How to Choose a Career – The Simple Dollar Way

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career fair by yngrich at FlickrThere are a lot of ways to choose a career. Most of them are bad.

Someone tells you, “Hey, you know, you should be a…” Bad.

You started a job and just kind of stuck around because nothing better came along. Bad.

You pick out a college major because it seems interesting at first glance without really knowing the kind of work it entails. Bad.

Your parents always had some particular dream for you. Bad.

You took a job because you needed some quick cash and never left because you got hooked on the paychecks. Bad.

Although they might all seem like different paths on the surface, these careers all have one big thing in common. None of them take you into account. Your passions, your talents, your interests – none of them matter in any of those cases. Instead, they’re all driven by the opinions of others or the vagaries of a paycheck.

Instead, I suggest the following. This is the exact advice I’ll give to my nieces and nephews as they approach graduation age, and the exact advice I’ll give my own kids as they approach graduation age.

The Simple Dollar Plan for Choosing a Career

First thing, throw your preconceptions out the window. So many people block out what they should be doing because of something they’ve been told in their past or something they’ve falsely come to believe about themselves. “I’d love to do X, but…” is a statement that keeps you from choosing the right career.

Second thing, don’t worry about income when choosing a career. Most career paths are littered with “average” people – people who jumped into the career because of the reasons above and aren’t pursuing the career with their passion. The people with passion are in the top 10%. Thus, you’ll make more in the seemingly lower-end career that you’re passionate about than you will in the more high-end career that you’re more ho-hum about.

Third thing, listen to your heart. Don’t listen to anyone’s blather about what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, or what you should be interested in and what you shouldn’t. I watched one boy’s artistic impulses get crushed by a family who thought that boys shouldn’t be artists. I watched a woman’s ability to paint brushed aside by a husband who thought it wasn’t lucrative enough for his tastes. Ignore those people. Listen to what your innermost heart is telling you.

Fourth thing, be realistic about your skills. Most jobs require some skills to get your foot in the door. For example, I’m never going to be a major league baseball player (although I dream of throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game). That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t be able to find some job in the baseball world. There are lots of jobs associated with baseball, from concession stand operator and sports management to physical therapy and sportswriting. Don’t give up on your baseball-fueled dreams just because you can’t pitch like C. C. Sabathia or hit like Suzuki Ichiro.

Got all that? What’s left is figuring out what your skills are (your actual vocation) and what you’re passionate about (the subject of your vocation). Find a way to match the two, and not only will you be happy for a very long time, but you’ll also find yourself naturally rising in your career path.

How do I figure out my skills? There are lots of indicators for this. Not all of these will match perfectly, but many of them will coincide.

What classes come easier to you naturally? Do you find math easy? Do you find English easy? How about foreign languages? Maybe you excel at sports/physical education, or perhaps at the sciences.

What are you naturally drawn to doing in your spare time? For example, if you are sitting at a desk with a pen and paper for fifteen minutes, what winds up on that paper? Math equations? Doodles of baseball players? What else do you do in your spare time?

What areas do you test well in? Take some standardized tests. Where are your scores high? Those are areas you likely have a natural aptitude for.

What careers naturally match your default personality? Take a Myers-Briggs test like this one and see what areas you’re naturally drawn to. Such tests aren’t perfect, but they are good guides for general areas to look at.

What do others perceive you as an expert at? Perhaps you’re a great matchmaker, or maybe you’re the best at solving algebra problems. Whatever you’re good at, others often identify it and begin to think of you as an expert at it.

What career paths make you feel happiest when you imagine yourself following through with them? Picture yourself in ten years doing what you envision a normal job in a career path. Do you seem happy there, or unhappy?

Remember, none of these will individually point you to where your skills and talents lie, but together they’ll give you an indication of some general directions.

How do I figure out my passions? I’ve written extensively about finding your passion before. It really boils down to a few basic things.

Ask questions Whenever something interests you and you have a question in your head, ask it and seek the answer.

Ignore what’s “cool” Instead, listen to what you like. The definition of “cool” is often just the reflection of other people’s interests mixed with some clever marketing – it’s not a reflection of what you enjoy.

