Choosing a career sounds intimidating.
I remember staring down at the “aptitude test” I took in high school and laughing as the list of potential career options included minister… That test clearly wasn’t going to do me very much good.
That list was filled with options that just didn’t seem right for me.
The thing is… I went through other lists of careers but none of them sit well with me either.
I know there are some people that were born to do something. They go to grade school knowing they’re going to grow up to be a doctor or a mechanic or a teacher. I was never one of those people.
Sure… being a pilot looked alright. But so did being a teacher. So did being a video game designer. So did becoming a chef… So did just about everything at one point or another.
Really… there are advantages to every career when you think about it.
And disadvantages too… right? Being practical, there is always something that isn’t completely appealing about a job. That’s just life.
I felt kind of alone in this process because all my friends were picking college majors that they were going to get into a career with. They were planning out awesome lives while I was just there… thinking…
And… getting absolutely nowhere.
I’m looking back at this time and smiling a little because, at the time, I thought I was running into a bit of a tragedy. I was wasting my life trying to decide. That was going to put me behind everyone else… Or that’s what it felt like.
It turns out…
My uncertainty saved my own butt. And now, I’m more or less living the career of my dreams (with solid backup careers lined up for miles.)
I’m telling you this to make an important point:
This process you’re going through is the right one. It can be scary. It should be. It’s a decision you should be taking just as seriously as you’re taking it.
And once you learn the lessons (that I had to learn the hard way,) you’re going to be in a much better position than those people around you that seem to have it all figured out.
The time you take to make this decision is an investment. It’s not a loss. In fact, sometimes delaying certain parts of this decision can pay off big time.
So… take your time. Read this whole article (I know it’s long but I swear it’s going to be worth it.) And you’re going to be happy you did.
Why You Can’t Decide On A Career Now & What We’ll Do Differently
Start by imagining a classy old man sitting in a business suit at his dinner table. It’s breakfast and he’s got a hot plate of bacon and eggs that his amazing wife made him this morning. This business executive is reading his newspaper. He has the classifieds open and he’s looking at some help wanted ads.
He says to his wife, “I’m not sure if I’d rather stay in management or go back into sales. I like the pay of management but… sales is a lot less stressful.”
There are old men like that all over the world making similar decisions.
These are old men with decades of experience under their belt… struggling with the same kind of decision that you’re struggling with right now.
The only difference is that their focus is a tiny bit more narrow than your own. (If you don’t think you’re making quite the same decision then just keep reading this article. By the end, you will be.)
They STILL have no idea what they want to spend their life on.
And they’re doing fine in life.
People thriving in life are making this decision regularly.
You’re not deciding or finalizing anything. You’re just picking a general direction that you’re planning to go in. Once you start in that direction, you’re going to have plenty of opportunities to adjust your focus into something you enjoy even more.
If you think you want to be a doctor and you go through 6 years of college before you realize that you absolutely don’t want to work with patients then there are still hundreds of career choices that include most of that same schooling. You could be a medical researcher. You could go into the business of running a hospital. You’re not stuck being a doctor until the day you die.
Your goal is always just to narrow down options.
If you’re a high school student trying to pick college majors then you just want to pick a general field to work in. There are opportunities in lots of different fields. It’s not as simple as picking engineering to become an engineer or picking accounting to become an accountant. Each field has a slew of career options.
This is what most people (should) mean when they say the major you pick doesn’t matter. (But the major absolutely does matter. There have been plenty of studies showing that certain college majors provide a better return on investment than other college majors. If you’re going to college to make a higher income then college is an investment… And, without a doubt, some college majors are objectively better than others for you.) That is veering off topic but as a quick tip:
Pick a high ROI (return on investment) college major in a field with a clear alternative available to do your dream job. If you want to be a writer (and college is an investment to you, not a luxury vacation package) then don’t get an English degree when you can plausibly get a STEM degree (or even a business degree.) At least pick Journalism, over an English degree. Every field needs writers. A technical skill can let you write technical work (making way more than those hoity toities from the English department.)
