One of the most important decisions you will make
We spend the majority of our waking lives working. That fact is either depressing or inspiring depending on how you feel about the career you've chosen. Of course that makes the question of which career to choose all the more stressful.
In that way, choosing the right career is similar to choosing a life partner. Pick the right one and while there might be some arguments and bad days, you will find your life far more fulfilling. Pick one that is a bad match for you and you will be miserable.
You can't date a career
Unlike relationships, however, you can't really date a career. Not yet anyway. That's in part because it often takes a lot of education or training to even reach the stage where you can evaluate whether you like a career.
When we start dating, we simply rely on trial and error. Very few of us end up with the first person we date. In fact, the first few people we date are often selected based on biases we develop. We think we want this or that type of person based on what television, instagram, or our peers think and less based on who we uniquely are and what we uniquely need. It is only after a few attempts that we begin to understand what we really need.
Career selection is plagued by the same problem of bias. Research shows that early career preferences are largely motivated by exogenous factors like parental influence, peer pressure, status, and media. Many people grow up thinking they want to be lawyers or doctors in part because our culture elevates those careers, in spite of the fact that real doctors and lawyers report some of the lowest career satisfaction scores.
The difference is that once we find ourselves on a certain career path, there accumulates more and more pressure to stay on that path and a higher and higher cost to exiting. Considering this, it's helpful to think about career choices more proactively. We can't simply trial and error our way into happiness.
Making the right career choice depends on first developing a sense of who you are and what motivates you.
We are born stuck in our own heads. We literally don't understand that other people exist, and we see even our own mothers as simply an extension of ourselves.
As infant brains develop, we begin to recognize that there exists other people, separate from ourselves, and one of our primary modes of operation is understanding who to trust and who to avoid. As teenagers, there is tremendous pressure to conform. Society has trapped us in this strange social experiment where we are forced to interact with a variety of people, most of whom we have nothing in common with, yet because of that very system and the cruelty of adolescence, we feel this overwhelming pressure to conform. Questions about who we are and what motivate us take a back seat to questions about how to fit in and how to find a tribe that will accept us. These are the early stages of experimenting with our ego and identity. At this stage, we truly take for granted how unique we are and often instead suppress or altogether ignore our needs to fit in.
Finally, when the awkwardness of youth passes, we start to take seriously the question of who we are and what we want. And with that, start to realize how truly different we are from our peers. For some this happens later in life than others.
Do I actually like to party? Would I like to travel? Do I care about money? Do I value stability or novelty?
Choosing the right career for you is about aligning the dimensions of who you are with a realistic set of opportunities.
As it pertains to career choice, who you are is mostly based on four factors.
- Your interests
- Your personality
- Your ideal work environment
- The market for careers
These four factors are not entirely mutually exclusive (in laymen's terms, they overlap). But it gives us a helpful framework for thinking about things.
Your interests are, not surprisingly, the kinds of things you like doing. We measure interests in two ways. First is simply a list of common vocational interests like using negotiating skills or doing math. The second is a set of six interest archetypes commonly referred to as Holland Codes. According to Holland Codes, there are six general types of vocational interests; Realistic interests, Artistic interests, Investigative interests, Social Interests, Enterprising Interests, and Conventional Interests.
Another way to think of personality is to think of temperament. What are the common behavioral patterns and preferences you exhibit? Are you more introverted or extraverted? Are you organized and dutiful or more free-flowing? Are you open to new experiences or prefer predictability? Do you prefer cooperation and social harmony or iconoclasm and disruption? Are you more steady tempered or passionate and chaotic?
It's easy to look at this list of traits and see how they would affect career choice. A passionate, free-flowing, disruptive person would make a horrible and unhappy accountant, wouldn't they?
One thing we often take for granted in career choice is the actual work environment. This includes factors like hours we work, the kinds of people we work with, and the management structure embedded in a career.
For instance, you might have a big interest in finance, and might have a dispassionate, logical personality that makes you a good match for a career in investment banking. However, the work environment, like long hours, hierarchical management, and competitiveness might make you miserable.
We can't all be actors, not paid ones at least. The reality is that there is more demand for certain careers than there is for others.
And that's okay. While it's true that it's important to choose the right career that aligns with who we are, the good news is that a lot of careers actually fit the bill, and for the vast majority of us there will exist a career that both satisfies our inner personality, interests, and needs, while also paying us a salary we can live with.
Going back to the dating analogy, unless you are a hopeless romantic, the truth is that there are many people you could partner with that would make you happy. The important thing is identifying the set of qualities that are important to you and the set of qualities that you definitely want to avoid, and then finding someone who meets enough of your needs to make you happy.
After you make that choice, like a good relationship, finding happiness in the right career takes work. It's a reality that being good at what you do makes you happier, and so putting in effort to improve will increase your satisfaction with that career.
So the right question to ask isn't "what is the right career for me?" but "what are the set of careers that pair well enough with who I am such that I can start taking steps to make it the right career for me and lead a fulfilling life?" Doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
How to choose the right career(s)
If you're interested in putting all of this theory to work, we have developed the CareerExplorer career test. Unlike most career tests that simply match you to a career based on your interests alone, we measure you holistically and try to predict not just your theoretical interest in that career, but your real-world satisfaction with that career should you choose to pursue it.
The test takes about 20 minutes, after which you will be presented with a set of careers you can begin to explore.