How to Choose a Career When You Can’t Decide
“What do I want to do for the rest of my life?”
How do you choose a career path when there are hundreds, if not thousands of possible options? The realization that, “I can do anything” can easily and quickly turn into: “How will I ever be able to decide?” It can be a frustrating decision of course, but it’s also one you should take seriously.
The problem of being able to do anything is, well…being able to do anything. It’s the paradox of choice. The more choices we have, the more anxiety it causes us and the more we fear the consequences of making the wrong decision. We have a natural tendency to not want to close doors, so instead we will scramble back and forth to keep each option open “just in case.” Instead of helping us, this leads to a debilitating sense of indecision.
Instead of asking yourself, “What job do I want to spend the rest of my life doing?” ask yourself, “What jobs don’t I want to spend the rest of my life doing?” This re-frames the decision significantly. Instead of being stuck making one all-important decision from an overabundance of choices, we can instead make a multitude of smaller decisions that each move us closer and closer to our goal.
We also want to use time and cost efficient methods to make sure that we’re not investing too heavily while exploring career options we might easily eliminate. In this article, I’m going to show you how to narrow down your choices quickly and with minimal effort. Working through this method will give you a clear path to follow and empower you to begin progressing toward a career path instead of repeatedly racking your brain with an impossibly difficult choice.
Get Started by Making A List
So where do we start? The first step is to create a list of any career choices you might consider. Write down any options you can think of that are even slightly interesting to you. If you want to expand your list and consider a wider range of possibilities, go to your school’s career center and look through their career lists and guides to see if any sound like they’re worth a gander. From here, we can start to narrow down our list until there are only a few options left.
If we want to get closer to our goal of a successful and satisfying career, we have to start by asking the right questions. We need to know the criteria of a successful and satisfying career.
What Makes for an Amazing Career?
“When others ask for advice, they seem to want to hear the narrative about how I followed my passion, but that would be an enormous oversimplification….It really was a matter of following the path where I could build on my existing skills and had the potential to move towards some kind of mastery.” — An Interviewee from Cal Newport’s Case Study
A common misconception is that job fulfillment and happiness comes from picking a job that fits your passion. In his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport of MIT demonstrated that’s just not true. Newport spent time with individuals from a wide range of professions who had admitted to deriving great satisfaction from their work. He found that individuals developed passion when they excelled at their job, not the other way around. Those who excelled highly at what they did derived a much higher level of freedom, satisfaction, and interest in their field.
This contrasts greatly with this widely distributed message: follow your passion and good things will come.
Newport’s research suggests that one of the keys to work satisfaction is not finding your passion, but picking one that plays to your natural skillsets, potential for success, and personality. Since excelling at one’s job seems to be a core commonality amongst those with high job satisfaction, we can use that to help narrow the field of possibilities. This isn’t the only criteria we must consider, however. Excelling at your field takes work, and we need to make sure that we’re prepared for that endeavour.
What Pain Do You Want?
“What determines your success isn’t ‘What do you want to enjoy?’ The question is, ‘What pain do you want to sustain?’ The quality of your life is not determined by the quality of your positive experiences but the quality of your negative experiences.” — Mark Manson
We all want to have a great, fulfilling job that makes a good living, yet we often fail to ask ourselves if we’re willing to put up with the obstacles and frustrations that come with a job. There isn’t a single job that doesn’t have its drawbacks. Each of the paths to career success requires varying degrees of struggle and perseverance. You have to be sure you’re willing to put up with them in exchange for the benefits.
A lot of people want to join high-performing teams. It’d be awesome to have the recognition, the experience, and the amazing connections available to you from that kind of position. However, not everyone is willing to make the sacrifices often necessary to do so. You don’t end up on these teams unless you’re willing to spend many late nights in the office, put yourself on the chopping block, shoulder huge responsibilities, and constantly push your own limits and boundaries.
Most people don’t want that pain, and that’s okay. But a huge part of excelling in your field is understanding what exactly it takes to get to where you want and asking yourself whether it’s the pain you want to endure. That’s why figuring out what pain a job entails is so critical. You’ll be able to figure out what exactly you’ll be doing all the time, and whether it’s something you want to sustain over a long period of time to reach your goal.
Evaluation Criteria — What Questions Should I Ask?
Now that we understand the criteria, we’ll create more concrete questions that help us determine whether the jobs from our original list fulfill the criteria. If at any point they do not, cross them off your list and move on to the next.
What pain do I want?
- Does this job suit my lifestyle?
- What are the benefits of this career?
- What are the downsides?
- Am I willing to put up with the downsides for a sustained period of time?
- Am I willing to spend a great sum of hours learning about these subjects?
- Can I handle the pressures and demands of this job?
- Can I handle the hours asked of this job?
- Are these individuals the type that I want to surround myself with?
Figuring out what pain you want is all about understanding what a job entails, and what its benefits and downsides are. As you evaluate a career choice from your list, search for information regarding not only the perks, but the pains and complaints that people have about their position and career trajectory.
Can I excel at this job?
- Do I have what it takes to be amazing in this field?
- Does this career play to my strengths?
- If not, am I willing to learn these skills and spend many hard hours developing those skills?
- Is there room to grow and seek new opportunities in this field?
Now you’ve got your potential jobs, as well as the criteria to judge them by. The next step is to start methodically narrowing down your list. Conventional wisdom would suggest that you take an internship in one of the fields that they’re interested in, but if your list is ten jobs long, taking internships for all of them just isn’t realistic. That’s why we’ll use an MVP model to start eliminating possibilities with minimal commitment.
