Figuring Out What You Want to Do
- Find your passion – Do what you love and success will follow. Always wanted to be a teacher? Go for it. Who knows; down the line you might start a test prep company like Kaplan and bring in bank. Look at long-term career success and happiness, not just today’s paycheck.
- Be flexible – Research different kinds of jobs. Talk to friends and parent’s friends. Don’t be embarrassed to explore what’s out there. If you already have a job but hate it, consider talking to your boss about other roles in the company.
- Plenty of time – Don’t know what you want to do? Most people don’t right away. You have a long career ahead of you so explore and find what you like.
- The power of 10 – American workers have an average of 10 jobs before their 40, so your first almost certainly won’t be your last. In fact, most recent grads spend 1.6 years at their first job.
- Be entrepreneurial – Don’t like working for the man? It’s easier to work hard when you’re working for yourself on something that gets you fired up.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Conference Board, only 39 percent of Americans under the age of 25 are satisfied with their job. Personally, I blame my parents. When they woke up from the drug-induced Bacchanal that was the ‘60s and ‘70s and decided to go to work
, they were sending mixed messages. Utopian dreamers had morphed into eager corporatists and, like Stevo’s dad in the Gen X classic SLC Punk, they heralded the mantra, “I didn’t sell out, son. I bought in.” Sure, this change of heart paid for fancy private schools, a parade of new SUVs, and thousands of dollars a year in fraternity dues. But is working at a job that you hate a prerequisite for success? In this day of the enlightened corporation, shouldn’t it be possible to earn a good salary and still be happy?
Take a job hint from Steve Jobs.
Searching for an answer to the “Big Question” of life after college led me to a transcript of Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford in 2005. Jobs—aka the billionaire founder and CEO of both Apple Computer and Pixar Animation Studios—said that the reason personal computers have interesting typefaces is because he dropped out of Reed College to take a calligraphy class.
“You’ve got to find what you love,” Jobs said to the Internet zillionaires of tomorrow. “And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work…If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
Easy for him to say. What if your dream job has always been to be a lifeguard on a nude beach, a scuba-diving instructor, or an artificial inseminator at the zoo? These are three of Careerbuilder.com’s “Most Unusual Jobs” and sure, they sound great. But how will that ever put food on the table?
Careerbuilder suggests that because even the most obscure gig can lead to success, we shouldn’t abandon our dreams. These days, playing online poker can lead to Vegas riches; airline pilots, after being trained by the Air Force for free, can eventually earn upwards of $300,000 a year and only work around eight days a month; advertising pays nothing at first, but after five or ten years, it can be both creative and lucrative; and construction planners may not earn much in the U.S., but they sure as hell do in Dubai. Even politics pays off at memoir time.
Even naïve artists holding out for fashion design or writing that killer screenplay should keep hope alive. Studies now show that talent is more made than born. That was the conclusion reached by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the authors of the bestselling book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. After studying the work of a Florida State University psychology professor, they wrote that success is the result of hard work and practice more than innate ability. In other words, talent is highly overrated. Rather, “when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love—because if you don’t love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good.”
Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Netscape and one of Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs, also the stresses the importance of taking risks early in your career—you presumably don’t have a mortgage or kids, so nothing should stop you from moving to a new city or making a little less money if you think you are going to be doing something you truly enjoy. Most importantly, he advices recent grads not to plan their careers too much—go with the flow and take opportunities as they come. Even if you are at a mediocre job, you might meet someone who introduces to your next boss, or the person who gives you the confidence to start your own company. Ultimately, finding the “right” job is more about getting out there, trying something, and networking than sitting in a room thinking about it.
But what if I don't know what to do?
Don’t worry, it seems that very few people do. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness argues that because the human brain generally doesn’t know what it likes, but rather figures out how to like what it has, the only way to know if a job is right is to try it out. Experimentation, he writes, is the best way to figure out what you like.
When you’re brainstorming possibilities, keep your options open. It’s easy to get tunnel vision and think that grad school, banking, and consulting are the only good career tracks out there. Check out The Gradspot.com Guide to Life After College for a list of jobs (p. 77). Reach out to people who you think have cool jobs and ask them how they got them.
Getting it wrong the first time—or the fifth—is no crime either. According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin, the average twentysomething entering the job market for the first time can expect, on average, 9 to 13 job changes in a working lifetime. That means the average job in America now lasts only 3.6 years. And those are projected median figures, which means 50 percent of workers can expect to change jobs even more frequently.
Don’t worry, there’s plenty of time to figure it out. Changes in Social Security, bans on forced retirement, and advances in medicine are extending both life and work: Americans are living longer and retiring later, making it both that easier and that much more important to try as many things as you can until you find that gig that really speaks to you.
In essence, you should do what you love. But needless to say, it’s not always that simple. The important thing to remember is that even if you have to take a job for financial reasons, or because it’s all you can get right me, you can still keep searching for that holy grail. You’re too young to accept the notion that “work sucks.” Keep pursuing your interests in your spare time, or work in a job that brings you a step closer to your goal (e.g., if you want to be an artist, work in a gallery). Eventually, that golden opportunity might job show up, but it probably won’t come to you, so go out and get it.