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How to Decide on a Career (Even If You Don’t Know What You Want)

Choosing the right career is tricky. Economist Neil Howe estimates that only five percent of people find a good career match on the first try. And even beyond this chilling stat, there’s so much external pressure to land the perfect job, follow your passion and be super successful by the end of your 20s.

No wonder most people break into a cold sweat when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

But deciding on a career can be simplified into three basic problems. Conquer these, and you’ll dramatically up your chances of finding the job that’s right for you.

Problem #1: You Don’t Have Enough Information

There are literally thousands of careers out there—some of which could be at the perfect junction of what you’re good at, what you love and what’s in demand. It’s amazing how many successful people didn’t know their dream job even existed when they were younger.

To combat this problem, try this: devote one hour every day for a week (or heck, a month!) on pure research. Check out career exploration sites, top job lists, your favorite blogs or even a new section of the newspaper. Your mission? Write down any and every job that catches your eye.

This minimal routine will skyrocket your list of career ideas.

Problem #2: You Don’t Know What You Want

There are many great jobs in the world. But there are fewer great jobs that are right for you. Making a good connection between yourself (your values, interests, personality, etc.) and a career can be tough.

For some people, personality tests or heart-to-hearts with a career counselor can jumpstart this stage. But if you’re short on time, money or patience (some of those career tests are worse than the eHarmony intake form), assess career ideas with this practical checklist:

A. Does this career sound interesting?

As author Cal Newport has so eloquently advocated, you don’t have to be passionately head-over-heals for a career in order to thrive. (In fact, following a passion can be a big mistake.) However, a career should genuinely interest you on a gut level. It’s a good sign if you hear about a job and think, “Yeah, tell me more about that!”

B. Does this career involve work that you could be good at?

Many skills can be learned if you commit the time, but pursuing a career that actively goes against your natural tendencies is a giant fail waiting to happen. If you’re an introverted research type, don’t force yourself into a sales job—no matter how cool it sounds. Likewise, big-picture people will not find happiness in a tiny-details job. If the work itself clashes with your personality or skill set, move on.

C. Does this career fulfill your essential needs?

What you need from a career can include everything from basic salary and education requirements to more complicated concerns related to disability, family situation, religious beliefs and beyond.

Once you’ve nailed down what you want from your job, you can match those needs to career options. For example, if a six-figure income tops your priority list, choose a field where you can feasibly make that kind of money (think science, healthcare, technology, business) and avoid lottery industries (like filmmaking and fashion design) where only a lucky few will strike it rich.

D. Does the world need this career?

Practically speaking, you need a job. So before diving down a new career path, see if there’s a reasonably good chance someone will hire you at the end of it. Check out employment projections or industry chatter to gauge if your career is in demand.

Problem #3: You Can’t Make a Decision

You’re 99.99 percent guaranteed to find multiple career choices where you can shine. In this situation, it’s easy to fall into a perpetual motion machine of angst and second-guessing. What if you don’t pick the right career?

But here’s the secret: don’t worry about choosing the best option; choose any (well-researched and practical) option. “Just pick one thing to do,” suggests Brazen founder Penelope Trunk. “And if that doesn’t work, then pick another. Making a choice and trying it is an important career skill.”

So be brave and take action—and you’ll be that much closer to finding a job you love.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten about choosing a career?

Annie Favreau works for Inside Jobs, a site that helps people discover strong careers and connect with the right education to achieve their goals. Follow her on Twitter at @InsideJobs!

0 comments

  1. I’d emphasize your final point the most. It’s totally okay for people to change careers, especially early on.

    If we pull some of that idea into your first “Problem,” we could say people would be much more likely to learn by doing the thing they want to do. If they think they want to design, they should design. If they want to build furniture, they can rent some tools over a few weekends and give it a go.

    I’m hard-pressed to think of any careers (perhaps not medicine :S) where we cannot try it before we “buy” it.

    Overall, though, I enjoyed your thoughts on the matter. Some good sources too.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Ryan. You hit the nail on the head in pointing out that actually trying out a career (in a low-commitment way) is one of the fastest ways to determine if it’s really what you want to be doing. There’s often a big gap between our expectations of a career and the realities it entails. Thanks again for sharing!

      • Cindy

        I recently sold my hair salon and now just work behind the chair, unable to decide if this is what I truly enjoy, been a year and still feel guilty selling when I don’t think I was ready, im going crazy! Any suggestions cindynmarc cindynmarc@yahoo.com

    • Great list. Hope this list gets printed out by the dozens. Those projections are why high schools could use a class just for Job Shadowing. Since high schools don’t do it, this is an important experience that now falls to parents.