But your goal is not to find a destination.
Even if you’re a 70 year old man looking for a career after 60 years in the same field… if you’re searching the help wanted ads then you’re just looking for a career for the next few years because… odds are… in a few years… you’ll change your mind.
That’s part of being a person. Don’t fight it. Just be prepared for it.
Where are you now?
This is the practical part of searching for a career.
People like to ask little children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
(As one comedian said, “the adults asking are just looking for ideas.”)
The children then end up coming up with the wildest ideas. They want to be doctors, or lawyers, or astronauts, or professional baseball players, or even the President of the United States!
The adults smile and acknowledge the child’s response. The child is young. Anything is possible. But in the adults mind they’re usually beating off this cynical thought, ‘ain’t happening but good luck.’
The thing is… anything is possible. All astronauts and Presidents of the United States were children at one point. It’s in the realm of possibility.
Now let’s ask a 45 year old man that’s 120lbs soaking wet and standing at a stout 5’-0” tall. He’s been working in a mill since he was 20 years old. We’ll call him Stan.
If we asked Stan, “Hey Stan, what’s your career plan?”
And he responds telling us with the utmost confidence, “I’m going to be a professional basketball player in the NBA!”
At that point we’ll look Stan up and down. We’ll notice is small stature. And then we’ll probably start wondering what unfortunate mental illness he’s suffering from.
45 year old men that are 5’-0” aren’t making the NBA after 20 years working in a mill. Let’s be practical.
That child we asked has a significantly higher chance of making the NBA than that 45 year old man. The child is going to grow taller. The child has years to practice. He’s going to be young enough to get a long term contract. He’s not a few years away from starting to fall apart…
But Stan… Stan is probably screwed. (Sure… anything is possible but your goal is picking a career isn’t to pick an “anything is possible career.”)
That’s why you should start your career selection by looking at yourself and where you are in life.
If you’re a basketball prodigy then you probably don’t need to read this article. It would be smarter for you just to buckle down and focus on your sport.
But for the rest of us…
It’s okay to chase a dream career but it’s a lot smarter to go in the direction of your dreams and be willing to take some short detours on the way. They let you enjoy the process more.
If you’re the average high school student then you have tons of options for a potential career. For the most part, you’re not looking for a career. You’re looking for a field of study (ideally with good career opportunities coming from it.) And a field of study doesn’t have to send you directly to college.
If you’re a college graduate looking for a career then you still have a lot of options. If your college degree has good career options then you want to be looking in that field for those options. If your college degree doesn’t then try to think about other fields that need the skills you developed. And remember, you’re not picking your career for the next 30 years. You should just be looking for an opportunity to pay your bills and grow a little.
If you’ve been in a certain career for a while now and want a new career then you should be looking around you for alternatives. If you like your career but just dislike the place you’re working then change that. If you dislike your career then look around you at the people working around you, do you like what any of them do? If you dislike your whole field of study then where else could you utilize the skills you’ve developed so far.
Your goal is to stay practical in your career search.
Practical means something different to everyone in this process. Don’t start by thinking about your dream job. Start by thinking about your practical options. What can you actually do from where you are?
The younger you are, the more options you have.
The higher you scored in school, the more options you have. (That’s what Smart Student Secrets can help with most.)
The more open you are to new experiences, the more options you have.
But even if you’re a closed off old man that just barely passed your GED exam last month… there are options that are surprisingly good. In my opinion, most unhappy employees are just people underestimating what they’re really capable of settling in life. There is something you’re the perfect person to be doing. You don’t need to find that one thing. You just need to move in that direction consistently (and eventually… you’ll get there.)
But having aspirations in life are important. That’s what this next section is going to help you with…
Where do you want to be in life?
“Do what you love”
That’s a classic piece that doesn’t have much practical value in the way most people use it.
The high school student being told to do what they love has spent the last 13+ years in a classroom being told what they had to do all day. Then they’d go home to their parents and continue just to follow orders for doing stuff. By the time they have the chance to “do what they love” they’re so exhausted that what “they love” ends up being something completely lazy like listening to music, texting friends, or playing video games.
