“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a familiar question. But somewhere between elementary school and your senior year of college, your answers to this question change from fantasy (“I want to be a secret agent-ninja assassin-space freighter pilot-NFL quarterback-millionaire.”) to acceptance of bleak reality (“I guess I could be a call center supervisor.”) or just plain cluelessness (“I dunno.”).

Greater numbers of college seniors than ever before don’t know what they want to do when they graduate. Heck, greater numbers of mid-life professionals don’t know what they want to do. You’ve probably heard that the average working American will change careers three times within their lifetime. I’ve heard other estimates as high as seven or eight times. Because we have more opportunity and flexibility than any previous generation, we wrestle with the burden, the ambiguity, the stressful exercise of settling on one thing to do (pansies!). It just seems so final, like picking that special someone you will spend your life with.

The good news is, you can keep switching until you find one that really fulfills you (with romantic relationships, this could get tiring or troublesome). True, there are some downsides to switching careers. And finding the right one sooner rather than later is preferable. To help you pick the right career the first time (or the second, third, or seventh time), the following 5 tips are offered:

1. Know thyself. According to statistics, Americans spend more time at work than their counterparts in any other country on earth. Work is a big part of our lives. We make money, make things happen, rise in status, and enjoy contributing to the bottom line. Call us crazy, but we just have to work. When we introduce ourselves, we often tell people our occupations. So, considering the importance of our jobs in our lives and identities, it makes sense that our jobs should match us, our interests and our strengths. Therefore, to know which job would fit you best, you should start by knowing yourself.

Everybody has certain preferences, things they like or despise, things they can enjoy doing day after day, and activities that put them into a comatose state within 30 seconds. Everybody has things they excel at and things they stink at, strengths and weaknesses. At our core, everybody has a set of beliefs about what brings happiness or constitutes success. What do you want in life? What are you hoping to achieve? What motivates you? What makes you happy? Write these down. Make a list and make sure you have them down pat. You will want to have the answers to these questions on hand as you move into choosing a career. These, combined with the steps below, will help you find a career that most closely matches your unique combinations of talents, interests, and goals.

They will be especially useful in avoiding dead end jobs. For instance, let’s say you’ve always loved being around people. You thrive on talking with them, doing special things for them, and making sure they have a good time. Your mind is constantly thinking of new ways to do these things, whether at home, in the car, or playing around. You would rather be out with friends anytime instead of being at home alone. You also have a keen interest in decorating and fashion. You’ve always believed that making people happy is the key to a good life. You want to be comfortable financially but don’t really care about being filthy rich. Relationships are what matter most to you.

Now let’s say your career options are laid out before you. There’s accounting, marketing, dog grooming, military, law enforcement, wedding planning, … whatever. Well, if you’ve kept in mind those things above, you can look at accounting, for example- lots of lonely hours auditing, cranking out spreadsheets, etc.-, and know immediately that, despite the appealing paychecks, it’s not going to work for you. You don’t even care about making insane money anyway. You want to be with and help people, and you won’t find that in accounting. Move on.

You do the same thing with the rest of the choices. Some of them are possibilities, they kind of fit. But then you come to wedding planning (which, in an odd coincidence, is on the list). You go down your list. Being with people? Check. Making things special? Check. Decorating? Check. Fashion? Check. Makes enough to be comfortable? Bingo! Looks like you’ve found a potentially perfect fit. This step isn’t all, but it is a crucial foundation to work from. Check out the next step…

2. Research, research, research. Once you know yourself, it’s time to dig in and learn all you can about your prospective careers. You want to answer questions like: “What would I be doing every day? What are some of the difficulties associated with this career? How many hours does a _______ usually work per week? How much do they make? What are the benefits of this career?” The closer you can get to the actual experience of working that job 24/7 the better.

You will probably find that the, ahem, internet is an abundant source of information on careers. Not all sites are reliable, however (except me, of course), so you will want to take your research a bit farther. Be wary of information from recruiters as they are usually presented through rose-colored glasses.

One noteworthy source of information is the interview. Although it may seem to be a bit of a production, the best way to learn about a career is to sit down with someone who has already walked the path and ask them questions about it. They will usually be happy to share their experience with you and you will add another friend to your network (for more on networking, click here).

In addition, various other third party sources exist to help career-seekers investigate. The average public library will usually have books on different careers and sometimes indexes of contact information for various companies. Websites like Vault.com and Hoovers.com are also extremely good resources. Researching potential careers takes a lot of work, but it will save you the trouble of trying each one out in the real world. Do the leg work now. You’ll be glad you did!

3. Remove salary from the equation – at the beginning. As I began my career search during my senior year (way too late, by the way), I went to websites that listed the highest paying jobs in America. Naturally, I just took my finger to the top of the page. “Ah, CEO of a Fortune 500 company. $100 million per year. That sounds good.” After all, I had a wife and a son to provide for. And I started making plans to take the corporate world by storm.