  2. http://www.fatburningman.com
    I have fallen into the trap of thinking the sole point of work is to bring home enough money to live comfortably. While adequate compensation is important in any job, it’s not the whole story. If you are unsatisfied with what you do every day, it takes a toll on your physical and mental health. You may feel burned out and frustrated, anxious, depressed, or unable to enjoy time at home knowing another workday is ahead. What’s more, if you don’t find your work meaningful and rewarding, it’s hard to keep the momentum going to advance in your career. You are more likely to be successful in a career that you feel passionate about.
    Whether you’re looking to enter the work force for the first time or contemplating a career change, the first step to choosing a fulfilling career is to uncover the activities that get you excited and bring you joy…:)

  3. Best advice I ever got was from reading a book — The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. His poem on “Work.”

    “Work is love made visible.
    And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
    For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
    And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
    And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.”

  4. Hi Annie – great article. I would add to take this one step further. If you think of a job that may interest you, then speak to someone doing the job already to give you insider info on what it is really like. It gives you more information, and builds your network.

    – Razwana

  5. One of the best ways to find out more about a career is to ask people who are currently doing it. “What’s your average day like?” “What do you like about your job?” “What do you dislike about it?” From there you can start to piece together what the experience might be like for you.

  6. Pingback: Choose a Career Now (Even if You Don’t Know What to Be Later) | The Savvy Intern by YouTern

  7. Some people know from an early age exactly what kind of career
    they want to have. They have a laser like focus, start picking up
    skills when they’re young, and fall right into their niche. But most of
    us aren’t so lucky. We roughly know what we want to major in at college,
    manage to get our degree, take the first full time job offer we can
    find, and then start to question everything we’re doing. So what do you
    do when you don’t know what you want to do with your life?

    thanks & keep sharing
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  8. frankie

    What do you do when you already know what you like, but there is no way to get a job in that field. How you make connections when you know nobody in that field?

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  10. yadda

    it’s not the career so much as it is the lifestyle you are subscribing to. if I could (without judging myself, and allowing the opinions of others to influence me, and if the job paid enough) I’d work at Subway. I don’t want to own a franchise, I would just work as a sandwich artist. I LOVED that job, I loved the creative aspect and made every sandwich deliberately with care and attention (I’m not joking). I would also however, love to visit headquarters and also travel to the different conventions and meet other people in the industry. Nothing else, I don’t care to move up in the company, just travel and make sandwiches. No stress. I’d also work for some of my favorite food companies somehow and help them out. But see, that doesn’t fit with my lifestyle. I go to the gym everyday, and I love exercising. I also love weight training, but I don’t know if I want to do that for a living. I have tried it and I did like it, but is there enough work/lifestyle balance? It is imperative I go everyday, I love it, but it’s not the same as doing it for a living. I would study “Athlete Health” (as you can at my Uni) and I could see myself helping others in that field. Perhaps I will train athletes in nutrition. I’m all over the place. I am obsessed with health and wellness, but only for me.

    • michael

      this is exactly how i feel! my main interest would have to be within the sports fitness industry and i love working out and trying new things which have scientific evidence behind them and i also like to keep track of my progress to the smallest details. i suppose i also have an innate obsession with statistics but dont find them interesting but i just have to analyse things to find any patterns or information that might be useful but not obvious. i say innate obsession because even when i was young and used to watch formula one racing i used to make forecasts on how the drivers and constructors would perform if they kept going at the rate they were performing at and how many points they would end up with. also i used to try and work out how many races my favourite driver needed to win to guarantee the championship etc… this is when i was like 11/12 years old. having said that i cant see myself working with numbers day in day out like an accountant or something… i would need it to be something i am very interested in… the more time i waste thinking of what the ideal job for me is the more confused i become. i think i might just succumb to the pressure and get any decent paid job that i can get with an economics degree. dont know why i did economics.

  11. william cunanan

    I’m in total breakdown right now. I finished mechanical engineering, i, already worked a year in my first job, then im currently working here in my 2nd job for almost a year too, my 2nd job is already a very good position, but still not happy with it. Im thinking of changing my career path, i thought that i will never be happy in pushing the job related to my course even if the salary is high. I want to be in a pure office environment where i can dress up, im into computer since i was young so no matter how busy it would be, i think that would be my satisfation. But still, im asking myself myself if is it a good thing to do? Or is it too late to try?

  12. Pri

    I am 19 and currently doing Cambridge A-level. I love to read and write stories. I started writing poems when I was 13 and started writing stories in 15. I read approximately 300 stories a year, online stories and also books. But i have a problem. My parents are totally against of the idea me writing stuffs or even reading. They want me to persuade a medical degree. I am very confuse in which path to go. Help me. Thank you.

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