Since those are the things they love, they end up thinking “do what you love means,” become a musician, a counselor, or a video game programmer (or tester.) They try to put these unpaid lazy time killers into the context of reality.
But not every kid can be a musician. In fact, 99% of people can’t grow up to be a musician. Of the 1% that can grow up to be a musician, 99% of them end up living mediocre middle class lives that never amount to the assume perks of superstardom. Same with writing. Same with astronauts. Same with all kinds of very difficult positions to get into.
Of course… if it’s what you truly want… the door is open for you. But if you just use the task as a way to rest at the end of a long day then it might not be right for you.
What about becoming a counselor because you like to text friends?
Well… texting your friends all day because you enjoy their company is a very different thing than talking to strangers all day about themselves while having to follow strict procedures for everything.
And video game programming because you like video games?
Programming and playing are two very different things. There is a similar problem solving but programming is dramatically more difficult and boring. Plus… and this one is important… the competition in the field is deep because kids are funnelled into these programs because of this “do what you love” advice. That means you’ll make very little money and/or you’ll be stuck working lots of hours.
I truly and deeply believe in “do what you love.”
But you shouldn’t try and interpret “what you love” into any particular career.
Okay… so you love playing video games… how can you maximize the time you’re playing video games?
You can make a ton of money and retire early so you have more time to do what you love?
Or you can work a part time job and settle for a cheaper lifestyle so you have plenty of time to do what you love?
Heck… you can get a work from home phone job and you might be able to play video games while you work. (Just don’t tell the boss.)
Don’t try to turn “doing what you love” into a career.
Turn it into a goal.
Sure… if you love doing math problems or cooking food or driving a truck then maybe you’ll have a great job doing what you love. (Hopefully, after you start doing it all day, you’ll still love it.)
But most of us barely even know what we love until years later. There are tons of retirees that don’t realize they have a passion for something until they’re already retired. And then… the odds that thing they love will actually pay the bills… that’s even more unlikely.
Don’t think about your future career in the context of “doing what you love” unless it’s blatantly obvious and completely logical for you. If you’re a little uncertain then it’s just a distraction from the practical things you should be thinking about.
Here are the practical things to be thinking about:
What are you most willing to spend your time doing?
How do you feel about sitting at a desk all day?
How do you feel about being on your feet all day?
Do you prefer to spend all day alone or all day with other people?
Do you mind solving people’s problems?
Do you mind solving math problems?
Do you mind writing?
How long do you want to work each day?
How do you feel about working 12 hour days?
How do you feel about working only a few hours a day?
How do you feel about working weekends?
How do you feel about being stuck in the same place 9 to 5 every week day?
Are you looking to retire early or work a long career?
*Keep in mind… this opinion might change once you actually get into the career.
Are you willing to do a job for more years because it means you’re doing what you love?
Or would you prefer to work hard for a little while to have more free time sooner?
Do you have any important skills?
Are you good at math?
Are you good at writing?
Are you good at talking to people?
Are you good at puzzles/problem solving?
Do you have any important disadvantages?
Are you bad at math?
Are you bad at writing?
Are you bad at talking to people? (That’s the one I have)
Are you bad at puzzles/problem solving?
One more thing: don’t just skim through these questions quickly. Read them. And think about them. But also, think about things that you’re not being asked. These questions are just prompts to get you thinking about these topics. Your brain can take you in the right direction if you let it.
What questions should I have asked? Answer those questions for yourself.
This is where you might start to feel “career options” start to show up in your mind.
Don’t worry about picking a career yet. You can jot down ideas if they interest you but don’t worry about narrowing it down.
The primary purpose of this section is to ensure you have some standards to judge your career choices by.
For example: if you don’t want to work long days and weekends then you might want to rule out becoming a lawyer and retiring early. Lawyers work long days and weekends. Sure… there are part time lawyers out there but they usually have decades of experience under their belts. (Or… you can still pursue this goal… you just need to be prepared for the additional challenges.)