Dabble in everything Try new things all the time. Don’t get stuck in a rut of doing the same thing over and over. Try doing a completely new activity every weekend.

When something really piques your interest, try it again – and again If something was truly enjoyable, try it again in a few days. Then again, and again. Find out if it was just the thrill of something new or something that actually engages you.

Associate with people who share this new interest of yours Surround yourself with people who also enjoy this passion. Join a club – or form one. Seek out friends who also enjoy these things.

Don’t keep pushing it if it starts to die out Sometimes we’ll feel a flare of interest in something, then it’ll dry out. If it does, don’t let it bother you.

If you spend a consistent period of time doing this – a few years, for example – you’ll likely stumble upon the areas you’re passionate about.

Think of ways to tie your skills to your passions If you’re lucky, they’ll naturally coincide, but quite often they won’t. That means you’ll have to search. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in thinking of ways they overlap in a way that appeals to you. If you have genuine talent in one area and deep passion in another, there’s almost always something out there to bridge the gap.

Find out more about specific careers At this point, you’ll probably have some worthwhile ideas. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, you’ll already have figured out what you want. At this point, seek out people who are already working in that area you’ve found. Email a few and ask them what their career is like. Quite a few will be happy to answer, and their answers will likely clue you in even more as to what’s right for you and what isn’t.

Find a mentor in that area – or near that area Once you’re close to or beginning to engage in a career path, find a mentor – someone who’s already succeeded on the path you’re facing. Ask lots of questions of people who are strong in the field and seek one or two that you really click with. Let those people mentor you and guide you to success.

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38 thoughts on “How to Choose a Career – The Simple Dollar Way

  1. Great post Trent!

    I’m printing this out for my little brother who dropped out of college because he doesn’t know what he wants to study/do, despite plenty of “suggestions” from my parents.

  2. The only thing I would add is to re-evaluate as you go on through life. The things I love now, more than anything, are things I wouldn’t have even considered a decade ago. Then, I daydreamed about being a writer. So – I am a writer; but now I’m also passionate about running, fitness & nutrition – so I’m looking for a way to mesh my two passions.

  3. Not always a great way to pick a career. When I was very young I got into programming. I would write programs day and night during the summer when I was in middle school and late elementary. I continued to do this throughout high school and somewhere in there the Internet became popular. I learned how to create web pages and played around with web development. I loved doing that type of stuff. So naturally I went to school for computer science, and I’ve had a career as a web developer for 10 years. I am somewhat unhappy with my career choice, mostly because what I didn’t realize is that I like solving problems and helping people. Programming was a natural way to solve problems and it also helps people. The downside is I do not like dealing with tight deadlines that require fast/sloppy work, having to work with very few resources to accomplish the near-impossible and many other commonplace things in a career programmer’s world. If I had it to do all over again, I would have gone to culinary school, or med school. There is absolutely no way I could have known that 10 years ago. Or really even 5 years ago. At this point I am working hard to get out of debt, pay off student loans and build enough savings and extra income on the side of my full time job so that I can go back to school and test the waters in the area of Physical Therapy

  4. My only comment would be that you can’t completely disregard the income aspect. I know many people that love to do things that simply don’t pay well. I know others who have a passion for things that you can’t really find a job doing. Now, I realize there’s more to life than money. So by all means, they should follow their passions. But one just has to be aware that many times if you follow your passions, you might lead a fulfilling life, but you won’t lead a wealthy life. And this is perfectly fine. But instead of just ignoring the issue, you have to accept this fact.

  5. Great advice. My 11-year old is already trying to decide what she wants to be when she grows up, most of my advice has looked a lot like yours.

    I’d ask what advice you’d give to someone who’s pushing 40 (I’m 38) who fell into one of those traps… I was doing what I loved (paramedic) but had an injury and ended up in computers and am now trapped by the money. I am good at it, and it’s relatively ok, but I don’t love it. I don’t have any “passions” that I could look to and say “aha! I could do that instead.” If I had my life to do over again, I’d go to medical school and be an ER doc or a trauma surgeon. But at 40 without even an undergrad degree, that’s really not a viable option anymore.

