How I made peace with my child’s career choice

Father and daughter
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My 17-year-old daughter has always been interested in history, English, politics, and the social sciences. Still, when she told me she wanted to be a sociologist I ran to my laptop and opened the Department of Labor's website to show her what a bad idea becoming a sociologist is.

Then I immediately enrolled her in coding classes.

Just kidding. I didn't do that.

Here are a few reasons why:

1. There will be job security in solving society's most difficult challenges.

Though hilarious, the Holderness Family's parody video on how to deal with politics at Thanksgiving illustrates a scary truth: we are getting really comfortable with division.

We are getting really comfortable with hate.

If families can't figure out how to coexist around the dinner table, how much hope is there for states with dramatically different demographics and voting patterns to coexist in the same nation? How much hope is there for rival nations to coexist on the same planet? How much hope is there that we might finally eliminate bigotry?

We can't code our way out of those problems.

In fact, to some extent we've coded our way into them, or at least coded our way into scaling them up.

Social media allows us to say and do incredibly hurtful things to each other. Comment sections give people an opportunity to berate total strangers in ways most of us would never do in real life. Technological innovations provide great benefit, but also make it a lot easier to hate each other.

Or, if not hate each other, tell complete strangers their family is lazy and useless.

One of the biggest challenges we face is coexisting in a world increasingly designed for division. For all of Seth Godin's talk of finding your tribe, a tribal world can be a pretty brutal place. Understanding how we transcend our tribal nature—particularly in the presence of technologies encouraging tribalism—will be one of the most important innovations of the 21st century.

That innovation won't be an app. It will be a social innovation.

Like freedom.

Or democracy.

And bringing social innovations to market has always been the work of writers, thinkers, artists, political scientists—and sociologists.

2. I don't want her to be a cog in someone else's machine.

Some of our most successful young entrepreneurs are coders. However, a lot of the discussion about coding is focused on finding a decent paying job, and not entrepreneurship. I have a hard time advising my daughter to approach her career through the perspective of making herself a valued employee.

It's like telling her to be a cog in someone else's machine.

True, she could become a valuable cog in someone else's machine—but the owner of the machine is always looking to do more with fewer cogs. While figuring out how to co-exist is the story of 21st century societies, figuring how to do more work with fewer human cogs is the story of the 21st century economy (and those two stories are highly related).

I don't want my daughter to be a decently paid cog—right until the point the machine's owner figures out how to make the machine run better without her.

Instead, I want her to create her own machine, which she is far more likely to do if she chooses a career she is genuinely interested in.

Is it possible to create your own machine after studying sociology?


My office is in a startup incubator my wife manages. For every successful entrepreneurial coder we know, there are at least three non-coders who've started a company based on knowledge and experience gained outside of technology. Those non-tech entrepreneurs then hire a coder—and spend as little money as possible on those services.

Before you dismiss this as godawful "follow your passion" career advice, I created a thriving business built on my writing, and my wife started managing her incubator after being a stay-at-home parent for 12 years.

You build your own machine by applying something you enjoy doing to problems you actually care about.

If you love to code, apply that skill to a problem you care about, and you just might create your machine. And it never hurts anyone to pick up additional skills, and coding is a useful skill.

But you won't find directions on building your own machine in a Department of Labor report.

3. I don't enjoy arguing with a highly opinionated, incredibly intelligent 17-year old.

Sometime in the last 17 years my daughter started to believe her opinions matter, and someone should listen to her.

The belief that her voice is important and should be heard is the biggest reason why I believe she's capable of building her own machine.

Even as a sociologist.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Commentary by Dustin McKissen, the founder and CEO of McKissen + Company, a strategy, marketing, and public relations firm based in St. Charles, Missouri. He was named one of LinkedIn's "Top Voices" in 2015 and 2016, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Organizational and Industrial Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @DMcKissen.

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