This section can help you find careers closest to your interests and skills.
How are you willing to get there?
There is another super important factor to consider before digging in and picking the career direction of your dreams…
Maybe your dream career is to become a professional basketball player…
Okay… so you love the idea of playing basketball all day, attending hours of practice, working out, eating like a horse so you can keep growing, studying game film, and riding in buses and planes during all your free time. That sounds like a ball to you. Awesome.
How could you get there?
You’ll probably need to play hours and hours of basketball every day. You’ll need to study games. You might need to work out and eat big now. There is a whole lot of necessary components to prepare. In fact, if you’re already 16 and thinking this… (and you haven’t already been doing these things) you might need to spend virtually every free second chasing this goal. You might have to sacrifice points in school. You might need to give up some friendships. You might have to stop doing the other things you love…
Are you willing to make those sacrifices to achieve that goal?
That’s the big question. (And there are a ton of factors… don’t think I’ve traced over everything in just that paragraph.)
What are you willing to do to get to where you want to go?
As an undergraduate, I was considering going to medical school. I started taking some classes in the field but I was late so they plopped me on a waiting list. That’s when I realized… to be a doctor… I was going to need to spend the next 8+ years in school… (Plus deal with the waiting lists.)
And that wasn’t something I was looking forward to.
So… I didn’t. I switched to a career that I thought had more immediate opportunity. And it worked out great.
What are you willing to do to get the career you want?
Are you willing to go to college for 4 years?
Are you willing to go to college for 6 or 8 years?
Are you willing to live on very little money today so you can work your way up?
Are you willing to study every free second you have (or even just an hour a day)?
Are you willing to practice for hours a day (or even just 30 minutes)?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions.
They’re just about how you feel. It’s better to say no to these questions now than to attempt one of them and fail.
In fact, if you haven’t said no to any of these questions then I’d be concerned you’re not truly appreciating the questions.
Answer this: what are you NOT willing to do to make a career?
Until you can answer that question, you’re not ready for the next section.
Make A List Of Career Options
This is a good time to pull out a sheet of paper and make a list of “career options.”
This isn’t a conclusive or final list. This is a process you might want to do multiple times with a different mindset each time. It’s just a brainstorming exercise based on the stuff you’ve learned in this article.
Stick within practical reality. (If you’re 40… you probably shouldn’t be writing professional basketball player down.)
Be careful you’re not mixing up doing what you love and doing something related to what you love.
Only write things you’re willing to make the required sacrifices to achieve. (If you hate school and studying then you probably shouldn’t write down doctor.)
This list is going to help you in the final part of this article.
Set a timer and spend at least 10 minutes thinking about this stuff.
If you’re really struggling to find options then stop. Expect to think of 1 or more per minute. If you’re 5 minutes in and have none then you’re not ready for this. Take a break. Do something else. Come back some other time.
The Most Important Factor In Your Final Decision
Do you have a list of practical career options now?
I’d highly recommend you have one before reading this section because this can lead to a powerful realization.
If you don’t have a list then at least think about the things you would put on that list before you continue.
You might have started this article to find out how to choose a career but as I hinted at earlier…
You never need to make a decision.
In its original latin, “decision” means “to cut off.” As in, to cut off (or permanently remove) other possibilities.
Highly motivated people never make a decision on careers.
If you’re worried because you can’t make a decision then it could be a good sign. It could be your internal motor revving up every time you try to force yourself to keep growing.
Sure… you might see one career that looks really good right now but that career isn’t a guarantee. Odds are, you barely even understand what it means you have that particular career.
In school, I was always told that engineers did math all day. Now I know that some engineering is more about sitting in meetings all day. Math almost never comes up. It’s reading charts more than solving equations. Those are very different tasks than doing math all day.
Fortunately, you don’t have to decide on any particular career. You can do what I’ll teach you here instead…
Think about your list of career options…
Do you have any related careers on that list?
Maybe you want to be a doctor or a nurse?