    Plodding ahead with a really good salary, getting out of debt and saving for retirement is the only advice I’ve gotten, but honestly the thought of 20 or 25 more years of this turns my stomach.

  6. Great article. One thing I would add to choosing a career is perseverance. Even after you figure out what you want to pursue, it may still take a while before you’re able to land a job in that career. I applied to my dream company over a period of 3 years before I finally landed a job with them earlier this year.

  7. I agree with Rick, it’s kinda hard to not factor in income.

    So when you say “don’t worry about income when choosing a career” that is borderline starving.

    You want to at least not starve but yet not get greedy either.

    I am doing what I love, writing a blog about personal finance.

    However, it’s not enough to make me quit working (at least not yet)

  8. Most of my relatives, including my own parents, would say that only bad parents would give this kind of advice because they don’t care about making sure their kids have financially secure futures. When I told my parents that my friends were allowed to choose their own college majors, they told me it was because my friends’ parents didn’t love their kids enough to prevent them from making a bad decision. I myself was not allowed to choose my own course of study or career path. I’m Asian, so I don’t know if that has anything to do with it.

  9. I don’t know Trent.

    I can excel in a job I like (but isn’t my “passion”), and if it happens to be in a highly compensated field, it’ll give me a life I love. Loving my life is more important than finding a way for a passion to make me money.

    No one is going to pay me (enough to exist on) to hang out with friends and family, travel, hike, and do other things I love. Trying to get paid to do that most likely would make my life hell.

    I like math, I’m good at it. I like problem solving so engineering is a good fit for me. But is math/engineering my passion? Well, no (unless this is a job interview). But it is something I enjoy that people will pay me a considerable amount of money to do.

    Writing may be a passion of mine, but I have plenty of time to do it now, and I don’t have to try to get people to pay me for it. I don’t even have to be particularly good at it! I can just do it.

    Find your passions is important. Finding a career you like is important. Mixing the two, where possible, is awesome, but not necessary.

  10. Seems to me that most people just do something and decide later that it’s a calling of some sort.

    I’ve noticed, much to my annoyance, that in every job I’ve ever had — from my lowly beginnings as a 15-year-old dishwasher to my current (and very lucrative and easy) web development job — that nearly everyone I work with claims to have a calling, and (shocking!) most of them claim its what they already do, no matter how ridiculous the claim.

    Personally, I don’t buy it. There are easy ways to make a living, and fun ways, and annoying ways, but ways that you truly LOVE? Gimme a break.

    I buy that someone who does charity work may actually love their jobs, but the schmuck pouring my coffee in the morning? The schmuck writing the blog I occasionally stop and read? The schmuck librarian I chatted with yesterday? The schmuck (me!) building and testing web apps? Everyone claims to love what they do, and maybe they’ve actually convinced themselves of it. But more often I think it’s what comes along with the job that people love. Even Trent — when you talk about why you love your job, only a small part of it is the job itself. Mainly it’s what the job allows you to do — the fringe benefits.

    A job is a job. Make your money, raise your kids right, have a good time. But when you’ve convinced yourself that what you do is some sort of calling, and then you prattle on about it at every opportunity, you become one of ‘those’ people.

  11. It’s not always realistic to believe that you can turn your hobbies or passions into a good living; the trick is to make them a part of your life regardless. Or, as Frugal Dad put it, rather than doing what you love for a job, do what you love in your spare time and find a job you can tolerate.

    My grandmother was an excellent painter, but she couldn’t make a living at it, and she had to help her husband put food on the table. So she became a nurse, painted in her spare time, and gave the paintings to her patients so that they would have something beautiful to look at during their time in hospital.

  12. so what if it means you have to go into debt to break into the career (you think) you want? if i want to change careers i need to go back to school, so i’ll have to take out student loans. i know betting on myself by furthering my education is a good idea but at this point getting in to debt seems like a really bad idea. the economy is tanking because everyone’s in debt but education inflation is making debt mandatory.

