Have you ever tried to figure out your career by asking yourself what you would do with a million dollars, or spent time pondering what you used to enjoy doing as a kid? We love to ask ourselves these questions in the hopes of having a flash of insight into our career direction.
Why? Because these simple questions carry an implied promise that if you can answer them, you have the key to your career. If you’re struggling with career choices, that’s a pretty compelling idea. Unfortunately, this idea is flat out wrong.
It’s sort of like wanting to add an exercise regimen to your daily routine and repeatedly asking yourself, “What sport did I most enjoy as a child?” Spending time thinking about that question is in no way the same thing as putting on your shoes and getting to the gym. Introspection in isolation is never going to give you the real world results you’re craving.
While reflective questions like these do serve a purpose, that purpose is to give you a general direction; a starting point. For example, say you liked math and science as a kid. “Math and Science” is not, in itself, a specific job description. Rather, it’s an orientation from which you can begin exploring further.
Below are three tips for actually making progress on figuring out your career path.
Take effective action in whatever direction your answers point you
I’ve just noted that introspection alone can be ineffective. So what is effective? Pretty much anything that gets you out from behind your computer screen, out of your comfort zone and into the real world. You’re specifically looking for things you can do that will put you closer to people who are doing what you want to be doing or closer to actually doing that kind of work.
Real world exploratory steps include things like conducting informational interviews, attending industry events and conferences, looking for volunteer work that relates to what you want to be doing or taking on a side project.
In the “I liked Math and Science as a kid” example, you might reach out to an actuary or a research scientist to learn more about their day-to-day work life to gauge your own interest in those career paths.
Be open to revising your direction based on new information
As you take action in the direction of your answers, you’ll have new experiences and learn new information. As you deepen your understanding of what you like and what you don’t like, you’re going to want to revise and narrow your hypothesis.
After talking with a few research scientists, you might learn that while you loved learning about science as a kid, the day to day life of a research scientist is more repetitive than you’d like. Even though it may feel like a dead end, that’s actually really good information to know. You’ll just want to explore in a slightly different direction, aiming for a career path with more variety. Each experience you have will help you to narrow down your initial general direction.
Approach your career as a journey, not one simple answer
Figuring out your career path is going to take time and effort. For most people, the answer won’t come fully formed and wrapped in a bow for you. It’s going to come from learning from different jobs and experiences. You’ll refine your knowledge of yourself and your career path over time.
The path from an interest in “Math and Science” to a decision to pursue a path as a Robotics Engineer will probably not be a completely straight line. But by following the trail of what you do know and being willing to take in new information, you just may wind up in a career with which you are well-satisfied.
When you ask yourself those sexy career questions about what you want, your dreams, and what-would-you-do-if, know that they are not the end-all and be-all of your career search. They are only a starting point from which to take action and a direction in which to begin your journey. That’s what they’re good for, and that’s how you should use them.