Discover your career path in three simple steps
When Elon Musk thought about what he wanted to do with his life, he started by answering the question, “What will most affect the future of humanity?” He narrowed down to five things: the internet; sustainable energy; space exploration, in particular the permanent extension of life beyond Earth; artificial intelligence; and reprogramming the human genetic code. Today, he’s a business and thought leader in each of those fields, and is redefining the future of mankind on all fronts.
Why am I sharing this story about Elon Musk? Not just because I’m a helpless fangirl, but also because it represents a unique way to think about career choices in general. And so when I started struggling with this question of “how to decide on a career path,” my first instinct was to follow Musk’s legacy and devote myself to one of the five things on his list. However, soon I started to realize that the strategy and rationale that worked for him, wasn’t necessarily suited for a lesser mortal like myself.
I saw several flaws in turning that specific strategy into a general rule-book.
First, it would clearly prioritize some professions to be in the top 5 above others, which is obviously an issue. Even if we expanded the list to include all kinds of professions, the inherent nature of this rule-book would still require prioritization. Here is one example of what the prioritized list might look like.
This list completely ignores the relevance and importance of several professions that do not directly or visibly impact the future of humanity, but are still very much needed and valuable to society. Art is just one such example.
Second, it would create a big vacuum of people in jobs that are often considered less important, but are nevertheless indispensable.
Third, it would create a wide-spread mismatch of people and their skills to jobs as everyone tried to do the so-called ‘more important’ things.
Such a mismatch would lead to inefficient utilization and mass wastage of people’s skills and talents. It would keep most people from realizing their full potential and hence, from leading a meaningful life.
Elon Musk’s approach clearly cannot be used as a general, career-path-discovery rule-book. What then, could constitute a better approach to think about the choice of a career path? Is it even possible to develop a generic approach that could be used by anyone?
As I tried to answer these questions, a few themes started to emerge. The MBA student in me arranged these themes into a framework that I now think is generic enough to be applicable to anyone, yet specific enough to lead you to actual answers. The engineer in me chose a Venn diagram to represent and communicate this framework. The former consultant in me ensured that the Venn diagram had exactly three components that are MECE (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive). These three components are an overarching vision of life, passion, and expertise. And the recommended career choice sits right at their intersection.
Below is a pictorial representation of this framework.
Let me quickly elaborate on what each of these three components mean, why they’re important, and how you might find them in your life.
Overarching vision of life:
This represents anything that is important to you — be it happiness, satisfaction, money, power, or anything at all. This is what you’re working towards, what motivates you to get out of bed, your end goal. Everything else is a means to attaining this end.
Such an overarching vision is important because it will help steer your life’s journey towards an end that you most desire. It will act as your northern star and keep you from getting lost.
In finding this overarching vision of life, answering “What is most important to me?” can serve as a good starting point. As you list honest answers to this question, remember that there are no right or wrong answers as long as you’re within the moral and ethical compass. If the lust of power motivates you, then by all means work towards that end. Instead if ‘meaning’ is most important to you, then let that be the end.
Once you’ve reached your overarching vision, try to create a list of the means you can employ to attain this vision. Answering some of these questions might help in creating this list:
- What means have others employed to successfully attain the same end as I desire?
- In the past, what have I done to satisfy my vision?
- What are some of the things I can do in the future to meet my vision?
For instance, if your end goal is ‘satisfaction’ and you’ve achieved it through societal welfare and a simple family life before, then list those as potential means to achieving your end goal. This list is what constitutes the red circle.
Passion is anything that you like doing, a cause or a value that you care deeply about.
Passion is important because it makes life, the journey towards your vision enjoyable. In its absence, life can feel meaningless and dry, and you may be tempted to give up. Because often times, the lure of the goal is not enough to keep you going. Plus, there is no guaranteeing that you will meet your goal. So unless you also enjoy the journey — the path leading up to the desired goal, you’re doomed to a lifetime of misery.
I’ve never doubted the importance of passion in life. Yet, I have struggled and still do to identify my passions. This is a list of questions that I’ve found useful in identifying them:
- From past experiences, what have I enjoyed doing the most?
- What aspects of a project or task do I like the most?
- If I had no obligations, how would I spend my time? (If you’re honest with yourself, the answer will probably not be drinking, partying, of watching Netflix)
- Are there certain values, or causes that I care deeply about?
Another helpful tip is to try new things as often as you can, and repeat these questions in light of those new experiences.
This list of your passions makes up the green circle.
Expertise is things that you consider yourself to be good at, relative to others in your immediate surroundings. If that draws a blank (read: you’re too modest), then it can be things you consider your personal best.
Expertise is important for two reasons. First, because you’re more likely to reach your vision by reinforcing your strengths than by trying to build on your weaknesses.* Second, human beings thrive on incentives such as recognition, appreciation, and quick wins. These are more likely to be achieved when you’re working in a field of your own strength. And so a certain level of expertise (or the possibility to attain that level of expertise in a reasonable amount of time) is needed to keep you motivated in attaining your vision.