  13. The “do what you love, and the money will follow” mantra is getting very old. My loser brother (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) has a Master’s Degree in social work from a well-known and prestigious university. He’s 39, and earns $8.50/hour counseling troubled teens. He could earn more/hour working at a convenience store, and probably have less stress in his life. His ‘passion’ doesn’t provide him with enough income to contribute to a 403(b) or Roth IRA. His ‘passion’ is blinding his attention to his own future and long-term financial well-being.

    I don’t jump up-and-down every day thinking about how wonderful my ‘career’ is, but, the princely wages I earn (and 30 days of vacation/year) allow me to spend a lot of time doing the things I truly love – hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, et. al.

    I’m not suggesting that you do something you hate, but, one’s income is the single largest ‘asset’ they have. Earn some bling, pile it up to the sun, walk away when you tire of it.

  14. Awesome post, I agree with all of it, especially since I’ve had to learn my passions the hard way.

  15. I agree with some of the others here. I would have loved to continue to follow my passion, but I also have to feed my family. I loved being an Emergency Medical Technician but $10/hr doesn’t quite cover it.

    So I switched to dispatch and make $15/hr, a 50% increase. Still in the same line of work, but I’d rather be back on the ambulance.

  16. ONE MORE THING:
    Don’t be afraid to change careers!!! It is never too late to change things up once you have spent more time learning more about who you are. It is so tough to chose a career when you are supposed to – when you are young. You simply don’t have the wheelbase or know enough about yourself to decide what will make you happy 30 years from now. Some people know right away, but most of us need time to figure it out so going through a few different careers is not only NOT bad, it is perfectly OK.

  17. I have to agree with many of the other positions stated here. I am not crazy about my consulting work, but I do it because it pays very well – to the extent where I can dial back on it and indulge in family time, writing time, etc. Finding your passion is a great thing, but if you focus on passion to the exclusion of income you’re not making a wise decision. Maximizing income while minimizing time spent generating that income is key – because at the end of the day time spent away from work is “your” time.

    Good post, though, other than that point it’s dead on.

    Steve

  18. There is a great book called “Do What You Are.” It walks you through a Myers-Brigs-like personality type test and then shows tons of careers that tend to fit each separate type. If nothing else, it’s a great place to start and get ideas for what you want to be when you grow up.

  19. I think there is a lot of good stuff here, Trent. One thing I would say: give this advice to your nieces, nephews, and children a long time before they approach graduation age. The idea that young adults cannot and should not identify their life path before the age of 18 is a fiction arising from the extended adolescence our society created post-WWII; you’ll note that in many other industrialized countries (i.e., the ones that are kicking our ass in the race towards the knowledge economy), young adults perceive education as an important opportunity to explore their interests and to invest in skills for their future. In America, school tends to be seen more as something to pass the time until you’re old enough to make decisions that “count.”

    Obviously, I’m not saying that you should decide what you want to do when you’re 14 and be stuck with it for the rest of your life. What I’m saying is, a smart, engaged 14-year-old with supportive parents can find amazing opportunities in a variety of fields so that she can explore her passions and skills before she has to worry about paying rent or tuition, supporting a family, or combating years of negative self-perceptions and bad advice. So start talking to the children in your life about these choices sooner rather than later – I bet they will stun you with how readily they understand and apply your guidance!

  20. Dang! This is right on. The description of my career is something I love to talk about (urban planning), but the day-to-day can be droll.
    When I write, though, and I picture a good friend benefitting from whatever I’m writing. Whether the benefit is a chuckle or a life change, the time falls away and leaves me feeling great.
    Now to your step–sixth I think–on finding the specific career.

    Thanks Trent.

  21. Dang! This is right on. The actual description of my career (urban planner) and what it entails is something I love to talk about, but the day-to-day can be droll and draining.
    When I write, though, and I picture a good friend benefitting from whatever I’m writing, that’s where it’s at. Whether the benefit for a reader is a chuckle or a life change, when I’m writing the time falls away and leaves me feeling great.
    Now to your step–sixth I think–on finding the specific career.

    Thanks Trent. You’re a lucky dude.

