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  • Pamela Carey

What Career Should I Pursue

two paths in the forest

Most of us don't know what we want to do, especially not when we're told to pick a career or a major at 18, and those that do know then often change our minds.

I want to first tell you a story and how it relates to finding a career path. There was a boy born in the state of New York. He then later went to college in North Carolina, and graduated. He joined a rock band, played for a while, but then decided against a life of playing music, got a Fine Arts degree in writing, and taught English while in grad school as well. At 35, he got married and wrote his first full length book. A few years later, he was working as a journalist and his editor sent him on an assignment to interview a young economist in Chicago. Neither him or the economist was really looking forward to this meeting. But it went so well that their two-hour meeting was pushed two days. They went on to work together for many years and wrote four books together, the first of which being Freakonomics, one that many of you have likely heard of. Yes, this is a story about Stephen Dubner if you haven't already guessed. For the last 12 years, Dubner has hosted the Freakonomics Radio program, which is also a podcast, one of the most successful on iTunes.

Why did I tell this story? Well, it articulates some of the main points that we're going to get into.

That you don't have to have it all figured out at 18, 25, 35 or 50 to have an amazing career path.

Further, if you go to school for let's say, environmental science that doesn't just open one door for you, it opens many. You could work as a marine biologist, chemist, an engineer, you could work in geology, or law, or teaching, or work in the corporate world consulting companies how to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

You make one choice, the best one you can make with your current information, but that doesn't pigeonhole you. You have so many different doorways you could enter after that.

a hallway of doorways

Secondly, a chance encounter one that we could never predict could alter everything. What are the forces that had to be for Dubner and love it to meet? Did their bosses know each othe - the chair of the department and the editor? And if so, how did they meet? Sometimes we have to take steps in the direction of our goals, not knowing what will lay ahead on the path. Dubner was already working on a book on psychology and money - would that book have been as successful as Freakonomics turned out to be selling millions of copies? We'll never know. But sometimes something sort of unpredictable in the universe, whether you want to believe in any sort of mystical elements there or not just sort of pushes us further in the direction of our goals. What we can predict and control is just taking the steps and moving ourselves further in our desired interests and skillsets.

What makes Stephen Dubner's story even less predictable is that when he graduated college in 1984, the technology of podcasting wasn't even around yet; that wasn't invented until 2004 20 years later. So, a young 22-year-old graduate Dubner could not have said, "I want to be a podcaster," and set out to do that planning for it because it didn't even exist. And in our ever-changing world, with many technological advances, the field you may work in 10 years from now may not even exist at this time. This is just further proof that you don't have to have everything planned out to a granular detail when you're starting out. You just work with the information at hand, taking one step at a time, even if you can't see all the way down the path in front of you. You just think about the steps you're taking right now.

Hearing that events can be unpredictable, can feel chaotic for planners and this is not to say that we can't have a plan or an intention or a vision for our lives. If you for example, know that one day, you would love to work as CFO for a company - that's a vision or an overarching goal or intention for your life and that's great. That's sort of like setting your compass to an intended direction and then just taking steps that way. But you don't know exactly which companies are going to work for which exact years and that's okay and that's really the point.

Similar to charting a route on a map. You can get to the exact same place by taking many different paths or routes to get there and it's the exact same way with your career.

It's also of course fine, if you don't know what you want to do at all and if you don't have this overarching vision or life goal. My guess is that you know more than you think you do. We're going to have a bunch of activities in the rest of this blog that can be helpful. You can even come back and revisit the blog or video (embedded below) and do them later. I'm going to put this * asterisk symbol when there's an exercise or an activity just to remind you that this is something that you can take action on now or later. After reading you can go back and search for those symbols to do the activities. Or pause while reading and do them as you go.

The first thing I want you to do * is make a list of everything that you do know that you want or you intend for. Maybe you know where you might want to live or if you want to have a dog or if you prefer or to work alone or with people, you may want to travel for work each day or every day to be very routine and similar. You may know that you want to work with numbers and mathematics or children, or that you aren't inclined to working with either of those. You may gravitate towards the idea of healthcare or current events or politics. You may know how much money you want to make or have the goal of having your art displayed in a gallery. You probably know more than you think you do and this can transform us from feeling like we're lost in the middle of the ocean floundering having no idea which direction to swim for land -- and help us realize, you know what, "I don't want to swim West if that is working for sales and commission, I want a stable paycheck" and then that may mean swimming in the opposite direction. You start to get your bearings on things that you do or don't want and put the pieces together.

