Updated: Aug 17
n some ways, choosing a career path can be more confusing and overwhelming than ever before in human history. There are more options and access, and ever-evolving specialties, and subspecialties. But those options and the programs that train for them, are rapidly changing, often rendering previously secure and lucrative jobs obsolete, replaced by software, or outsourced to underpaid workers overseas. There is a collective anxiety that afflicts many college students and young adults, stemming from a sense of global economic change and uncertainty. While there is some truth to it, it can also be paralyzing, unhelpful, and inaccurate. In reality, the papers and job sites are full of work opportunities for those humble, hard-working, and open-minded enough to roll up their sleeves and dive into something.
When counseling individuals who are seeking to live more intentionally, the question of what professional path to pursue often comes up. I like to suggest beginning with three simple questions:
What do you enjoy?
What are you good at?
How can you use items from those lists in a way that’s contributive?
When you really take the time and thought to sit down and compose these lists, you’ll get a clear idea of where you might want to start to focus your job search. Picture a Venn diagram in which one section has answers to all those questions, and then you have a skill set on which to focus for a chosen field. We could call these qualities: Passion, competence, and marketability, respectively. That bloated triangle in the middle is the sweet spot where your ideal job search could begin.
Passion is a strong word, and certainly not everyone needs to passionate about work. But for brainstorming, it’s a great starting point. If you don’t have a particular passion, just think about what you enjoy, or what you don’t mind spending your time doing. You’re probably going to be spending a lot of hours at your job, so it’s worth investing some time at least trying to make it something you find pleasant.
Competence is about ability. It can be inborn and/or acquired. If there is something you do reasonably well, practice and learn so that you can become even more proficient. If you like what you’re doing, you will often find ways to invest in your competence and knowledge. And on the flipside, we often find personal fulfillment in activities at which we excel, so there is likely to be overlap between these categories.
Marketability is figuring out why or how someone might pay you to do what you’d like to do. In some cases, it’s simple: you’d like to produce or sell a specific product or offer a particular service. If consumers want that product or service, then- easy, you’re in business. But sometimes, you may need to think a step or two beyond your hobby to make it a commodity. For example, I know someone who loves to shop, and has great taste. At first, she joked that she wished shopping were a career- until she managed to find a job as a personal shopper. Another friend who loves and has a knack for organizing her home, now has clients who pay her to come and organize theirs. Yet another person loves exercise, and so she became a health coach and personal trainer, and eventually started her own fitness business.
Once you narrow down your target areas, choosing a stable career path still requires a mixture of direction with flexibility, and drive, with patience. Direction involves a general sense of where you’d like to get, but tempered with flexibility, meaning: to be open to related or even alternate opportunities which may present themselves. Direction will keep us working towards a particular goal or career, but flexibility will help us pay the bills and learn life lessons in the interim. Drive will propel us to work hard, and keep our eyes on the prize, but patience will allow us to be okay “paying our dues” until we get there. While we all should ideally aim to ultimately try and be in a field that speaks to our strength, passion, and sense of purpose, in reality, we may need to simply take the practical jobs that are available while working toward that goal.
My own personal/ professional story is somewhat illustrative. A number of years ago, I was decluttering a bin of old writing from my parents’ home. I came across an essay written when I was a little girl; of the “what I want to be when I grow up” variety. I was a fairly decisive and ambitious, if unoriginal, 7 year old- I wanted to be a mommy, a teacher, and therapist, and a writer. (Note: AND not “or”.) Over time, not much changed, as far as my areas of interest; I’ve always and consistently loved family, words, writing, education, analysis, and people.
Fast forward to college; I (shortsightedly) majored in abstract linguistics with a minor in psychology. I married young, and my husband was a student abroad, so we moved across the globe. At first the only work I could find was tutoring school aged students. This was not my preferred demographic, but it was work, with nice families, it paid, and it was even loosely related to what I eventually wanted to do. I worked hard and creatively at it. After a year or two, I had the opportunity to begin teaching in a local college, and then in a fellowship program, and then several other adult educational institutions. My first two children came along within a few years, and then we moved back to the US. We had a well-conceived plan: Let’s hop on a plane, take the first jobs that come our way, then move to the area where we find them, and hopefully my parents will take us in if we end up homeless. The homelessness lasted about three weeks, at which point we fortunately landed decent jobs teaching in high schools in a suburb of New York.
I loved teaching high school, but as my family grew, I found that the “overtime” I was putting in for mentoring students and after-school programming was increasingly cutting into my family life. I wanted to be dedicated to my work, so I spent extra hours designing innovative curricula, giving my students, former students, and even their parents, lots of time on the phone to help them with both educational and personal matters, on top of the requisite prep, meetings, and grading paperwork time. At a certain point, I knew I would burn out of teaching if I kept that up. I realized that I was enjoying the personal connection of teaching in some ways, more than the frontal classroom lecturing. I also realized that I could be getting trained and paid for all those hours of side counseling I was doing.