  22. I think it’s OK to pay the bills with a job that one simply enjoys, but which isn’t necessarily a passion eg working as a clerk whilst writing novels or songs in your spare time (was it TS Eliot who did that?). But I’m not so sure that sticking with a job one hates is such a good idea. I’m sure there are plenty of managers who’d say that they’re great at their jobs, but who secretly don’t really care for it, and negativity has a way of seeping through to poison others…But this article, and the comments especially, are making me think more soberly and positively about balancing an OK job with my real passions.

  23. I disagree with not listening to “hey you should be a…”
    I think that good friends and good parents are perceptive enough to give input to your strengths and weaknesses. It can, at the very least, give you a place to start. I became a teacher because my dad once said I’d be a good teacher. Before he said that, I hadn’t thought of it as a possibility. I love it.

  24. At 38, I’m sort of at a career crossroads myself (midlife crisis creeping up perhaps?). I’ve decided to go back to school, but I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching as to what I should major in.

    One of my loves is writing, mainly fiction. When I was younger, I wanted to be a writer, and it was something I was very good at. I didn’t end up doing that, though. Somewhere along the way, I ended up getting a technical diploma in accounting. I hated math in high school, but when I was obtaining my degree, I found that I liked the detailed oriented aspects and working through problems and solving them that’s involved in accounting.

    After doing this soul searching about returning to school, and thinking about pursuing the writing as my career, I decided against it. The joy that I get from writing is the freedom to take what’s in my head and put it into words and to tell a story when and how I want to tell it. To pursue it as a career, for me, would be a mistake. Deadlines, the business aspect of it, focus groups and things like that would take the joy out of writing for me. If I ever reached a point where it felt like I was churning out things just to keep people happy would also take a lot of the joy and passion out of something I love. So I decided that it would be best to keep writing as a hobby. (I mainly write fiction. That’s my passion.) If it turns out that I end up making money from my hobby, it will only be as a side venture. I’m very much open to the idea of self publishing my work.

    I will pursue another accounting degree to build upon the one I already have, because accounting also fulfills my love of picking things apart and thinking analytically and problem solving. Crunching numbers isn’t my passion. But I don’t believe that I’m settling for the safe route, either. I have both creative and analytical needs to fulfill and I feel it’s in my best interest to keep the creative side as a hobby and have the analytical side as my career.

    And I agree with Kevin. Don’t be afraid to change careers. Don’t be afraid to entertain the thought of changing careers. If you’re unhappy with what you’re doing, by all means, take the time to do some soul searching and allow yourself to be open to change if that’s what you ultimately want to do.

  25. Building on what nuveena and others have said, I think it’s definitely possible to be passionate about something if you’re doing it for an hour a day, yet get utterly sick of it if you’re doing it for eight hours a day. So turning your “passion” into a career may not be the best idea for everyone.

    I’ve met several aspiring professional comedians. They were all among the least funny people I’ve ever known. I didn’t know them well enough to ask their back stories, but I suspect that they were once passionate about “natural” comedy, making their friends laugh and such. (Why else would anyone want to be a professional comedian?) But having to make audiences of strangers laugh over and over again sucked the joy of it right out of them. I could easily see that happening.

    I think it helps to be realistic. In any job, whether built on a passion or not, there are going to be times when you have to do things that you just plain don’t feel like doing. Part of it is because there are lots of things in the world that need to get done that aren’t very exciting. Part of it is because, for those of us with creative-type jobs, it’s rare that we’re given absolute free rein on how we express ourselves. And part of it may be that for some people, even if their job is their most passionate passion, sometimes they’d just rather be doing something else.

  26. This is my favorite post of yours to date. When it comes to a career choice, I believe that if you do what you love to do and do it very well, the money will follow!

  27. I am one of the fortunate few with a passion that became a career; I’m a professional musician, I love what I do, I am very good at it, and I earn a respectable middle-class income. However, I have had many students who look at my life and think that they would like to have that life too, and I feel morally obligated to discourage them. The truth is, many aspiring musicians have the passion but not the ability, and even after you remove those who really don’t “have it”, there are a great many more excellent musicians than there are jobs available. I advise even my best students to have a Plan B. Ironically, it was the peace of mind that my own Plan B gave me (an additional degree in math) that allowed me to relax enough to succeed in winning a job in an orchestra.