* Here are some other things that you can think about and add to the list to paint this picture for yourself.

  • List the kinds of environments you might want to work at

  • Past jobs that you really disliked and what you disliked about them.

  • Which subjects were your favorite in school and why?

  • What careers do you envy that you see other people pursuing?

  • What do you read about or work out in your free time or what do you help others with naturally because you have an aptitude for it?

* Next look at this list and separate out what is personal such as, I want a dog versus career oriented such as I want a 401k. There might be some things that are a bit of both maybe like the city you want to live in might impact both of those. None of this may give you the answer. But like the cartographer, we're starting to develop a map.

It's also important to * consider specifically, what you liked about different things or why you liked them. For example, let's say that someone really loved woodworking and cooking and drama. They might not want to be a carpenter or a chef or an actor. They might just realize that they enjoy things that encompass their physicality that they like using their body for work and experiences, as opposed to things that are only more cerebral. So, it's really important to process and think about the why behind the things that you've enjoyed or haven't enjoyed.

* Next, make a list of every single job or career that you've considered, still consider the pops in your head some times and you think "I'd be good at that" or "I'd enjoy that" or "I could make a good living doing that" or "That's something I wanted to do as a kid and I haven't thought about it in a while" - just put it all down. Do not censor yourself one bit and I'm going to tell you three missions for you to help decide what on this list that you should or could pursue next.

But first, I want to address something very important that even having the thought, what do I want to do, what career should I pursue -- this is one that has privilege with it because many people are just trying to pay the bills and are living paycheck to paycheck, maybe supporting a child or a sick parent. To those situations, I would say that it is honorable to support both yourself and loved ones. And secondly, I would just say that I hope that everyone though, is able to at least consider in the back of their minds, even if they're not able to do anything with it at this point in their life. One, what do you want for your future. Two, if you do have a different area that you want to work into, when you get even an inch of space, I want you to take up that space. Let's say that someone is a mom and all of their day is going towards child care. When the kids go down for bed, is there just 10 or 20 minutes that they could work on their writing, if they want to be a writer. I know that we're all in extremely different situations. But I just want you to acknowledge that if there's something you want to work into whether it's a field, a job, a career an interest, I want you to be able to do the things that matter to you and life is always hectic. So, we kind of have to be honest with ourselves if it's a legitimate pressing concern where we cannot make any progress or if we just are saying that life is always hectic and then never doing the things that we want to do. That can be difficult to know which side of the line we're on. Just writing this script I wrote on a busy New York City subway going to a client and from a doctor's appointment. It wasn't ideal like writing in a coffee shop with a latte in a picturesque environment. Just throwing this out there because I want all of us to be able to do the things that we want to do. Now on to the three missions for this list of careers.

So, the first thing you're going to do is * learn everything about that career or job. Because you're going to be putting a lot of work get into this, you'll probably want to rank this list and then work down the list. So, maybe the very top thing that you're considering, learn everything you can about this job or career. Shadow, someone doing it, do an internship, take someone out to coffee who does that work or used to do that work and don't ask for connections, just get to know what their day to day is like, or their favorite or least favorite part of their job. Take an intro class to the field or subject, go to a seminar, workshop, or Meetup group, network across the company if someone else in your company is working in an area that you're curious about, check out a book from your library about the subject or read a biography of someone who was successful in that field to learn what life was like in that line of work.

physical therapist showing a girl a stretch

One of my friends who was deciding between being a physical therapist, a professor, or a strength and conditioning coach was really unsure of their next steps. However, they got a job in a physical therapy office to try that out. Upon their first day working there, they knew "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life."

But the only way they knew that was the career they wanted to pursue was by putting themselves out there, by getting in the room, by trying it, meeting those people, and being in those environments. We don't learn what we want to do from the comfort of our bedroom (unless it's a work from home job and you're trying it out). But the point is, you have to get in this situation, you have to do the thing, and you have to learn about it.

This trial-and-error period is similar to just visiting a new city before you decide to move there. You don't have to commit on the first job that you try. Just like you don't have to marry the first person you date, you can just try different things explore. It's like trying on different outfits, treat this as an exploratory phase. I think that often people will sometimes commit to the very first thing that they try and of course, if you're certain like my friend was, that's great. But if you're uncertain, keep moving down the list and keep learning about other jobs or fields, and then * journal and processes the information. What did you like or not like about different experiences or environments or fields? Really take it in and connect the dots.

