Too many choices are not always good, especially when it comes to picking your career. Use these soul-searching questions to decide which path is right for you.
Take a look at most LinkedIn profiles, and it’s clear that the traditional three-step career plan (graduate college, get a job, work your way up the ladder for the next 40 years at the same company) is outdated. Today’s professionals swap job titles like kids trading snacks at the lunch table, toggling between many companies, teams and industries throughout the course of their careers.
The upside to this trend is that as a young professional, you’ll have a lot of choice throughout your career. The downside is that not all choices are necessarily good, and having too many can be paralyzing.
To aid in the often overwhelming process of choosing a career, my team at Distilled and I worked alongside Rasmussen College to create an interactive career choice tool. Drawing from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, this visualization compares median salary and number of people employed across various fields and job titles. You can narrow your options by choosing what career fields interest you. Clicking on a single dot loads extended information about that job, including a short description of the role, projected growth by 2020 and the level of education needed to obtain that job.
Why put all this data in one place?
Because mapping the number of job opportunities in a given field vs. potential salaries vs. the stability of the market for the next few years can ensure you’re investing in a career that won’t dead-end. As the labor market continues to shift due to changes in technology and the economy, choosing the right path from the beginning can help you avoid emotional and financial stress down the road.
Of course, you should consider other factors when trying to decide which career to pursue. The above interactive tool is but one piece of the puzzle; it’s best used as a foundation as you ask yourself other crucial questions and try to answer the age-old question, “Which career is right for me?”
Here are a few great questions to ask as you decide:
1. What are you good at, and what do you love?
Yeah, I know. You’ve heard the “follow your passion” line since the day you were born. While some people have a clear passion, many of us find ourselves lost in the “passion puzzle,” paralyzed with fear that we’re not doing it right if we don’t have one burning career goal to pursue obsessively. And even if you do have a passion, chances are high it’s something vague and out of reach, like becoming the next Stephen King.
The problem isn’t the idea of pursuing things you’re good at and that you love; it’s that your aspirations are too broad and difficult to act on. Think of your passions as a starting point. If you want to be the next Stephen King, break that passion down into writing and editing. Then do a “skills inventory” to determine just what else you bring to the table.
Are you good at providing feedback and coaching other writers? Then becoming a writing teacher or tutor might be right for you. How about really digging into a subject, synthesizing a ton of research and guiding editorial direction? Then becoming a tech writer or editor might be a better fit.
Your skills inventory could take the form of a checklist, a mock resume or interviews with friends, family members, mentors and former employers who can provide an outside perspective. You can then return to a tool like the one provided above and more carefully match your skills and interests to job titles, narrowing in on those that are both best suited to you and have the best prospects for growth.
2. Are you promotion- or prevention-focused?
Feeling motivated is an essential aspect of job satisfaction. But causes for motivation vary widely from person to person. In general, there tend to be two main motivation types: promotion-focused and prevention-focused.
Promotion-focused professionals are classic creatives and entrepreneurs. They work quickly, seize new opportunities and think abstractly. The downside is that they can be impulsive, overly optimistic and are likely to make bigger mistakes.
Prevention-focused professionals are just the opposite, focused on maintaining the status quo and protecting all they’ve worked on. These professionals prefer planning, reliability, thoroughness and analytical thinking.
While we all need a little bit of promotion- and prevention-oriented thinking, it’s important to determine which way you lean before diving down a career path. A prevention-focused person, for example, would do far better as a developer in a major corporation than launching her own startup. A promotion-oriented person will likely feel suffocated in a traditional 9-to-5, thriving instead in a more creative environment with bigger risks and bigger rewards.
3. What is the best environment for your personality type?
For similar reasons, it’s often helpful to do even deeper personality tests like the Myers-Briggs. This will help you further pinpoint just what you need in your work environment to thrive. Particularly important is determining whether you’re more of an introvert or an extrovert, as the two personality types differ widely in their needs.
An introvert, for example, may be more attracted to a quieter research role, while an extrovert will thrive in a busy, loud sales office. Public speaking, amount of teamwork required and frequent contact with clients are also factors to consider.
But as Susan Cain articulates so well in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, introverts and extroverts can both thrive in roles better suited for the opposite personality type, as long as they’re passionate about the cause or are able to adapt the job to fit their style. This is why stopping to think out your passions is important, though you’ll also discover many along the way.
4. What kind of lifestyle do you want?
Most jobs start off with at least a few years of hard labor at lower pay than you’d like. What’s more important is looking ahead at people well into a career track to determine whether the lifestyle they lead is desirable to you. Some factors you might want to consider include the amount of control they have over their own time, their salary and the amount of travel involved, among other factors.
I’m not saying you need to have a distinct goal like “$150,000 per year or bust.” I’m saying that what’s acceptable to you is highly individual, and it’s important to do what will make you the most comfortable.
If giving back to the community gives you the most job satisfaction, then perhaps being a social worker with a relatively low wage will satisfy your needs. But if you’d prefer to turn off work at the end of the day and go live your “real” life, including eating out, travel and play, then perhaps a higher salary goal is more appropriate.
Again, these are things you may discover as you go.
5. Where do you want to live?
While not essential for every career type, determining where you want to live can be an important part of the career search process. This is especially true for jobs that are focused in certain regions. If you want to work in the magazine industry, then you’ll probably need to move to New York City. Wheat farmer? The Midwest. Anthropologist? Just about anywhere.
Beyond geographical region, think again about the lifestyle on offer in the places you’ll be headed. Do you seek a metropolitan lifestyle with restaurants and cultural attractions on every corner? Or do you need the beauty and quiet of a rural setting?
This is another place where the data can be extremely helpful. If location is important to you, head to the Bureau of Labor Statistics‘ website and do a few searches of job titles by region.
Deciding which career is right for you can be an overwhelming process. Rather than focusing on identifying a direct path, first determine your own needs and goals, and then sync your findings with what the world has to offer.
Adria Saracino is the head of outreach at Distilled, a digital marketing agency. When not consulting on outreach and content strategies, you can find her writing about style on her personal fashion blog, The Emerald Closet.