I waded into a lot of “career advice” as part of my research for this article. It was so universally bad that I feel stirred to apologize for it, even though I didn’t write it.
I am so, so sorry.
We haven’t improved on any of it over the last few decades. In fact, it may have gotten worse since I was a student, back during the Polk administration.
This article is my apology to you. It contains all of the best and wisest advice I have for teenagers and young adults trying to choose which career is right for them. It may also be helpful to fellow olds who have a vague feeling that they’re ready for a change.
The key isn’t to rely on experiences. Instead you must identify and follow where the immutable parts of your deeper personality.
You might not know what you want to do, but you probably know how you want to do it
As we discussed previously, it’s impossible to know for certain that you like an activity until you’ve been given a chance to try it. This is doubly true for careers. Even the most well-rounded person just doesn’t have enough experience to draw upon.
That said, you can probably make a pretty informed guess about lots of things. Take, for example, climbing Mount Everest. For some people, this is the experience of a lifetime. Yet I feel with absolute certainty that I would loathe this activity. So how do I know that?
Well, it would conflict with how I like to interact with people. My general preference is to lead or work alone. If I have to follow a leader, or work within a group, they need to be people I know I can rely on. I believe I would be a resentful, surly member of a climb team full of rich randos. And if my climbing guide casually mentioned his love of How I Met My Mother, I would turn and walk into the gloaming darkness.
It also doesn’t align with how I like to perform tasks. I resent doing things just because someone told me to. I struggle with the consistency, routine, and close attention to detail needed to safely climb.
It isn’t of general interest to me as a theory. I enjoy intellectual challenges much more than physical challenges. And I can’t work up enthusiasm for anything if I can’t see “the point” of it. I do not see the point of working very hard to get to some arbitrarily special high-up dirt.
Finally, I have physical quirks. Overall, “indoors” seems like one of mankind’s best inventions. Extreme cold isn’t my jam. I transform into an evil, Black Swan version of myself without adequate food or sleep. I mean, come on—my dæmon is a harpy eagle! He’s built for tropical lowlands, not the Khumbu Icefall!
… In other words, I don’t always know what I like to do, but I know how I like to do things. And that’s the key to finding a rewarding career.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Ask a kid “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and you will get many extremely weird, dumb answers. Shout out to our mutual friend who legendarily answered “a apple.”
- Music video editor
- Assistant District Attorney
- Interior designer
- Orca trainer at Sea World
These are the jobs I expressed an interest in at some point during my childhood. My parents and teachers drew reasonable inferences and tried to guide my interests in helpful ways. But mostly, the randomness baffled them.
At first glance, there is absolutely no through-line to these choices. But if you knew me really well, you could actually see exactly what Baby Kitty was thinking. For example:
- “I am good at manipulating information to tell the story I want to tell.”
- “A shed on Walden Pond is preferable to working with people I have to carry.”
- “I live for conflict, and I’m bloodthirsty for intellectual challenges.”
- “I need to be able to control my immediate space. And I will never be one of those people who owns a tote bag that reads ‘WANDERLUST’ in a wide-kerned, handwritten font.”
- “I am willing to make huge personal sacrifices to do what I think is right.”
- “Animals interest me more than people, because animals are honest.”
- “I think the Little Mermaid is very hot, and she sings about yearning, and I feel yearning when I look at her, and I don’t know what gay is yet, so I guess I just want to be her.”
- “I want to be completely and utterly free to live my life on my terms, and if anyone ever tries to control me, I want to show them the power of my mighty bucking haunches.”
See? I’m actually remarkably consistent! I’m an ambitious, virtuous asshole who loves beautiful women and ~*staying in*~!
Today, I’ve found a way to fulfill all of these aspects of my personality, either in my career or my hobbies. And that’s why I am generally a happy person.
Identifying your likes and dislikes
Some people find this step really easy. For others, it can be quite tough. Here are some suggestions about how to connect with that “how” piece.
Do a personal inventory
Write down a few of the activities that you’ve been exposed to, and ask yourself whether you generally like, or generally don’t like them. Don’t look at the whole activity; break each part into pieces.
Now examine why you like or don’t like each one. Consider the hidden things they have in common with other activities you like. For example, why did you love being in marching band? Often it has little to do with playing music. It’s about the feeling of camaraderie, the travel, the collaboration, the drama. People will see how alive and invested you are in marching band, and tell you to pursue music professionally. But there’s no shortage of careers where you can find those other things, with a core of responsibilities that’s more interesting to you.
If you can determine some overlap, congratulations! You now know how you like to do things!
Take a personality test
Don’t roll your eyes. Personality tests can be an extremely valuable tool for introspection. Caveat: they have to be good personality tests. That’s why we heartily suggest only two.
The first is the Myers-Briggs model. And don’t use 16 Personalities! Their test sucks and mistyped me as an ENFP, can you imagine?! Here’s a boring but pretty trustworthy iteration instead. The second is the Sorting Hat Chats. No joke, those babes know how to pierce a soul.
These tests basically measure how you like to interact with people, tasks, emotions, and ideas. Once you know what you are, explore suggested careers for that type. They can be extraordinarily canny.
Take a career test
I’ve found exactly three kinds of career tests.
First, there’s the kind that sucks. It asks you questions like “do you enjoy making cabinets?” And if you say yes, it surprises you with career results like “cabinet maker.” Insipid tests like these are worthless. I can’t believe this is sponsored by the Department of Labor. Thanks, Obama.
Second, there’s the kind that costs money. These are of indeterminate value because I would never spend my money on one to find out. And I sure as shit wouldn’t suggest you do so, either.
