I’ve been having a lot of conversations about careers lately: college students are desperately trying to figure out what they’re going to do, folks in their twenties are stressing out because they can’t figure out what they are doing, and older folks are regretting the choices they made in college and in their twenties. I want to offer up a new way to frame your thoughts about your career in hopes that you’ll be able to develop a steady, true compass you can rely on as you make important decisions so that you’ll never have to look up and realize that you’re lost.
Before I really dig in, however, I need to state the obvious: your career path is a path. It is not a decision that you make once, rightly or wrongly, and then live with for the rest of your life. When you graduate you take whatever job you can get that is somewhere in the vicinity of what interests you and you learn from it more about what you like, what energizes or saps you, what other people value from you. You use that new knowledge to inform your next step: whether to change departments or change organizations, whether to move from practice towards research or from public to private or from startup to established corporation. As you grow you evolve and your career slowly comes into line with your aspirations. Finding the great work of your life is a process, not a single choice.
Now, how do you begin the process?
It is so easy to think about your career as your identity, and you will get nothing but encouragement from everyone you know to do so. I’m offering a different way of thinking about your work: instead of your work as who you are, try thinking about your work as your way of relating to the world. Be honest with yourself about what you want to gain from the world through your work, and what you want to offer the world through your work. The job itself is just a medium through which this communication and exchange (what you need and what you have to contribute) takes place.
Think honestly about what you would like to gain from work: education, community, status, access to information or technology, income, intellectual challenge, for example. Take that question seriously, and when you’ve answered it completely spend twice as long thinking about what you really want to offer others through your work: your intelligence, technical skills, compassion, political acumen, networking, knack for thinking on your feet, patience, ability to bring people together, calm under pressure.
Every job may not meet every need or nurture every skill: it’s okay to think pragmatically and take a job that makes a lot of money for a year so that you can spend the following year learning to lead meditation retreats. Or spend a year honing your acupuncture skills in China not because you want to do it forever but because it makes you more useful to the practice in Santa Fe that you really want to work for. Every job won’t do everything for you, but every job should do something for you: either offer you something you need or help you get better at something you love.
When I talk with college students about careers, they always seem to aspire to the one-word jobs they read about in Richard Scarry books (doctor, lawyer, banker). The problem with these words is that while we feel like they mean so much, they in fact tell us virtually nothing. The trial attorneys defending Greenpeace activists are lawyers, as are divorce attorneys in Boca, policy wonks in DC, and personal injury attorneys everywhere. The people in those careers may have nothing at all in common other than being lawyers.
Try thinking more specifically about your work rather than your job. I’m not interested in hearing that you want to be a lawyer; I’m interested in hearing how passionately you feel about using your intelligence and ability to craft arguments to help people who aren’t getting a fair shake from the system. Maybe being a public defender is how you’ll eventually decide to do your work, but maybe you’ll decide that the income level of a public defender won’t meet your needs so you’ll opt to do your work through public policy think tanks.
The more specific you can be about the type of work you are looking for the more likely it is you’ll find a job that will allow you to do that work. And you’re more likely to find a career that’s a good fit if you choose one because it supports your needs and expresses your gifts rather than picking a job and then trying to force it to meet your needs and express your gifts.
The key, of course, is owning your needs and naming your value. Be honest with yourself! Use every job, relationship, and work dynamic to help you understand yourself more clearly, then continue to move towards circumstances that get you access to what you most deeply need and help you polish what you have to offer. So orient your compass (what do you love most about working and what is the absolute best of yourself that you can give?) and use it to steer you towards wherever it is that you want to go.