me to business. I knew nobody, and I didn’t know anything. When I called some of these firms, I imagine I was laughed at because I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I was at Aetna for three and a half years, and from there I went to business school at Berkeley and got my MBA. The reason for that was to get into Wall Street.
Eddy: After my job at MIT, I moved out West and started in hospice work. I just like helping people, and I had a couple of friends that were doing hospice work and they were telling me how amazing it was to help someone at the end of their life. I wanted to be part of that, and I loved it. It was amazing.
The problem was, if I really wanted to step it up in hospice, I had to have a social work degree. I decided to go back to school and get my master’s in social work. I graduated in 2011, and I had some personal things going on. My husband passed away, and at that time I’m graduating and trying to figure out what I’m going to do. I decided I wanted to do something that would make a difference in my husband’s name.
I had a history of working with youth that were aging out of foster care, and I became aware of the serious gap in the system for these kids. I just knew I had to help kids in this broken system. Within a few months of graduating, I got my 501(c)(3) — which is required for nonprofit organizations — bought a house and we filled it with some kids that were coming out of the foster-care system.
Dr. Schwenk: I hadn’t really thought ahead about how I was going to use my degree when I first got into medical school. I didn’t know that you had to have a five-year plan, a 10-year plan or a 20-year plan. I don’t think that’s the way life actually works. I think it’s more important to be clear about who I am, what I like, the type of challenges I like and people I want to be around, and to let things flow from that.
The longer I was in medical school, the more interesting people got and the less interesting engineering got. I trained in family medicine and I wanted to go out and be an all-around, classic general practitioner. I accepted an offer from a hospital in Salt Lake to set up a practice in Park City. In those days, I was the only doctor in the hospital, and I was there to take care of mining families as the mines were closing down. For those six years it was really intense, really rewarding, really demanding and very stressful.
What factor did money have in your career decision? If not money, what attracted you to your profession?
President Johnson: After I graduated with my Ph.D., I immediately took up with Oklahoma State University as an assistant professor. I was able to communicate with students and really connect and see the lightbulbs going off on concepts. I’ve always enjoyed seeing students develop and gain an understanding of things. There is something parallel about that — wanting to see other people succeed at what their goals are. Teaching is an opportunity to share principles and share information and work with people. The impact is tremendous.
Money really did not factor into the career I chose. The only part of money that influenced me was the pace at which I pushed my program. I wanted to get out of school and get moving. I knew that I would make a salary, but I also knew — getting into university work — that wasn’t the place to get money. I could’ve used my management skills to get into a private business, and I feel really confident that I would’ve made a whole lot more money in private business, but I really enjoyed teaching and researching new topics. I just had a sense of personal satisfaction in making impact, and that was more important to me than the money.
Ruisanchez: My next job was at Bear Stearns, and I was there for 11 years. The environment at Bear was vastly different. The Aetna job was probably a 10-hour-a-day job, like most corporate America jobs. When I got to Wall Street, I was living at work. My first year, I probably worked somewhere between 18 and 19 hours a day. I averaged 110 hours per week. I was just immersed in it. You would come in between 7 or 8 and leave at midnight on a good day, but 1 o’clock was more normal. I’d go home, get four hours of sleep and then come back. I did that six days a week.
I came from a very poor family, which factored into the decision of going to Wall Street. But the reality is that when you work that long and you’ve given up your own personal time, you will burn out if you do not like what you’re doing. At the core, you should be into something that you’re intellectually curious about because once you become curious about something, you’ll spend the time. And it won’t seem like work; it becomes “Hey, I want to figure this out because I’m interested and I like this.” When you get that and you can combine it in a place that has the culture and people, then you’ve got some magic. That’s when 80 hours doesn’t feel like 80.
Eddy: For me, I get more than I give. My husband was super successful and made good money, and I lived that life with money. It doesn’t fill you up. In the big picture, it’s about helping each other out, and I really believe that. I’m not a religious person at all; I just feel that. So in a way, it’s kind of a selfish thing because it gives me so much to help people. When you know you’re making a difference in these kids’ lives, nothing is more rewarding.
When we opened the drop-in center for the homeless youth, I realized this is what we’re supposed to be doing because we were able to help so many kids at the drop-in center. Now we’re taking the next step, and we’re going to open a bigger complex with housing included.
Dr. Schwenk: I don’t know if I thought about money very explicitly. It probably factored in there somewhere. It’s nice to know that a doctor is someone that’s generally respected and that service to people always has some sort of security. But I was never really thinking about business or corporate jobs; I always assumed I was heading toward some sort of service job.