Use MVPs to Cheaply Validate Possibilities
MVP stands for minimum viable product. It’s a term used commonly in Silicon Valley. Building MVPs is a method for businesses to test and validate their product ideas before investing too heavily in something that may not fit the market needs. The idea is to design a test as cheaply as possible that validates whether consumers would purchase a product or service.
In the same way, we want to use an MVP model to figure out whether a career is well suited to our goals and lifestyle with as little time and effort as possible.
When I did this exercise, my list consisted of these possible career paths:
- Fashion Buyer
- Network Security Analyst
- Consulting Analyst
- Sales Executive
I knew there was no way I would have to time to try internships in all of them, so I started eliminating prospects as quickly as possible. After talking to my school’s career counselor, I discovered how I could learn more about the fields I was interested in, in particular, fashion buying.
This was a field I thought sounded very cool, but knew very little about. The counselor suggested I read a guide on Vault, which is a great resource for getting more information about specific job duties, roles, and daily life from industry professionals. There, I read a guide on Fashion and Apparel jobs. I realized that the more I read, the less I fancied the idea of being a fashion buyer. There were simply too many responsibilities and too many pains I didn’t want to sustain. Reading this guide and asking the questions above allowed me to quickly eliminate this job possibility with no more than a few hours of work. Below, I’ve listed a variety of other ways to cheaply eliminate items from your list.
Low Investment Methods:
- Make an appointment with your school counselor
- Google search “Day in the life of (INSERT PROFESSION)”
- Read professional career guides like Vault
- Have a coffee meeting with friends or acquaintances in the industry
- Read blogs about the industry
- Ask questions on Quora, Reddit, or other forums
- Watch interviews and talks of industry influencers
- Follow and talk to industry leaders on Twitter
Use the above methods to research and determine whether there is a potential fit. You should be able to quickly start cutting down your list. Next, we want to spend more time evaluating the remaining careers with more time-intensive methods.
Digging Deeper Into Career Understanding
Now that you’ve made all the easy cuts, you’ll want to spend some time digging deeper into what a job really entails. One of the best ways to do this is to conduct informational interviews. In these interviews, potential job seekers ask individuals in the field about career advice, industry information, and/or company-specific information.
When exploring the idea of being a sales executive, I conducted a few informational interviews, asking individuals out to lunch or coffee to talk more about their roles and the best advice for me to jump start my career. They were able to give me insights into what exactly they did and didn’t like about their jobs. An added benefit of informational interviews? By conducting one, you’re likely to put yourself a leg up on potential competition if you find that you want to get some hands-on experience in the field.
This second round of cuts is much less about getting information about job duties and more about whether these are pains you want to sustain. I would suggest asking questions about not only the perks of a job, but also what people dislike about them. The reason I’m not a sales executive? “Sometimes you feel like you’re shoving your product down their throats, even if they don’t need it.”
Below are some suggestions for eliminating more options at this stage.
Medium Investment Methods:
- Conduct Informational Interviews
- Learn and practice skills that these jobs require
- Try an online course to learn a skill necessary for success in a career. Some good resources are: Udemy, Coursera, Lynda
- Go to meetups for industry specific fields
- Arrange a job shadow
Now we’re down to the time-intensive methods that will help you get as hands-on as possible before actually starting a job. By this point, you should have a good understanding of what the benefits of a career path are, whether it suits your lifestyle, if you think you’d be able to excel at it, and what pains you’d be sustaining in that career. The next step is to get some real-life experience doing similar work.
One of the careers I long considered was being a teacher. Having survived the previous two rounds of cuts, I started seeking out opportunities to actually teach. The first was teaching first-year students and leading a weekly discussion section of 20 students. Since I enjoyed the work, I continued down the path, becoming a teaching assistant for a professor in the Education department. After that, I skipped the time and money intensive credentialing process and taught English overseas full-time. It was there I discovered that while I loved teaching, it wasn’t what I wanted to do as a career in my young adult life. Having that third method of validation saved me tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars and years of my life.
At this stage, you’ll be investing much larger amounts of time into validating an idea, so spend your time wisely. Below are a few methods you can use to get hands-on experience.
- Apply for internships. Better yet, create your own internship
- Look for on-campus opportunities similar to your career path
- Apply the skills you’ve learned in the previous step and display them on Portfolium
- If you’ve learned to program, build an app to showcase your skills
- If you’re doing marketing, find a small company and provide free marketing services
- If you’ve learned public speaking, give a speech to a local elementary school, record it, then post it online
- Start a company or do consulting for local businesses or individuals
- Look for overseas opportunities. Many do not have as rigid credential requirements as in the United States.
The last step is to simply set off down a career path you think will be a good fit for you. Maybe you’ll have more than one option, but at this stage there’s no wrong one to pursue. At the very least, you’ll have narrowed down the field significantly.
Figuring out what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life can seem like a daunting, almost impossible task. But by following the instructions in this guide, you’ll be able to reframe the conversation from “What should I do the rest of my life?” to “What don’t I want to do?” Using this method helps you quickly eliminate choices, rather than stagnate and subject yourself to indecision.
Deciding on a career is never an easy choice, but there are many things you can do right now to ensure that you’re headed in the right direction. Take the steps outlined above and you’ll not only narrow down the overwhelming list of prospective careers, you’ll confidently do so with little to no cost, saving you the time, energy, and resources that will be much better invested in pursuing the career that is truly right for you.
Originally published at blog.portfolium.com on September 6, 2015.