Don't assume that you know what being a doctor is like from the doctor's office or like me that you know what being an attorney is like from legal dramas and movies. I wanted to be a lawyer when I first entered school. First year of college during a public Speaking class, which is taught by someone who used to be an attorney, I went to office hours and talk to him about my career plans. He said, do you enjoy reading dense legal material for many, many hour? In a word? No. Then he said, well, then you probably don't want to be a lawyer. I told him that I loved public speaking. And he said that there were other ways to pursue that, because that's a really small part of the job. I was being drawn to it by the 2% that I saw, as opposed to the 98% of the work that I wasn't seeing. Which is why this learning phase is so important. What is the day to day like, which brings us to the second mission I have for you all.

It's what I call the Tuesday at 2pm test. * What would you be doing in this given profession on a Tuesday at 2pm? Think of it like in a science experiment, how you can take a sample with a dropper, but that sample can sometimes tell you a lot about the larger whole. Often that sample is similar to any other given random sample, though not always, which is why in statistics you need a large sample size. So what would you be doing on a Monday at 9, or Friday at 5, or over the weekends, or Wednesday at 4? You get the idea. You're just taking these little random samples and these slivers paint for you a picture of what your day-to-day life would be like in this profession because that is so important. Understanding the day to day versus our perception, the occasional 2% that the public sees.

Similarly, you have to like the journey to get there and the destination which is always talked about but oh so relevant here. One example of someone not wanting the path to get there, but only wanting the destination is someone that wants to be a musician for playing on stage and having adoring fans, but they don't want to do that 1000s of hours of practice to get there. On the flip side, I once knew someone that really enjoyed accounting school, financial accounting, taking the coursework, working with their classmates, but then they didn't actually like the day-to-day life of being an accountant. So, taking all this in and just thinking, how are you going to feel on a Tuesday at 2pm (plus a few other days / times) and go down your list and do this for a bunch of the different jobs that you considered.

computer and planner

After doing that exploratory phase and learning more about what the day-to-day life is like for this profession, knowing that there will always be drawbacks or downsides to any given field or career: * What are the downsides that you're willing to tolerate, or better yet, what are even some things that seem like drawbacks to other people but aren't to you. For example, I worked as a personal trainer for quite some time. And for some people, they really wouldn't like having an inconsistent flexible schedule or relying on sales or having to talk to people all day or working on their feet physically. I love a lot of these things and I love working with my clients. A lot of the downsides that other people see are an upside for me. So that's sort of if (you think of supply and demand) where in the marketplace can you fit in? What are you good at that maybe other people aren't as good at and what do you enjoy that other people don't enjoy? These are things to consider.

* Third, and lastly, you're going to write out the steps that you would take, if you were to pursue this career right now. This was an idea by Katherine Brooks and she lays out how to do that and many other ideas as to how to choose what you want to do with your life no matter what you studied in school. It's a book called You majored in What? It was recommended to me in school by my career resource center, so I'm going to link that down below, the more recent edition, for you all.

One of her examples she uses is standup comedy, what are the very first steps you would need to take, if you wanted to be a standup comic? Well, you might start carrying around a notebook, writing down ideas, preparing different stories you want to tell, seek out an open mic night, and perform at one of those. Or learn from the greats and realize who maybe you're influenced by - by watching other people, taking an improv class, and just learning theoretically / in general about the craft of storytelling or the craft of joke writing. If you want to be a dentist, a dental hygienist, orthodontist, or just work in the field of dentistry, what are some of the things you would need to do? Well, first, you might learn about these different paths, how to differentiate them, how are they different? Which one are you most interested in? Then you might see if you can shadow, volunteer, work at, or intern in a dental clinic, office, or hospital setting. Then maybe you attend open houses for different schools to learn about the prerequisite requirements or what the field is like, from the perspective of these professors.

What makes this step different from the exploratory phase earlier is that it has this extra layer of action - it's asking "What do you need to do now?" giving yourself a game plan. This does two things.

1) It helps you understand if this is a path you want to walk down. Because with the example of the standup comic, if you really loves standup comedy, and you think you want to do that, but you do not want to write material or get on stage, that means you probably like the idea of being a standup comic more than you actually like the job itself.

