Some people are lucky enough to discover their ideal career at a very young age. For them, the path is clear: develop an interest, get a relevant degree, cultivate expertise, and climb to the top of the ladder.
These people are the vast minority. The rest of us reach adulthood without knowing what we really want to do for a living.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe you have diverse interests. Maybe you never really thought about it. Or maybe (especially if you’re a web junkie like me) your ideal career didn’t exist 5 years ago.
Finding the ideal career is far from obvious but if you don’t actively look for it you can get sucked into a job that doesn’t make you happy.
Do You Have a Job or a Career?
This an important question to ask yourself because it there is a vast difference between the two.
A job is just work. You might like it, you might not, but you do it for the money and it has no connection to your personal identity. If you lost your job, you might be upset but you’d get over it when you found a replacement.
A career is inseparable from who you are and who you want to be. A person with a job is collecting a paycheck. A person with a career is working towards a dream.
When I graduated college I had no idea what career was right for me so I did what most people do — I took the path of least resistance. I interviewed with employers who recruited on campus and wanted someone with my degree. I didn’t care what type of job I got. My only priority was finding one before graduation.
I don’t consider this a mistake because I learned a lot and worked with great people. But I was miserable. My passions and talents just didn’t fit. It eventually comes to a question: Are you willing to settle for a life of discontent and mediocrity just because you’re afraid to make a change?
Step 1. Follow Passion
For someone in this situation it’s easy to feel powerless. We all have expenses and responsibilities. How do you quit your job and start your career if (a) you don’t know what it is, and (b) you probably aren’t qualified anyways?
The first step is answering question (a) by following your passion. Not to say that if you like to read fiction you should become a novelist, or a painter if you admire Van Gogh. It’s important to be practical and find a career that is both personally satisfying and valuable to others.
The key is finding the place where your passions and aptitudes intersect with valuable labor. For this I recommend reading (online, books, magazines, everything) and having conversations with people you admire. It takes time but it should be fascinating. If it’s not, you’re on the wrong track.
For every passion (art, science, sports, nature, etc.) there are thousands of careers in close proximity. The point most people miss is that career opportunities lie, not in indulging the passion itself, but in bringing it to others.
Do you love art? Maybe a career in design is right for you. Love talking to new people? Maybe you’d be great in sales. There’s a place where what you love to do intersects what you’re great at — that’s your ideal career.
Step 2. Building a Resume and a Network
The next step is building a body of work and connecting with people in your industry. You need a body of work because you have to prove your ability and commitment before anyone will hire you. A network will help you find that first opportunity.
The only way to build a body of work is to get out there and start doing. Don’t let inexperience or shyness hold you back. What you need to build depends on the career you want, but generally some good ideas are:
- Writing – Any time you can share thoughts and ideas clearly you prove your understanding of a topic.
- Organizing - Arranging a list of resources and commenting on the work of others is another good way to build understanding.
- Creating – The actual creation of something that’s valuable to others is the most impressive (and difficult) way to create a body of work.
Creating a body of work goes hand in hand with building a network. Your hard work isn’t much good when it’s sitting in a closet. You have to actively share it, and in the process you’ll develop valuable relationships.
The web is an amazing place to find and be found by potential colleagues and employers. No matter what industry you want to break into there are people on the web looking to connect. There might even be a social network specifically for that profession.
You should also seek out offline networking opportunities. Go to public events that people who share your passion might attend. Join local organizations. Bring up your aspirations in conversation. This isn’t particularly hard to do, but it takes initiative and motivation.
Step 3. Make the Leap
Strangely, quitting a job you hate may be a difficult decision. Even when we aren’t happy, we get comfortable and resistant to change. Don’t let fear keep you in a job that’s just OK because the stability is nice and it pays pretty good. Test the market, look for opportunities, revamp your resume, peruse job boards. Just get out there and search.
Maybe you’ll get lucky and an opportunity will fall into your lap. That’s what happens to people who work towards a dream with passion and conviction. Don’t be afraid to take that opportunity. Even if it means less money and more risk and your friends think you’re crazy.
Take your career into your own hands. Your work shouldn’t be something you tolerate. It should be something that drives you — to become the person you should be, to give everything you can.
Image by Jessica DeWinter