What is the best way to find out the right career path for you?

When we’re little, we’re constantly asked the question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Our answers tend to be very clear-cut careers like “an astronaut”, “a vet”, or “a firefighter”. Even as we do grow up, we tend to pursue a particular programme of study expecting to follow a linear path towards our chosen Career.

Some people do have a deep-seated passion, what we might term a ‘calling’, and will pursue that path single-mindedly. Others – in fact, I would argue most of us – are more likely to end up in a particular career quite accidentally. We may get a first job after our studies because of a personal connection or a chance encounter, or we often follow some kind of expected path more or less on autopilot. Our careers will then tend to evolve quite organically over time as we progress to different roles, make various lateral moves, get promoted, and so on.

Partly as a result of this ‘accidental’ career choice, I believe, a growing number of professionals are beginning to question whether they really are in the right job, and to look for more meaning and fulfilment. Certainly we’ve evolved beyond the ‘job for life’ and you’re likely not just to have different jobs over the course of your professional life but also different careers.

So now that you’ve woken up and decided that you want to be more proactive about pursuing the right career path for you – or at least, your next career move – how can you go about finding what that move might be?

Based on my own personal experience of quitting my job to work independently, and the career transitions I’ve witnessed among my friends and coaching clients, here are four questions I would recommend asking in order to identify the best career move for you:

  1. What’s important to you in a career?
  2. What are you good at?
  3. What do you care about?
  4. What will actually generate an income?

Let’s look at each of the questions in turn.

1. What’s important to you in a career?

I think the best place to start when it comes to deciding on the right career path for you is to decide on what’s actually important to you. Another way of looking at this is: how do you define ‘success’ when it comes to a potential career?

In answering this question, strip away what your parents believe, what your teachers told you, what your friends and colleagues are doing. Go back to basics and define what’s important to YOU. Essentially, you’re coming up with the criteria for your dream job here. You’ll want to consider things like: location, schedule, the type of work, how much money you want to earn, the kind of people you’re working with, the level of autonomy, how much learning you want to have on the job…

For example, is it important to be able to have a flexible work arrangement so that you can spend time with your young family? Do you want to be able to work independently, or express your creativity freely? Is it a dream of yours to travel extensively, either with work or between jobs? As you list these criteria, think carefully about which of these are non-negotiable, and which are ‘nice to have’ but not essential.

2. What are you good at?

Now it’s all very well to say that success for me is becoming a prima ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet, but if I haven’t danced since I was 12 years old and I can’t even touch my toes, that’s probably not going to be a viable career choice for me at this stage of my life. So once you’ve defined the criteria for your ideal job, you’ll also need to ask: “What am I good at?”

Think beyond the obvious skills that are specific to your current role and consider broader skills that can be transferred to different situations. You can include skills you’ve developed in previous jobs, maybe even in your hobbies and activities in your spare time. For example, you may have experience in managing complex projects under tight deadlines or in managing social media networks like Facebook and Twitter.

It’s not just a question of hard skills, either; you should also consider your personal strengths and talents. I have a friend, for example, who is a very creative and innovative problem solver, always finding a solution that’s ingenious and unexpected. With such a profile, she’s probably not well suited to a large traditional company where it’s important to play by the rules and follow standard processes; instead, she’ll likely thrive in a more flexible environment such as in a startup where agility and resourcefulness are skills that are much sought after.

3. What do you care about?

This question, I believe, is one that gets to the very heart of why many of us feel unfulfilled in our jobs. We may be good at what we’re doing, and it may tick a lot of our boxes in terms of working arrangements and benefits, but if we fundamentally don’t care about our work then we’re going to feel unsatisfied. We’re also not going to be giving our best to the company.

My own choice to leave my full-time job three years ago was related to this question, as I asked myself: “Do I really care about selling ‘smelly water’ (as someone, I forget who, once called the luxury perfume that I was selling)?” I came from a background of studying African development and wanting to work in an international organisation, so my actual employment in consumer goods marketing was always at odds with my initial career goals. This is an area that I’m still working on, in fact, reconciling my skills and experience from a particular sector with the values I have and a bigger ‘mission’ or purpose.

So what do you care about? This can be what we might class as a classic ‘good cause’ – for example, taking care of the environment, protecting animal rights, providing support for the homeless – but it doesn’t have to be. You might be passionate about making life easier for families with better products in the home, bringing innovation to a traditional industry, building a community of like-minded people; or you might care about promoting music and art, or cultivating beauty and fashion. The point is that this is a very personal choice, and you should make it without any sense of guilt, or comparing to what other people are doing.

4. What will actually generate an income?

Ah, money. I’ve left this point for last intentionally. Having a secure and stable income is one of the main reasons cited why we should stay in our jobs, even if we’re unhappy; and it’s one of the main criteria for most of us when making career decisions. “It’s all very well to follow your passion,” they’ll say, “but how will you pay your bills?”

Many of my clients struggle with what they *really* want to do, and what they think will make them the most money. Often, money is not even an important value for them; they’ve explicitly said that they are not desperate for an immediate income when starting their business, or that they don’t need to earn a huge salary. And yet they will often lean towards making a commercial decision as to the choice that will generate the biggest income rather than the one that best fits their own values and preferences.

I think there’s an underlying belief here that doing what you love will never pay. As I already wrote last week, however, couldn’t it also be argued that doing what you love will mean that you work harder, and produce better outputs, than if you’re unhappy and unmotivated at work?

Whatever you believe in this regard, it’s true that money is a consideration, and it’s important that you do think about how you will earn your income. If you’re looking for a new job, what are the types of companies who will value people with your skills, strengths, and experience? Which industries might you be best suited for, which types of roles? If you’re thinking of working freelance, as a consultant, or starting a business: Who will be the clients that buy your services? Whose problem are you solving? Is your idea actually a viable business proposition?

Now it may not be as simple as ticking off criteria 1, 2, 3 and 4 and, voilà, that’s your dream job; but in my opinion these questions do cover the most important considerations when it comes to finding a meaningful career.

As you answer the questions, and decide between the different options, try not to be too black and white. There are far more constellations of jobs than we might at first imagine, with new hybrid and portfolio careers opening up the possibilities to create our own ideal working arrangements. If you’re missing information about an unfamiliar industry or a different kind of job function, who can you talk to in order to find out more? If you find gaps in your skills, what can you do to fill those gaps?

I hope you end up with a list of viable options at least for you to consider; and I wish you the best of luck in making this important decision!


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