How to Choose a Career – The Simple Dollar Way

There 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.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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