How does a young person know what career to choose? We are all encouraged to “follow our passion”, but this is very general and non-specific advice. There are a few people who are fortunate enough to find one thing that is their lifelong passion, and who are able to turn it into a career.
But it’s not so easy for most people. We know that 75% of students change their major at least once, and many change two or three times. This is an indication of the difficulty most of us have in deciding where to focus our energies.
Because I’ve had a number of careers, from architecture to programming, and marketing to consulting, I seem to be asked this question a lot. This may be an example of adverse selection – as someone who has changed careers more times than most students change majors, I may just be the last person you should ask this question. But I do, as it turns out, have an opinion.
Here are three questions to ask yourself about any particular career option:
- Is this a job I will be proud of?
- Do I like the people?
- Do I like most of the work?
Let’s explore each in turn.
Is this a job I will be proud of?
Meaning is important. Every job has it’s hard times, it’s boring times, it’s risks and challenges. A sense of purpose and contribution helps with that. Also, you will at some point come to the end of your career, and it’s good to be able to look back with pride, and be satisfied with your contribution to the world. This is a question about your values, which for most of us develop early. What do you believe is important, and does this job match up?
Do I like the people?
There are a few jobs that don’t require a lot of interaction, but most do. You’ll be with people for much of the day, and if you’re working hard you may see more of your colleagues and customers than you do of your family. Are they fun to be with? Do they inspire you? Can you have the kinds of conversations you want to have? Do they care about the things that are important to you? Are they going to be your friends?
This question is important, because picking a job is defining the community in which you will be engaged. When I entered the world of computer science, I was fascinated by the problems and processes (see question 3). But I found it hard to make friends, because my interests were broader than most of my peers, and conversations tended to veer back to technology. I was looking for an environment in which I could enjoy conversations about art, design, technology, and philosophy.
Do I like most of the work?
It’s really unlikely for most of us that every aspect of a job will be delightful. But if most of it is great, we’re in good shape. Imagine being a concert pianist who loved concerts, but couldn’t stand to practice. That means you love 5% of the job. Or maybe 1%. It’s a recipe for misery. In architecture I find I like a lot of the aspects of the job – it’s creative; it involves working with clients and learning about their worlds; it’s technical; and it’s very rewarding to see a building project finished. The level of detail required is the hard part for me, but the overall experience is very satisfying.
In summary, there’s no silver bullet that will find its way to the bullseye of the perfect job, but I think these three questions will provide useful signposts to help you on your journey.