  28. I fell into my career by accident. Was hired to make a measurement on a widget. Problem was the widget wasn’t working reliably so I had to make it work reliably first before the measurement could be made. The fixing part was fun and it evolved into a >20-year career. Am now retired in my 50s and work as a volunteer for a gov agency in the summer on stuff I really enjoy. I’m gonna play until I die.

  29. This test was so right on it was scary, shame I didn’t see it 25 years ago, being 45 eligible for retirement in 8 years to change now would be a financial disaster. But now I can plan for my next career and have 8 years to do it. Of course my answers may have been different 25 years ago as life is always evolving.

  30. very good post.

    i have some things to add.

    regarding income versus how good the job generally pays: my experience is, that by doing something i was passionate about for years (and for quite a low pay) i have became an expert in the field, so i got to get various well-paid freelance stints, and now am in the process of deciding between next possible moves, some of which are quite well paid (but less attractive in other ways-this will require some more thinking). so that i am convinced that actually choosing a job that does not generally pay well might be useful financially in the long run. also having such a job is such a very important thing, that having a big salary sometimes does not outweigh this.

    another thing i would like to say – as the world is changing so rapidly, we cannot be possibly sure about how well paid a job will be in, say, 10 years time. of course, being a lawyer or a very good doctor will quite surely be a well paid position, but there are so many careers out there that i would not say we can be sure about all of them – also, many people change careers several times during their lifetime and i perceive this to be a thing that happens more and more often – also because, as others have said, ones pasions change during their life.

    so generally i would say betting on ones passion and choosing somethink that one wants to do very much, and therefore might excel in, could be a better choice for many reasons, and can bring contentment AND good money

  31. This blog is super inspiring and I love it
    I don’t want to work just for a paycheck. I want to work because I love love love what I do. This is why I also have started a financial blog. I love to write and i love finances so this is perfect for me.
    your blog is an inspiration to me

  32. I was intrigued by your article and just as intrigued by the several posts. I’m currently in a job just for the money and I hate it. But to lose out on the health insurance and the benefits would be rough. I followed one of those “You should do this:_____” comments and racked up the student loans and graduated and I feel like I wasted my time. I have yet to find the one thing that is for me. When I first started college I wanted to be a music teacher. I wanted to turn my passion into my profession and dove in head and feet first! I got burnt out and lost my passion. Now that a few years have gone by I still dream at night about teaching music. I’m going to start taking classes again- slower this time and follow my heart. It’s so sad that money has such a grip on our lives and that we have to be so consumed with weeks of vacation time and great health insurance. Cheers to passion and dreams. Thank you so much for your blog and the extra bit of kindling I needed to get my fire going.

  33. Hi,

    It was a great post ! Indeed nowadays we tend to be blinded by money or wealth in the short term and forget that there’s still many other things more than that (Think happiness and life)

    It’s very important that one couldn’t let go of their dream career no matter where you are right now. Most of the comment have said it – It’s never too late !

    I get a lot of inspiration from this title “Finding works that matters – Mark Albion”. In this title, he talks about how he let go of the prestigious Professor post and become a speaker. There’s question that you may ask yourself and only yourself will know the answer.

    In conclusion, there’s only a limited advice that someone can give to you but at the end of the day, it’s your life. You know the most. You need to make the decision. Whether it’s money or happiness… the decision is in your hands :)

  34. Good! I benifit from it a lot!I have been thinking about my studying and the major for a long time .I major in economic. In fact,I really don’t know much about it.But I know I like it,from it I can know the world’s situation about economic .It’s really interesing .Now,it’s sure that I will hold on to it ! Foever

  35. Such great advice from some of the readers’ comments!! It TAKES THE PRESSURE OFF of “finding the job you’re most passionate about”. Maybe you can find a job that you sufficiently like and enhance it (find challenging tasks in the work, make friends with a coworker(s), decorate your work space), make enough money, and enjoy your “passions” outside of work. So… you can still have it all! — A fulfilling life that includes enjoyment of your passion, and money to support yourself through a job that you can at the very least make the best of and tolerate. :-D

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