It’s all about service for me. It’s all about being a part of a big group of people and trying to do something good. Medicine offers great opportunities for that. Some people go into medicine for the technology, or they like to do a certain specialty, but for me it was all about service to the community, medical school and the students.
What’s your best advice for a college student who doesn’t know what they want to do when they graduate?
President Johnson: I think it’s important for people getting out of school, particularly if they have some family backing, to take off and explore the world. You don’t have to stay in Reno. Many people say they’ll take any job in Reno. Well, that’s really limiting you. So you take a risk, you move to New York, you move to Florida, you move to the Midwest, and if it doesn’t work out, there are lots of jobs out there. If you have a college degree and you’ve made some good attempts at jobs and you work hard and you’re kind to your bosses, you’ll always have opportunities.
Ruisanchez: I really enjoyed the work in my career. I was intellectually curious about what was happening, and I was acquiring skills. That’s my No. 1 piece of advice for someone coming out of school: work at a place where you can acquire skills. Don’t worry about money; don’t worry about the long-term prospect of the company. You’re not getting married. Find a place you think has a good culture and good people, and focus on acquiring skills because you will monetize those later.
Eddy: For young people who are about to graduate, go travel and go see the world. Have as many experiences as you can and find out what really stokes you out. Get out of your comfort zone and feel the world.
Dr. Schwenk: You really need to know yourself as well as you possibly can. When you’re looking at opportunities, talking to people and interviewing for jobs, be really clear about what’s important to you and what types of values you want.
Best advice Part II
President Johnson: All my son was ever interested in was being an artist. He would come to me from time to time and say, “Being an artist is really risky, and even if you do well you’re not going to make a lot of money.” My advice to him was always go with your passion; you’ll love what you do even if you’re not making a lot of money. If you hate what you’re doing and you don’t have a sense of purpose in your life, you get depressed. We did get him into art schools, and it has worked out very well for him. He’s an associate professor of art at the University of Missouri.
There are many paths you can take with almost any major on campus. We had an English major here on campus a number of years ago that went on to law school and then got to be a judge, and now he’s the governor of the state of Nevada. His name is Brian Sandoval. You can be an English major and do quite well.
Ruisanchez: When you look at the richness of your career, there are two metrics: one is what did you contribute to something, and two is what skills did you get out of it.
Eddy: I have enough money to go sit on a beach the rest of my life, and a lot of my friends are retired. But if you can help somebody with your time, why not do it? I’m still having fun with it. With the nonprofit, there are weeks where I work 90 to 100 hours. I didn’t take a day off for months after I started it, but I love the work and that’s all the difference.
Dr. Schwenk: I consider medicine to be the best thing in the world that anyone can possibly do because it’s such a great combination of humanism and science, and it’s intensely captivating and intensely engaging. It’s endlessly satisfying.
I graduated with my undergrad 45 years ago, and there have been precious few days that I was not engaged and excited about my work. I think that’s what you want from your career primarily. You want to feel engaged, and whatever it is you’re doing, you want it to capture you so you say, “Wow, that was really a great day,” and nearly every day has been like that for me.
Although these four individuals have lived very different lives and worked in different professions, there are universal lessons exemplified in each of their stories.
The first is that people change their mind all the time. The initial job or career you choose out of college will almost definitely not be your final destination. Carlos Ruisanchez started in insurance, Lynette Eddy began with restaurant management and President Johnson wanted to be a dentist. According to these people, choosing a career is more trial and error than a big decision.
The second thing that jumps out is to take big chances when you’re young because that’s when you have nothing to lose. Ruisanchez went to Wall Street before he had a wife or kids, and his 18-hour-per-day job wouldn’t have accommodated a family. Dr. Schwenk didn’t have a lot of money but chose to go to medical school after college because he loved that medicine allowed him to work every day with people. Looking back at her decisions, Lynette wishes she had got into her passion of social work immediately instead of taking the safer, more stable route of restaurant management. Take the big shot at what you’re passionate about when you first get out of college.
Third, you need to understand yourself, specifically the challenges that excite you, and make career decisions based on your values. Ruisanchez was intellectually curious with financial markets and he wanted to make good money, so he transitioned to Wall Street. President Johnson loved the impact of connecting with students and teaching concepts, so he pursued university administration. Lynette realized her greatest passion was helping kids, so she got a master’s in social work and started a nonprofit. And Dr. Schwenk learned that medicine and helping people were more rewarding and engaging than engineering, so he became a family doctor.
The last lesson to be learned is that choosing a career is ultimately controlled by you alone because you have to live with the results. This is the most comforting realization of all: you decide the direction of your career and your life.
Jack Rieger is a finance and economics student. He can be reached on Twitter @JackRieger.