How might you approach this exercise of decoupling your expertise? By answering these:
- What am I most comfortable doing?
- In what areas am I better than most other people around me?
- What skills do I receive most appreciation for?
- If I was sitting on a table with a diverse but extremely smart and talented group of people, what skills would I ‘bring to the table’?
- What are some skills or areas of expertise that I don’t have right now but can confidently develop in a reasonable period of time?
Your expert skills fill up the blue circle.
Now, I know exactly what you’re thinking! Frameworks are good when people (read MBAs and consultants) want to act smart. But they don’t actually work in real life, do they?
Yes, they do. Let me illustrate this, with some (fun) examples. Let’s see how the career discovery process for some of the most famous personalities might have worked, if they were to apply this framework.
Let’s start at the beginning of this article and see what Elon Musk might have ended up doing, if he’d followed the above framework right after his time at Wharton.
Here’s how Elon Musk’s dialogue with himself would have gone:
Overarching vision of life:
“What is most important to me?”
Safeguarding and saving the future of humanity. Having a significant influence on the future of humanity.
What means have others employed to successfully attain the same end as I desire?
This is an unconventional vision that only I’m capable of having and fulfilling. Yet, most commonly understood ways to influence and save the future of humanity are through:
- Political leadership
- Social sector leadership
- Business leadership
- Tech leadership
In the past, what have I done to satisfy my vision?
Nothing much really. But soon I’ll more than account for this 20-something years of inactivity.
What are some of the things I can do in the future to meet my vision?
Resolve problems in areas that will be most important to humanity in the future. What are these? (Continues after a short pause) Of course, these are the internet; sustainable energy; space exploration, in particular the permanent extension of life beyond Earth; artificial intelligence; and reprogramming the human genetic code. I can resolve problems by becoming either an academic leader or an engineer turned business leader. It’s important to keep in mind that engineers and business leaders have a more tangible, quicker real-life impact than research scholars. So maybe I should become a tech+business leader to attain my vision. Building my own tech company seems like a good starting point.
From past experiences, what have I enjoyed doing the most? OR If I had no obligations, how would I spend my time?
- Reading, learning new things and solving complex problems
- Engaging in Physics, Mathematics, Science related problems and experiments
- Innovating, building, creating things
What aspects of a project or task do I like the most?
- Intellectual stimulation
- The actual implementation to realize value, to drive change and real-life impact
Are there certain values, or causes that I care deeply about?
Safeguarding the future of humanity.
What am I most comfortable doing?
Using my brain power to understand and solve complex problems. Brewing ideas and implementing them.
In what areas, am I better than most other people around me? OR What skills do I receive most appreciation for? OR If I was sitting on a table with a diverse but extremely smart and talented group of people, who would I ‘bring to the table’?
Understanding science, mathematics, physics. Learning complex, new things by reading. Solving all sorts of complex problems. Everything.
What are some skills or areas of expertise that I don’t have right now, but I’m confident I can develop in a reasonable period of time?
- Academic research
- Starting wildly successful businesses in Tech
- Pretty much anything!
- Since I care about saving the future of humanity, and want to have influence on this future, it makes sense to work in one of the 5 areas that I believe will most profoundly impact the future of our race.
- Since research takes time to drive real life impact, and since I care about creating value and driving change, I should instead work as an engineer or better even, as an entrepreneur.
- This makes more sense than working as a political leader or a social worker (which also significantly impact the future of humanity) because the realm of technology actually excites me. It is both my passion and expertise.
See, this could have saved Elon Musk the effort of applying to Stanford’s PhD program, starting it only to dropout 2 days later. And he would have directly proceeded to start PayPal.
To illustrate another example, let’s apply this framework to a fictitious character whose vision, expertise and passion will be clear from the Venn diagram. Please note that this next illustration is purely a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
This illustration shows the importance of applying this framework not only to figure out the right career opportunity for you, but also to avoid costly mistakes that can ruin personal as well as societal welfare.
Why not use this to find your next career step?**
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* This is not to say that you shouldn’t work on your weaknesses, or that you shouldn’t try to develop new skills. You definitely should! All I’m saying is that your areas of expertise (or areas with potential to develop future expertise) should form the core of what you choose to do. Or that the core of what you choose to do should fall within your zone of existing or potential areas of expertise.
** It is important to note that the framework can only help you choose a rough, long-term career path and an exact short-term opportunity. You can use it as a guiding tool in making decisions, especially to evaluate between multiple options or opportunities. However, don’t expect it to dictate a fully laid-out career path, from start to end. It is neither possible, nor advisable to plan to such an extent. Because a lot of these decisions are based on exogenous factors. Like Sheryl Sandberg said during a recent Authors@Wharton event at UPenn, “While I was doing my MBA and planning my career, Mark Zuckerberg was still in elementary school.” Nothing would have helped her plan for Facebook. However, this framework would definitely help in getting some clarity on long-term goals and on short-term means to fulfilling those goals.