Do you remember being eighteen and worrying that you didn’t have an answer when people asked you what you were going to do with your life?
Well it turns out that you don’t just decide on a career right out of high school or college and stick with it. According to a Forbes article, these days, you could end up having as many as fifteen to twenty jobs in your lifetime, and according to a Fast Company article, you could be changing jobs every 4.4 years.
So that means you could end up answering the question, “What are you going to do with your life?” more than once.
How do you know if an industry or a career path is right for you? There are so many exciting career paths and ways to use your talents. For example, if you’re like me and love writing, you could be an author, a professor, a journalist, a content strategist, a public relations executive, a lawyer, and countless other things.
With all of the available job options, how do you know what path to take?
I’ve been there. A few years ago I applied for jobs in a wide range of industries because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do—everything seemed interesting. It was easier to figure out what I didn’t want to do than what I did.
I started doing something I love “for fun”, and it ended up turning into a career I now love. When I worked as a paralegal, I started writing blog posts every weekend and scheduling them to be published throughout the week. My writing improved, I learned some marketing skills, and I promoted the blog on social media. It ended up leading me to make the switch from the legal industry into social media, marketing, blogging, and freelance writing.
I serendipitously stumbled on the right career path for me, but I now provide career advice about how other people can do the same (although perhaps more intentionally).
Here’s my advice for finding a career you love.
Write down a list of your top strengths. I recently read StrengthsFinder 2.0 for a book club at work, and the advice really resonated with me. Another self-analysis resource that can help you figure out exactly what kind of career and work environment will resonate with you is the Myers-Briggs personality test.
It’s possible that you could be good at anything if you tried hard enough—but shouldn’t your strengths be indicative of what you should be doing? Won’t you be happier (and better at your job) if you find a career that is suited to your strengths? I have taken both the StrengthsFinder and Myers-Briggs and found that they have helped me understand my values, strengths, and what I should look for in a work environment.
For example, you might think that you’re not a math person, but find out that you love using logic to solve problems. In that case, you might actually love something you’ve never tried, like code!
Answer these questions about every place you’ve worked. What did I like the most and the least about the company? What did I like the most and the least about the company culture? What did I like most and least about my manager? What did I like most and least about the people I worked with? What was the most challenging thing about working there? When was I the happiest or the proudest? What was my biggest accomplishment? What did I like the most and the least about my responsibilities?
Your answers will help you clarify what you liked most and least about previous workplaces so that you can look for similar or different characteristics in the future.
You don’t have to keep doing the kind of work you’ve always done, but you can analyze your past work to figure out exactly what you liked, what you didn’t like, and what situations bring out your best work and happiest self.
Talk to as many people as possible. Go on informational interviews and learn about their career paths and advice. Ask about their job, industry, and professional aspirations. Always come with questions in advance so that you get the most out of the meeting or phone call as possible.
And don’t limit yourself to people you know or are connected to in some way. Go on LinkedIn and read people’s job descriptions or go online and read interviews and articles about people you admire.
Before you set your heart on a career, or completely rule it out, make sure you find out what the job is like on the day-to-day.
Take classes, attend workshops, read books, watch countless YouTube tutorials, and try something new. You may find out that you’re passionate about coding, website design, graphic design, writing, or something else entirely. Technology makes it so easy to learn new skills. A new hobby can lead to an entirely new career like it did for me.
Are people competitive with one another or collaborative? Are they friends outside of the office? Is the company hierarchical or flat? Do you work as a team or work primarily on your own? Is there a great deal of red tape or will you have the power to make decisions and move quickly? Can people work from home or are they expected to work in the office? What is the work-life balance like? What are your salary expectations?
Think about the type of work environment that will be a good fit for you and the lifestyle you hope to have. And if you aren’t sure, try taking up some work on the side to help you decide. If you work in a collaborative office, try doing some solo freelancing. If you spend your workdays by yourself, why not work on a collaborative project on the side? (Tip: coding projects are great for group work!)
People gave me two great pieces of advice when I was considering the right career path for me. One was to think about what you do “for fun,” and what you love so much that you’d be willing to do it for free.
The other was a piece of advice from my dad. He said that you shouldn’t necessarily choose the most “prestigious” job just so you could impress people at cocktail parties. Instead of choosing the most “impressive” offer—something I had been prone to do in the past—choose the one that will make you happiest and allow you to grow and learn.
Elana Lyn Gross is a content strategist, freelance writer, and the author of the career advice and lifestyle blog Elana Lyn. Her work has appeared in Time, Business Insider, Mashable, Refinery 29, The Huffington Post and more. When she is not writing, she can be found taking long walks in Central Park.