So I went back to graduate school, very part time, since I couldn’t give up my day job. It took me almost five years to do a three year masters in marriage and family therapy. During that time, I had two more kids, two miscarriages, and a serious illness in the family. There were tomes of reading, and hundreds of pages worth of research papers to write. I wasn’t brilliant or wealthy or high energy, but I was blessed and motivated and determined, and somehow the work got done.
My parents and husband were very helpful and supportive of this career change; without that I probably wouldn’t have maintained the strength to do it. Even after I graduated, I continued to teach locally, until I became established as a therapist, by working part time at both. Ten years later, I had a full private practice, and opportunities to write and lecture regularly, my dream home-office job I think even my 7 year old self would approve, which is well-suited to my family life of “married with spunky kids”. It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not perfect- in reality, almost nothing of value is. But it’s more wonderfully fulfilling than I ever imagined. Over time, I started researching and finding ways I could be more creative and profitable, like innovating techniques, private lecturing and publishing. Now I am starting to learn about creating digital content, so that I will be able to help more people, more affordably for them and more lucratively and efficiently for me. Constantly revisiting and reshaping my career allows me to work in a way that is passionate, whole-hearted, and family-friendly.
In the meantime, my husband also wanted to segue out of teaching, and so he took actuarial tests, while taking an administrative, entry level job in a pensions company. Ten years later, he was managing the company, and then, acquiring and integrating other companies. We both find our work gratifying, and growth promoting. Our stories are not extraordinary. I finished paying off my student loans, and there are days when I struggle with balance, and question/tweak my routine, trajectory, or focus. But we continually reassess- our schedules, our goals, adjusting and improving when we can. At this point, we’ve been blessed to structure our work with enough flexibility that we can homeschool and travel, as well as grow our respective businesses. Our story is our own but it’s not unique- it’s simply an example, like thousands of others.
I hope I didn’t make our journey sound all neat and clean and cheery. It was really rough at times. And sometimes still is. We made mistakes and took risks. We also persevere and question the status quo. But we’ve been incredibly fortunate so far, and so I wanted to share our story, in the hope that it can be of use to others.
Not everyone has clear aspirations from a young age, or the accessible opportunity for higher education. If you are someone who isn’t sure what you’d like to do, then open your mind wide, and realize that the great big world is a veritable smorgasbord of opportunity. If you are just beginning this journey, consider your list of activities which you enjoy, excel at, and with which you could be productive. We’re seeing more and more young people with barely a high school diploma becoming very successful in the real world, especially in the entrepreneurial sector. People skills, integrity, creativity, hard work, responsibility, and willingness to learn are significantly more valuable than a fancy degree, in many fields. If you like what you do, you’ll be enthusiastic, and you’re more likely to throw yourself into it and improve over time. That kind of energy is contagious, and attracts employers, clients, and promotions.
Two more qualities that will be of value in this process are: confidence and imperfectionism. Confidence is an optimistic, can-do attitude. If you don’t believe you are capable, that might be your greatest limitation; if you believe you can, that could be your most powerful motivation. If you don’t believe you can, and you happen to be right, then try to refocus your goals to an area where you do feel you have potential to grow. Imperfectionism is a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them. Perfectionism may look impressive in the short term, but in the long run, it generates pressure and rigidity that impede growth. Sometimes, even when we believe we are somewhat capable, we hold ourselves back because of perfectionistic anxiety, or because we compare ourselves to others (or perceptions of others) who may be superior. When we are willing to look in the mirror and say: I can do this, and I don’t have to be perfect, then that removes two of the biggest obstacles to success.
Look at your local paper’s classified section, and see if there is an internship or job opening that gets you curious or excited. If you enjoy academics, look online for training programs in fields where you’d want to do the research and readings even if there were no exams. If you are not a scholastic type, think about seeking an experiential apprenticeship, where you could work entry level or even pro bono, at a place where you could learn on the job from someone successful.
If you are already in a situation where you need to bring in an income, then put the word out among friends, and in your community, that you are available to do ‘x’, as well as searching the job listings. Keep an open mind; sometimes life presents unexpected possibilities. I never set out to develop a subspecialty in treating sexual dysfunction, but a sequence of cases and contacts led to more training, which took me down this road, and now that is consistently over 60% of my caseload and writing.
Cultivate patience and curiosity- your dream job will probably not come along right away. If it does, you can consider yourself extremely fortunate and rare. More likely, you will need to just start somewhere. Many people take a generic sort of job to simply pay the bills, and then develop their passions in their free time. Creative work often takes that route; such as writing or performing. Whatever you do, try to do it well, committedly, and honestly. Be a team player; that kind of karma is always valuable. Keep your ear to the ground for more chances to advance toward your goal, or to explore the idea of a new goal, while enjoying the ride in the meantime. We can try to do what we enjoy, but in the meantime, but we can just try to enjoy what we’re doing. Do research: speak to people in different industries, read books, search online. There is abundant information out there. If after asking yourself all these questions, you still feel lost, there are employment aptitude tests and algorithms, and career guidance counselors who can help. What you do for a living is a big investment of time and mental energy- so it’s worth investing the effort to make it worth your while.