“You can do anything you put your mind to.” If you grew up in the late 80s or 90s, this is something you heard often either at home or on TV. And that’s a good thing—much better, at least, than the, “Get the highest paying job possible and count the days down to retirement” school of thought.
When your many years of education are behind you and it’s time to actually pick what that “anything” is, both pieces of advice can be paralyzing (and depressing). For some, finding the right career is simply a matter of browsing through job ads. For many others, the process takes a lot of exploration, self-reflection, and a willingness to redirect when necessary.
Whether you’re fresh out of college or a decade down the road, it’s important to embrace the process full-on. These 5 crucial questions are a great place to start.
1. What am I good at?
Knowing what you’re good at—as in, really knowing—can be more complicated than it at first seems. Essentially, this breaks down into:
• What you’re passionate about. Don’t confuse this with a bigger, more vague dream. Instead, do an inventory of pursuits both big and small that get you all fired up and have you losing track of time. Rather than, “becoming a rock star,” look for specific skills like, “learning new instruments,” “writing songs,” “talking about art” and, “interacting with a crowd.” This will help you not only pursue your bigger dreams, but also identify traits that can apply to jobs that are less of a reach.
• Tasks you do easily. Sure, it might not be your life’s dream to lead a group of people, but if you find yourself naturally stepping into leadership positions, you might just be management or classroom bound. The same goes for those well-structured emails you type out rapidly, or your ability to sketch out a design in seconds flat. While placing easy tasks at the center of your career course won’t do you much good (feeling like your career is challenging and provides room for growth is crucial for satisfaction), skills that come easily to you can form the basis of greater things.
• What other people say you do well. Most of us are shockingly poor judges of our own strengths and weaknesses, whether due to overconfidence or complete lack thereof. The younger you are, the truer this is likely to be, as you simply haven’t had the breadth of experience to show you just where you thrive. Asking peers, parents, teachers, colleagues and mentors to articulate your skills, either in a list, a resume, or a recommendation letter, can unearth strengths and interests you didn’t even know you had, or shed new light on talents you may be taking for granted.
2. What locations am I comfortable living in?
This one isn’t nearly as superficial as it sounds. Chances are, you’re going to be sticking with your chosen career for a while, and that means heading where the jobs are. For some jobs, like freelance writing, designing, and well, just about anything that can be done over the internet, it really doesn’t matter whether you work from Miami or Timbuktu But if you choose magazine publishing, chances are you’ll wind up in New York. Entertainment industry? LA. Oil? Houston. Farming? The countryside.
As such, it’s worth considering what you need from the place you live, such as:
• Amenities and Homes: Living in an 800-square foot apartment in Manhattan provides a much different experience than a 2,000 foot home in the suburbs. Determine what amenities are important to you both inside and outside of your living space.
• Culture and Lifestyle: Do you enjoy living in a city with a constant stream of art openings, concerts, readings, tastings and other events, or do you prefer a slower lifestyle? Do you mind living in a place where the majority of people have different life values and political beliefs, or are you okay mixing it up? Culture and lifestyle inform who we are every day.
• Access to Nature: Will Central Park suit your fancy, or do you prefer the nearby lakes, mountains and streams of a place like Seattle? Or would you rather call a mountain “neighbor” on your Montana ranch? While you may need to make compromises, it’s important not to choose a career that will keep you far away from the things that rejuvenate you and give you meaning.
3. How much control do I need over my own time?
Some people love the structure of a corporate job; other people hate it. For the former, this is simply a question to check off and move on. For the latter, it’s important to examine each potential career path with questions like:
• How much travel will there be?
• How much teamwork and meetings will be required?
• Are there opportunities to work from home either full or part-time?
• How flexible is the vacation policy?
• How strict are the hours? Will there be a lot of overtime?
• Are there opportunities at companies in this industry to do things like Google’s 20 percent time?
In some cases, the answers to these questions will be obvious. A congressional aide, for example, will have far less control over her time than a woman who runs a business out of her own home. But in many cases, these are things that can only be discovered as you go. What’s more, greater control is sometimes easier to find as you rise in the ranks, so it’s always best to keep an eye on future potential.
4. Am I more introverted or extroverted?
Introverts and extroverts bring different sets of skills to the table. Extroverts will be miserable in a role that requires a lot of introverted skills, while introverts will similarly struggle when forced into an extrovert’s shoes. A few things to consider in any given role:
• Amount of public speaking
• Pace and amount of deadlines and communication
• Amount of teamwork and collaboration with colleagues
• Degree of stimulation in the work environment
• Amount of off-work socializing required
For a deeper look at this topic, we highly suggest reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking or watching her eye-opening TED talk.
5. How much money do I really need?
For some people, million dollar dreams need to be million dollar realities before they’re satisfied. Other people are much more comfortable at lower income levels, just as long as certain needs are fulfilled. Artists, for example, might be okay scraping by as long as they can do what they love, while non-profit workers can make do with less as long as they feel they’re giving back.
Consider how important it is to you to:
• Own your own home
• Consistently put away for longer term financial goals, like your retirement or a future child’s college fund
• Go on X number of vacations each year
• Be able to buy whatever you want, whenever you want
The overall idea here is to pick a lifestyle, not a job title. Keep in mind that this, too, will change as you grow into your career and potentially have a family. For the best results, set monetary goals in increments of 5 years, and check these goals against your chosen path.
In today’s market more than ever, a career is an evolving thing, with many professionals holding multiple titles within their lifetime. It’s really not about going all for passion, or all for money. It’s about balancing your wants and needs with your goals, talents and skills, and rerouting wherever needed.
For more on this subject, we suggest taking a read through this extensive career guide from Rasmussen College, and taking a spin through the data visualization below.
Click image to open interactive version (via Rasmussen College).