You don’t start off knowing the exact person you’re going to marry. So why should you expect to recognize the right career so early in your professional life?
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“Five years ago, did you know that you were going to end up marrying Gretchen?” I asked my newlywed friend Rob, my eyes wide with curiosity. “I mean, how did you figure it out?”
Rob set his frothy pint o’ beer down on the table and looked at me with disdain.
“Therese, I’m not trying to insult you here, but your questions are so freaking STUPID! I’ve already told you a million times—there’s no possible way I could’ve known that I’d marry Gretchen. Five years ago, I hadn’t even met her yet! I didn’t even know she existed!”
“You mean you started out without knowing who you’d marry at all?” I asked in dismay. “And you’re saying that you didn’t plan to marry her from the beginning?”
“Well, of course not. I mean, how could I have known?”
I chewed thoughtfully on my Gardenburger patty for a couple of minutes, slowly digesting what Rob had just told me.
His amazing wife, Gretchen, didn’t come into his life through careful thinking or planning. He hadn’t, after some hard-focused brainstorming session, thumped his fist on the desk and exclaimed, “I finally know—it’s GRETCHEN I should marry!”
In fact, no amount of brainstorming, analysis, thinking or planning could have resulted in the answer of “Gretchen”—not ever.
I know this story sounds a little silly, but there’s a reason for that: finding your career and your life path really isn’t all that different than finding a hot and funny wife named Gretchen.
You don’t start off knowing the exact person you’re going to marry, and no one expects you to. In fact, to hold someone up to this expectation would be ludicrous.
So why do we expect this when it comes to our careers?
Why is there this ridiculous expectation that we should know from the get-go exactly what we want to do with our lives?
Contrary to expectation, some of the happiest and most successful people started off without a grand plan or a clear vision of what the endpoint would be—and yet they ended up doing insanely fulfilling, passion-igniting, made-for-them things. I’ve heard this from so many of my mentors, in fact, that I now believe career planning is a horrible idea.
It’s time to change the way we think about career planning, from a process in which we think and plan and analyze our way into the answers beforehand to a process more akin to finding a mate. So here are three reasons why finding your truest career path is like finding a spouse:
1. Experience matters
Back in high school, I used to have the hugest crush on…let’s just call the guy “Danny.” He was perfect in every way (or so I thought): he had beautiful blue eyes, he was funny and nice and smart and he was the star of the basketball team. Based on all rational thought, Danny appeared to be the perfect boyfriend. After lots of hard work and investment (er, stalking), my dream finally came true: Danny and I went out on a date.
Guess what? Dating Danny wasn’t nearly as awesome as I’d thought it would be. It turns out he wasn’t a great fit for me, after all—he smelled funny and our senses of humor really clashed.
Choosing a career without having any real life experience or opportunities for exploration is like deciding to marry Danny based on the view from the gymnasium bleachers. Regardless of how much thinking or research or ogling you’ve done, you simply cannot know beforehand what the actual experience will be like.
So how do you go on a date with your potential career? You do anything that helps you actually TRY OUT different options, even if you have no clue whether or not you’ll end up enjoying them. Volunteer. Get an internship. Start a project. Get involved in any way possible. You can do this even if you already have a full-time job.
2. We can’t possibly think our way into all the options
Five years ago, Rob couldn’t have identified Gretchen, regardless of how hard he’d thought or analyzed or planned. Why? Because he had no idea she even existed. If he had followed the traditional career planning model, he’d have thought through his list of contacts, scanned the personal ads for potential candidates and decided to marry Janet, who was nice but far less compatible.
When it comes to our careers, there are countless obscure options we haven’t been exposed to (or that may not even exist yet) just waiting to be discovered. In trying to think our way into the answers beforehand, we miss out on exposure to the Gretchens of the world.
How do we find our way into these options? Through experience. By going on dates with potential careers, we’re exposed to new contacts, new experiences and unforeseen opportunities that we never could have envisioned from the get-go.
3. We’re looking for far more than just a career
Traditional career thinking hinges on the fact that if only we could identify that one perfect career and get the job, we’d be magically fulfilled. HA!
Let me tell you about my friend Mark. Mark is married to “the woman of his dreams”—and yet, still, he’s unhappy. My friend Allison has attained the “job of her dreams” as an attorney—and yet, still, she’s unhappy.
In dating and in work, the same principle holds true: a career or a spouse alone will never fulfill us.
We’re looking for far more than just a career; we’re looking for ourselves. We’re looking for purpose and passion and meaning, and if we rely solely on an occupation (or a spouse) to give us these things, we’ll be sorely disappointed time and time again.
So there you have it: three reasons why finding your career path is like finding a spouse. When it comes to career planning, our traditional methods are flawed. Trying to identify a spouse a priori would be unthinkable in the realm of relationships, and it’s time we shifted the way we approach our career paths as well.