Career aptitude tests don’t work.
If you want help figuring out what to do with your life, do this instead…
‘Do What You Are’, ‘Career Match’, ‘What Colour is Your Parachute?’…these are just some of the career books that look out of my shelves. Every so often I put them in a box of things to give away, and yet inevitably, as I’m about to leave for the charity shop, I decide to glance through the aptitude tests one last time and without fail, I take them back out of the box and hang onto them for just a bit longer.
What is it about career aptitude tests that make them so appealing? Do they actually help us figure out what to do with our lives or find our dream job?
The short answer is no, in part because there is no ‘right’ answer (and there certainly isn’t one that someone else will be able to tell you), and in part because the whole world of work is changing and career tests can’t keep pace.
Careers are changing.
It used to be that you found a stable, secure career and stuck with it. That just isn’t true anymore. Today, “careers are marked by constant change [and] increasing diversity…The 21st century labour market is fast-changing, increasingly global, and technology-driven.” (even the American Sociological Association thinks so!) People move between different industries and companies, cross-pollinating and using new technologies to disrupt old ways of doing things. Different experiences are an asset as people build the equivalent of individualised ‘professional portfolios,’ made up of chunks of work in a range of sectors built up over relatively short periods of time. Careers in this era are self-directed and fluid.
Donna Harris, co-founder of 1776, a global incubator and seed fund that helps startups transform everyday industries, highlights in her interview with Forbes that ‘those who excel in the new economy are not the ones who follow instructions handed down in rigid, hierarchical fashion, but the ones who test new ideas with peers fluidly across the world.’ The new world of work is networked across social webs, not hierarchically, and it is bold: it thrives on a willingness to test ideas, to risk being wrong, to try.
This simply isn’t captured in career aptitude tests or career direction books because it can’t be. Careers are now personalised, and a list of professions can’t capture the variety of branches and potential paths that come out of any given action or activity. As Roman Krznaric, author of How to Find Fulfilling Work and Empathy points out, the industrial revolution specialised us; each person being expert at one thing made a lot of sense. But times have changed, and specialising across your talents and interests to create uniquely shaped puzzle pieces adds a lot more value. Whereas old world career tests close you off to this changing, flexible world; focusing on your own strengths, interests and values and experimenting in small ways — even if you get it wrong — opens options up. It’s choose your own adventure out there, there are no more start-to-finish novels.
Career aptitude tests are out. What else is there?
A mistake I am guilty of is looking for answers in the outside world instead of within myself. When I most felt like I was on the roundabout of life, going around in circles and never being brave enough to take any exit at all, I would frantically search job ads for something that spoke to me, and when that failed, I would go back to The Books again.
When you’re Searching, a lot of professions sound like they could be interesting choices, but this is looking at things backwards. The core component in the equation is you. That can grow and change, particularly if you are brave enough to adopt a growth mindset, but your strengths and interests are what matters. By building up your own clear sense of when you’re great, you’re setting yourself up to adapt to the changing conditions of the world of work, and you’re setting yourself up to be good and feel good about what you do. By presenting your unique offering to the world instead of adapting to a generically shaped hole, you’re like a new plant in the forest, finding untouched places for your roots and new chinks of sunlight that others haven’t found, instead of a bonsai, pruned to match a fixed idea.
Career tests are rubbish because they box you in in terms of options, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use any outside tools to help you figure out when you’re the best version of yourself. Tools like the Strengthsfinder test can help you identify your core best bits (don’t be put off by the $10 it costs. That’s two coffees.) and shine light on your own, already-there building blocks. The exercises in books like How to Find Fulfilling Work push you to dig into what makes you tick without offering prescriptive answers. What do you like to read about in the paper? When do you feel most alive? In what kinds of situations are you most completely yourself? What do you really care about? Pay attention, harvest this information with compassion and awareness and use it to build a true profile of your individual, adaptable puzzle piece.
No Right Answer.
For years research has shown that common career tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator have little actual use for career planning and are more applicable to stereotypes than to real people and their careers. So then why do I decide to keep my career books and give myself yet another afternoon of pouring over the list of careers my ‘type’ is best suited to, even manipulating my answers so that I can check out other types vaguely in my arena?