2) The second thing it does is give you a roadmap, a place to start so that if you decide, "Yeah, this is something that I want to do." Well, hey, you already have some of the first steps to get there!

Next, we're going to get into a bunch of different points you could consider and we're going to do it in 10, rapid fire style points.

  • First, consider what you value in all of this: * What are your workplace values. If you value creativity, you probably don't want a job with very rigid guidelines. But instead, one where you can put your own spin on things. If you value making a positive impact, a career where you can focus on contribution may be important.

  • Two, * when choosing a company consider their overall mission, it will help you feel more aligned, inspired, and happier going to work when you actually believe in the company's mission and what they're doing.

  • Number three, think about the time in front of you and not the time that's already passed or behind you. I've seen people as young as 25 feeling like it's too late for them to do what they want to do. Unless said 25 year old has never done gymnastics and wants to be an Olympic gymnast, then chances are it's not too late for them to pursue a certain field. But same for if someone is 35 or 50. Let's say that you don't retire until 65 or maybe even later. You may have decades of work left, even if you've already been working for a decade. So, think about the time in front of you. How do you want to spend those years? Instead of the time behind you.

  • Four - So many people think that they can't work in a field if they have no experience in it. But remember that anyone, no matter how far along in their career, even the masters had to start somewhere and started with zero experience in their field at one point.

  • Number five, * one thought exercise to consider is do you already know what you want to do, you've simply been scared to attempt it?

The next three pertain to common pitfalls.

  • Number six, allowing what society or what other people think of a profession to dictate your future, and not what you want. Remember, you're the one spending potentially 86,000 hours working in this field. So, what you think of it matters most.

  • Number seven, not thinking about any of this and living life like a leaf blowing in the wind is in my opinion, the most dangerous of any career choice. Only taking a job because your friend works there. Staying in a field because it's what you studied in school and not because it's what you want to do. Staying at a job because it's comfortable and it's easy and you don't feel like looking for other work. Not growing, not learning, not even thinking about what you want for your life and just going through the motions. BUT not you. You're reading this, you're definitely at least considering what do you want to spend your time here on Earth dedicated towards. Keep going. What is in your heart, what is in your mind? When you hear that internal voice, when you feel pulled towards something, follow it.

  • Number eight. The last common pitfall is thinking in terms of immediate rewards, the short term, and job focused, as opposed to a long-term, vision, and career focused. Maybe choosing an opportunity because it looks fun, or it pays more, and not actually thinking about what opportunities lay ahead down the road based on this decision you're making right now.

  • Number nine, when it comes to things that are creative callings - If you don't want to do that full time, or if you're just trying it out in the beginning, take some pressure off, keep your full-time job, keep some income, and simply try filmmaking, poetry, or design. It doesn't have to be all or nothing and it can take a lot of pressure off to have that stable income to rely on while you're trying something else that's more creative.

  • Number ten - Be open to synchronicity. As soon as you say out loud, "I want to try photography," you may notice at your local coffee shop a pamphlet for a photography class that's a perfect fit.

Some closing thoughts, as one professor said at the university that I attended, "It's not what you do, but how you do it." Of all things. He taught entomology he taught about bugs.

ladybug on a plant stem

So, yes, while we were learning about crickets and cockroaches, he was also teaching us a life philosophy. He could have been teaching anything though - such as British literature. It didn't matter because he really put everything into this into his lessons, into how he showed up and interacted with people. It was not what he did but how he did it.

fortune cookie reads "It matters not what road we take but rather what we become on the journey."
The only fortune cookie I have ever saved

So, with you and your career choice, maybe it's not just about which exact path you choose, but how you choose to approach that path, your mastery of your craft, your dedication to it, the people you meet and how you focus your energy towards it and the person you become on that journey. All any of us are ever doing is taking one step at a time in our desired direction. More similar to following a compass then, following some sort of manual we were given, which none of us have and we're all just figuring it out as we go. And I hope you say yes to jumping in and trying things, and figuring some things out as you go.

Life is meant to be lived and discovered through trying things out and not from the comfort of planning procrastinating, wishing, dreaming, or stalling. In the wise words of Mary Oliver, "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" The answer is allowed to be: so many things, and some of which I don't know yet, but I can't wait to find out.

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