Maybe you want to be an architect or a contractor?
Maybe you want to be a programmer or a computer scientist?
Look at those options and dig a little bit deeper too because some of these related career options might not be as obvious.
If you want to be a doctor or a scientist then… there are plenty of science options for medical students.
If you want to be an architect or a programmer then there is some potential overlap. Some programmers program architectural programs.
If you want to be a programmer then… really… almost every field in the world needs programmers in some way.
In fact, lots of careers are intricately connected to other careers.
And that is what can make the decision you’re about to make much easier.
Look at the different careers you’re considering…
Which is the most versatile career direction to go in?
First of all, if you have a list of architectural topics and then an oddball, become a doctor on the list then you might want to just rule out doctor. If you like tons of aspects of one field then it’s probably the smarter, safer, and more enjoyable career field for you.
Knock off all the oddballs that you can’t relate to another career you want to do. (There may be exceptions to that if you have extraordinary connections to that particular career but really… you’ll probably be happier staying away from that oddball career.)
Now look at the remaining related careers…
Which career is the hardest to prepare for?
Now ask, are you willing to do what it takes to prepare for that particular career? And make sure you keep in mind what you learned about yourself earlier in this article. Don’t change your mind now.
If you’re not willing then go down one more on that list of hardest to prepare for and repeat this. Do it until you find one you’re willing to do.
If you’re willing… then… believe it or not… you have a very solid direction picked.
I know… it probably doesn’t feel like it.
That’s how good decisions often feel.
For example: people might be excited and passionate about eating birthday cake but if they make the responsible decision of eating a salad, they don’t get that same rush… but they’re making the healthier decision.
“Ughh… I don’t want to eat salad for a career though…”
Being responsible comes with it’s consequence but it also comes with perks.
You’re setting yourself up for a career that you’re perfectly capable of doing well in. And more importantly, you’re setting yourself up for a career with more awesome options than 95% of people you’re going to school with now.
Your friends are going to be going to college. Switching majors. Losing years of education. Getting jobs they don’t really like and being stuck in them because they don’t have any options. And they’re being saddled with tons in student loans that they dread working to pay off.
Responsible people get less birthday cake… sure…
But they also get choices.
If you go through the training required for your field then you can do virtually anything on your list with a little bit more training. You’re not shooting off in a random direction and hoping you land somewhere you actually like. You’re going to be surrounded by things and opportunities that interest you.
If you decide… “this particular career isn’t for me” then you’re going to have a whole list of easy to transfer to careers and 1 of them is going to be awesome for you.
In fact, as you get older and your interests change, you’re going to have the freedom to switch careers faster and easier than anyone else around you.
But that’s looking far ahead…
And a fundamental point I’m trying to help you with is this:
Predicting the future is hard.
If you’re young then you’re not trying to pick a career.
You’re trying to pick a direction with tons of good career options. Career options that fit your personality, temperament, and goals.
Eventually, when you get trained for the field and learn more about it you can narrow your career focus down a little bit and you’re actually going to have the skills to make a smart decision about it.
And even when you pick a career to get into… one day… it’s okay to change your mind.
This isn’t a decision at all.
It’s little decisions daily.
It’s best to start by picking a smart direction. Then narrowing down the focus towards a final destination.
And, believe me…
If you got yourself to read this whole article, you’re one of the people that aren’t going to have a problem crushing it in whatever career you choose.
We Just Threw Out A Few Hundred Members Because They Couldn’t Cut It – You Want To Try?
I’ve gotten a lot of flack for my tendency to throw-out hundreds of people on a whim but it’s only because they’re not even trying anymore. Honestly… this community isn’t for everyone.
Smart Student Secrets is a community dedicated to students developing their own superpowers like:
Memorize hundreds of terms in less time than it takes you to brush your teeth
Spend more time enjoying yourself with the fun stuff in your life while STILL improving your scores
Learn complex concepts using “dirty mental tricks” that would make you blush if someone found out.
We’ve got plenty of room for you in the community.
Want to give it a shot?