Well, let’s just say, so many years later, that CEO position has been slow in coming, and the corporate world turned out to be… less than desirable for me. Making money is great. And I’m sure making insane amounts of it would be really great. Maybe I’ll know what that feels like someday. But let’s face it: money isn’t the only factor. In fact, for many people, it is ultimately not the most important factor.

A mentor of mine, who made so much money at age 30 that he could retire and never work again, told me the story of a friend of his who was living the good life in Southern California. His friend worked as a CPA and made massive amounts of money, enough to own a mansion in West LA and three vintage sports cars and buy a Mercedes for each of his three children. But he worked like a dog, never got to enjoy those sports cars, and watched as his wife spent away his paycheck month after month on Rodeo Drive. One day, this man told my mentor, “You know what I would really love to do? Coach basketball.” My mentor asked him, “Well, why don’t you?” His friend responded sadly, “I couldn’t possibly afford my house payment and all my car payments on a coach’s salary. I’m barely making ends meet.”

Is this possible? Yep, and it happens all the time. You can make six or seven figures and still be quite unhappy in your job and barely make it. The truth is, research has found no correlation between salary and personal satisfaction. This means that how much money you make doesn’t matter either way. Doesn’t make you more or less happy.

My suggestion when you’re choosing a career: take salary out of the equation- at least at the beginning. It will allow you to see those things that will contribute to your job satisfaction clearly without money in the way. Of course, money will play a significant role later on in the process, especially if you are a breadwinner for a household or you live in an expensive area. But in order to be happy with what you do, your choice has to first be a choice of the heart. Money won’t change that.

4. Swallow your pride – at the beginning. After doing all the research and narrowing down your list of careers, don’t expect to get the corner office just yet. For starters, you may need to take a low-paying, or even no-paying, job in that field. Internships sometimes don’t pay. Temp positions pay very little. But both can be great ways to immerse yourself in those fields.

As an intern or a temp or a grunt, whatever the position may be, you will mingle with professionals in those fields, build your resume and skill set, and learn more about what it takes to accomplish your goals. These bottom rung jobs tend to be “rites of passage” for some industries, like production assistant positions in the film industry. Also, these low-commitment positions can be good ways to find out you didn’t like the career you chose after all. Better sooner than later.

My point is, once you have an idea of a good career, don’t be afraid to swallow your pride, roll up your sleeves, and work for nothing. The best thing that could happen is that it could be your foot in the door to a long, satisfying career. The worst is that you hated it and avoided a costly mistake. Get through these low-paying jobs while you’re young and relatively commitment-free. It gets harder to do these as you get older and take on more financial obligations.

5. Just do it. Despite all the research, soul-searching, and experimenting, an element of risk exists in any career decision. I mean, the opportunity costs of deciding to be an entrepreneur instead of pursuing a career on Wall Street can be very high. And you never really know if you’re going to be successful in your chosen career. You could end up as the founder of the next Google or you could end up bankrupt.

What do you do when you think you’ve found a career track that fits you well but all of the risk is also staring you in the face? Just go for it. Jump right in. Commit to your choice. I may be wrong, but, as far as I know, no one has ever died from choosing the wrong career. And you can always start anew if you find that your choice was wrong. The worst thing you can do is never start. The second worst thing you can do is to pursue it half-heartedly. If you do things halfway, every path will be the wrong path.

So, find your career path and chase it with all you’ve got. These are my pearls of wisdom. What do you think? What have you experienced in searching for the right career? What methods have you used to pick a career? Share your experiences and thoughts here.

About the author

Marcus Varner earned his BA in English from Brigham Young University with a Creative Writing emphasis. He is currently in his second year at BYU’s lauded MBA program studying Marketing. He blogs, writes fiction and screenplays, loves movies, and can’t resist playing superheroes with his kids.

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2 comments on “Finding the Right Career in 5 Steps

  • Thank you for the author. I found the article is very great and inspiring. However, in the actual life, finding the right career and getting one is not always the same. We may have known what we want, and we put all our effort to get it, but some of us still stuck to our non-ideal job. So, what should we do? I still think, whatever you’re doing right now, do it with all your heart. Trust me, it is worth it. If you’re good at your current job, have good relationship with colleagues, it will also affect our future job because we have created good self images to ourself and to other people around us. We also create a good work ethic, which I believe is also very important besides conformity between ourselves and our jobs. Eventually, either someday we will get the ideal job or not, we will be satisfied with ourselves.

    J.C. Carvill
    Email: [email protected]
    URL: http://www.cosmosing.com/jeanclaudecarvill/index.php

  • You have a wondeful blog. I would have to agree with the first comment. Sometimes it is not as easy as simply saying I want to be A… Life doesn’t always work out the way we want. I think a great addition to the net would be a site that would actually help guide people into who they should become. I hope that makes sense. I am a Thai woman and my English is not so good.
    I just feel that so many times, atleast for me, I had no idea what I wanted to be or if what I wanted to be, wanted me to be it or not. Thanks for your wonderful blog and thanks for the dofollow

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