I go to these books because I am looking for the answer and I’m hoping someone can give me the shortcut to figuring it out. I want to believe the fantasy that one of them will be able to uncover my ‘best fit’ and take away the discomfort of not knowing for sure.
We want an expert to tell us, because we’re afraid of making the wrong choice and our fear makes us think we have no ideas, we don’t trust our tentative guesses. Part of this is the paradox of choice in an over-connected, over-optioned world. The endless possibilities can be overwhelming. When it comes down to it, the real question we’re trying to answer is who we Are, and we’re hoping that someone else can suss it out better than our own muddling through.
While I believe deeply in feeling passionately about the work you do, as Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, points out in his interview with the Minimalists, for the vast majority of us, passion is grown, not uncovered. “Approach your work like a craftsman. Honing your ability, and then leveraging your value, once good, to shape your working life toward the type of lifestyle that resonates with you…True passion arises after you’ve put in the long hours to really become a craftsman in your field and can then leverage this value to really have an impact, to gain autonomy and respect, to control your occupational destiny.”
Passion takes hard work and the bravery to explore the things you’re interested in. As I learned the hard way through a long period of inaction, it also takes getting out there and actually doing things to explore and engage with your interests, not just reading and thinking about them on your own. After working in International Development for 7 years, I realised that one of my curiosities was psychology and I wondered whether working directly with people was more right for me. Part of my ‘doing’ was signing up to be a volunteer coach with an organisation called Backr, even though it was a serious trek for me to get to their sessions. I also started volunteering on a Rape Crisis Helpline, to test out a different angle of supporting people.
The honest truth is that there is no one right answer for any of us; there are many answers. We all have many lives we could live fully and some of us will weave between them, but you have to start with something. This doesn’t mean you have to quit your job tomorrow, but it does mean that you can and should explore interests on the side, something organisational behaviour expert Herminia Ibarra calls “temporary assignments.” You cannot let the fear of getting it wrong stop you from doing anything; you will never transition to more fulfilling work if you don’t let yourself start somewhere and risk getting it wrong.
Ultimately, career aptitude tests can’t tell you which direction to head. What makes you tick doesn’t come from a list of pre-selected careers, it comes from cultivating your own interests and values by exploring and doing, growing your expertise and being brave enough to act with agency, despite the uncertainty.
I’ve lived so much of my life like the baby bird in Are You My Mother?, studying the lists in my career books to see which is The right choice: ‘teacher’ — are you my career? ‘physical therapist’ — are you my career? ‘dental hygienist’ — are you my career? When I watched Ruth Chang’s powerful Ted talk on decision-making, I realised that I had gone through most of my life ‘drifting,’ following what school, my parents, career aptitude tests told me what I was good at, without ever taking a stand for what came from inside myself.
I was waiting for life to happen to me. Worse, even once I realised that actually living my life instead of riding it out required action and risk and my own decisions, I still looked to those books for answers because I was paralysed by the fear of getting it wrong. It was only once I began to risk making choices and actually trying something that I was able to start moving forward. Only by ‘doing’ (and risking doing the wrong thing) could I actually get enough input to see how something actually aligned with my values and interests and skills and reassess, reevaluate and move forward. I finally understood that I had to make decisions that came from myself; it was not possible to both live my life fully and not risk getting it wrong. I could go to others for support, sure, but no one else had the answer for what was right for me, not even Do What You Are.
David Brooks calls this moment the ‘agency moment’; the moment in which one “begin[s] to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.” I leave you with some final thoughts on agency, from that piece by David Brooks which spoke to me so deeply:
Often you see people who lack full agency. Sometimes you see lack of agency among the disadvantaged. Their lives can be so blown about by economic disruption, arbitrary bosses and general disorder that they lose faith in the idea that input leads to predictable output. You can offer job training programs, but they may not take full advantage because they don’t have confidence they can control their own destinies.
Among the privileged, especially the privileged young, you see people who have been raised to be approval-seeking machines. They act active, busy and sleepless, but inside they often feel passive and not in control. Their lives are directed by other people’s expectations, external criteria and definitions of success that don’t actually fit them.
So many people are struggling for agency. They are searching for the solid criteria that will help them make their own judgments. They are hoping to light an inner fire that will fuel relentless action in the same direction.
Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action. The agency moment can happen at any age, or never. I guess that’s when adulthood starts.