How to Choose a Great Career

They say there are three critical decisions in life:

1. What you choose to do.

2. Who you choose to do it with.

3. And where you choose to do it.

Today, we are going to talk about the first one: your career. Whether you’re just starting out or are considering making a change, what I have to say today will help you get yourself on the right track.

I had a tough time choosing a career. I had been working pretty steadily since I was 12 years old and full-time during my college years, so I’d already experienced a lot of work environments. Still, when I graduated from college, I wasn’t sure what I should do.

My secret goal was to become a writer, but the publishing business was in a slump and nobody was hiring. (Even if they were, I probably wouldn’t have gotten a job since I wasn’t a good writer.)

Lacking a specific ambition, I pursued a master’s degree in English Literature at the University of Michigan. I taught freshmen composition in the morning, attended classes in the afternoon, and managed a bar at night.

After completing my master’s degree, I was no closer to knowing what I wanted to do – and my dream of being a professional writer seemed just as unattainable as it had two years earlier. So what did I do? I joined the Peace Corps and went off to Africa for two years, where I taught English Literature and American Philosophy to African students at the University of Chad.

That was a great experience – one I’d recommend to you if this essay doesn’t inspire any other ideas. But I can see now, retrospectively, how clueless I was about picking a career. I was 25 years old, feeling like a full-grown man already, yet I didn’t know how to go about getting the job I really wanted.

So I floundered for a while. Floundered and almost foundered. Eventually, things worked out. My career halted and lunged, and eventually I was able to do everything I wanted – and become financially independent along the way. But I do wish someone had sat me down at some point and given me some guidance.

That’s what I’m hoping to do for you right now.

To get your thinking moving in the right direction, here are some tips about how to find a job you love, all based on experiences I’ve had and mistakes I’ve made.

1. Just because you like computers (or books or horses or stamps) doesn’t mean you’ll like making a living with them.

There is a big difference between enjoying something as a pastime and enjoying it as a job. Often what initially seems fun  and/or romantic about the subject disappears quickly when you make it your profession. This is true for a hundred different reasons – but they all add up to one thing: Just as it’s impossible to know the secret of making any business successful by studying it from the outside, it’s impossible to understand how any job feels without actually doing it. A prime example is acting.

It looks like the best job in the world, until you do it and realize you spend 11 hours a day waiting around for someone to call you to a scene and then listen to someone else yell at you for another hour or two.

2. Rather than focus on businesses or products that you like to use, focus on activities that you like to do.

Are you a talker? A thinker? Do you like to write? When comparing one sort of job to the next, look at specific positions and find out what kinds of activities comprise most of the time spent.

3. When approaching your job search, ask yourself what you want to get out of your career.

Do you want to be wealthy? Do you want to bring about social change? Do you want weekends free to pursue a hobby? Do you want summers free to go smoke jumping? When you discover what you want to take from your career, you will find that your options have narrowed considerably.

4. Look for work that will make use of your unique talents.

Maybe your eye for great art means you’ll have a talent for creating eye-catching brochures and reports. Maybe the accolades you won for your volunteer work mean you have a talent for working with other people. Your talents can translate into things you would not only excel at but enjoy doing long-term.

5. Ask yourself what type of environment you want to be part of.

Do you resist a strict dress code? Do you enjoy the energy and pressure of deadlines? Do you work best when left to your own devices … or do you need strict parameters for each assignment? If, for instance, you enjoy sleeping late and hate stress, you may not be happy in an investment-banking firm. If you love a creative and hands-on environment, you might be happiest working at a group-oriented marketing firm.

You must consider not only the profession but also how that profession goes about conducting business.

6. Although you will never truly know what a job is like until you’ve done it, researching those that sound interesting can help you decide whether you’d be a good fit for a certain position.

Libraries and bookstores are full of books about varied career options. These books will not only give you insight into the inner workings of specific professions, they can also provide you with valuable tips for pursuing a career in those fields.

7. Ask people you trust about the jobs they’ve loved (and hated) the most.

Your favorite cousin may share your passion for computers, so why not ask him if he’s happy as a computer programmer? Your mother may share your gift for drawing, so why not ask her what she liked and disliked about working as an art director? Be sure to discuss a career with people who are certain to be honest about its benefits as well as its drawbacks.

8. A great way to discover if you’d be well-suited for a certain job is to accept a freelance assignment that you can work on in the evenings and on weekends.

While you may not be doing the same type of work that you’d be doing as a full-time employee, you will be able to see the job from a new perspective. You may even be able to get hands-on experience.

9. Once you have identified your passions as well as your talents, be sure to expand your job search to many types of careers.

Just because you love to write and have a talent for research doesn’t mean your only possibility of happiness is in becoming a writer. You should explore a wide range of positions that involve both writing and research – writing grants, technical writing, journalism, and so on. Limiting yourself by determining that only one position is “right” for you could have disappointing results.

10. In thinking about what kind of business you want to be in, you should consider not only your own talents and interests but your hopes and expectations as well.

Specifically, you should spend some time answering the following questions:

  • How many years do I want to work?
  • How hard do I want to work?
  • How much change do I need in my job to keep me interested?
  • How comfortable am I with personal interaction?
  • How do I feel about being a boss?
  • How much wealth do I want to acquire?

You don’t need to arrive at definitive answers to all of these questions, but thinking about them should help you home in on the kind of working lifestyle that would be good for you.

Sometimes, discovering what it is that you really want to do comes down to good old-fashioned trial-and-error. Even if you accept a job, work hard, and give it plenty of time, you may end up feeling dissatisfied with your career. This is not the end of the world. Statistics indicate that most people will hold between eight and 10 jobs in their lifetimes. You might not find your ideal profession on the first, second, or third try. So you re-evaluate your passions and your talents, you do more research into careers that interest and excite you, and you find a different job.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]