But there’s a third kind that’s super interesting. A new breed of algorithmically-powered neuroscience games and puzzles. They test more abstract traits, like focus and risk-aversion. Even better, the tests are designed to minimize bias. These tests are also subsidized by employers who could benefit from well-matched and happy employees.
The most interesting of these I found was Pymetrics, founded by two badass Harvard/MIT ladies. Their tests were stimulating, and my results felt accurate. Their range of chosen careers is very small, but I hope they expand in the future.
Learn to separate what you’re good at from what you like
This might be the hardest recommendation in this article. There are people who live their whole lives without figuring this one out. And it’s responsible for more quarter-life crises than anything else I’ve ever seen.
It’s really hard to separate what you are good at from what you actually like.
Especially in youth, we get a lot of positive reinforcement for being good at things, especially if those things happen to be something your family, friends, or teachers particularly value. (Remember what we said about how biased parents can be when encouraging their children to pursue their own interests!) And being praised is an incredibly powerful behavioral reinforcement.
Having a natural talent is neither a duty nor an obligation. If you’ve given it the old college try, and realized that you just have no independent interest in it, you get to drop it. Life is too short! You only get a couple thousand days on this planet.
You can be a math genius, and it doesn’t mean that you are wasting something if you decide you’d rather grow rare orchids. If your teacher, mentor, or mom is upset about it, so be it. They might eventually realize how controlling and narcissistic it is to try to force someone into an ill-suited career. Or they may not. Either way, it’s not your responsibility to legislate. You’re not the tool they get to learn that lesson on.
Consider letting the things you love be hobbies
I adore cooking. But I would never take a job as a professional chef. You know why?
Because none of my family or friends have ever sent a plate back because I put too much or too little sauce on something. No one has ever said they loved my food, then dropped a soul-cracking one-star Yelp review later that night. No health inspector has ever scrutinized my kitchen. I don’t have to give the delicious results of my toils to assholes with uncontrolled brats and bad taste who leave religious pamphlets for tips.
There’s a lot to be said for leaving passions out of your career. The love you have for an activity is easily throttled by the realities of monetizing it. Passion makes people burn out. And burn out is among the very worst of adult-y feelings.
“Low and slow”—there’s cooking advice and living advice. I’ve found success in my career not because I’m splendid (I’m not) and bubble with enthusiasm for it (I don’t), but because I’m strategic. I get satisfaction out of it, but I can set it aside at the end of the day. This approach works really well for my long-term mental health and my career.
Know what you need your job to do
Some financial experts advocate for pursuing the highest-earning option, no matter what. We are not of that school. Our perspective is that life is too short to spend a third of it doing something lame. You have more options than just “engineer.”
That said, money should play into the decisions you make. If Job A and Job B are equally intriguing, and Job B pays $35,000 more on average, you should probably go with Job B. Especially if you can use that extra $35,000 to fund the hobbies that are your true passions.
Picture your perfect life. The life that would make you feel content down to your core. What does the budget for that life look like?
For some people, their ideal life is really expensive. If you want to travel the world or have a huge family, you will need a lot of money. That shouldn’t discourage you. You shouldn’t let go of those deep dreams. Doing so would just set you up for a midlife crisis. Instead, you should push yourself to pursue careers that could facilitate those goals.
Some people’s ideal life is to come home from an okay job, crack open a beer, and play video games until 2AM. There is less pressure on someone with modest wants. There’s no value judgement here. One life isn’t better than another. They’re just different. Pursue the one that makes you happy.
Listen, we don’t appreciate reading a list of the 13 Most Useless Majors and seeing both of our degrees represented. And Piggy’s minor! <dies> And clearly you can find success in those fields. It’s just… harder. And you deserve to know that up-front.
It is incumbent on you to do your research and be realistic about what your job prospects are. What is the average salary? What is the employment rate? What is its projected growth rate over the next decade? And no, don’t trust the website of the school that’s trying to sell you an unbelievably expensive education. These sources are completely untrustworthy and should be utterly disregarded.
There is no “the one”
Sexpert Dan Savage points out that when it comes to relationships, “there is no ‘the one.’”
Meaning: in all the billions of people in the world, there is no single person who is the only person who can make you happy. Rather, you must find someone who is a 9.4, or an 8.1, and make the choice to round them up. It’s incredibly challenging to find someone whose values, goals, dreams, lifestyle, politics, religion, age, physical body, sexual orientation, relationship status, and physical location align with yours. So when you find someone who’s perfect in every way EXCEPT that they roll their toilet paper the wrong way, you shrug your shoulders and round them up.
Careers work the exact same way. There is no one career that will make you happy to the exclusion of all others. Which is good news, considering that most of us will change careers many times during our lifetimes.
Knowing this should take a lot of the pressure off of you.
Your career is not your identity
Finally, remember that your career does not define your personhood. We live in a world where “What do you do for a living?” is a standard introductory question. No wonder feelings like shame and pride can clutter up one’s sense of self.
There are beautiful, spectacular humans who work garbage jobs. There are brilliant, creative souls who do data entry. There are at least two psychopaths lurking in every nonprofit office on the planet (one to announce their psychopathy loudly and early, the other to lurk in normalcy, planning all the office birthday parties while the devil laughs behind their eyes). There are ignorant teachers, punctual contractors, and introverted politicians. And some people’s parents will never be proud of them, no matter how many years they toil away in med school.
Your value as a person isn’t determined by the name or the numbers that appear on your paycheck. So relax, and enjoy your exploration.