Most of us will change careers. Most young people will change careers at least three times — after they find one, when they are thirty. So work life is really about a series of careers, and we all need to get good at the process of choosing a new career. We all need to get comfortable with the inherent uncertainty during the process.

Here are nine ways you can make choosing a career less stressful:

1. Squash perfectionist tendencies and get comfortable in gray areas.
It’s fine to be lost and not sure what you’re doing, so don’t rush yourself to solve the problem. Maybe you can just look at the problem differently, and it won’t look so bad. And, don’t feel like you need to get the right answer in your hunt for the right career. Being right is not important. Just do your best and see what comes of it.

2. Don’t wait for a new career to start being creative.
Every job is creative. Every job presents problems that need solving, and problem solving is a creative act. If what you mean by creativity is that you want to paint with watercolors, then go home at night and do that. Why do you need to get paid to make art? It’s enjoyable and fulfilling and a fine thing to do in your free time, even if you have only fifteen minutes of free time a day. Raymond Carver is famous for writing short, short stories because he didn’t have enough time in the day to write long.

3. Stop looking for a career to save your life.
A job is not a life. A job is something to do with your time that is rewarding and fosters personal growth. A career can’t make you happy. Relationships will make you happy. Figure out what you can get from a career and what you can’t. Once you recognize that you will rescue you, not your career, there’s a lot less pressure in the career hunt realm.

4. Relax about the career choices you make.
Try something. If you don’t like it, try another thing. There are not rules that say you have to stay in the career you choose. In fact, moving from one career to another at a breakneck pace til you love something might be good for you, and taking ten years to figure something out is fine. The life or death decision is about living below your means. As long as you do this, you have lots of choices in life. If you don’t live below your means, you get stuck in a career.

5. Don’t wait until you know yourself.
You never really know yourself. It’s a process. If it’s a precondition for finding a career, then you could be learning about yourself forever and never feel ready to choose a career. Forget the soul-search and just try something. Ironically, the best way to learn about yourself is to do things and see if you like them, so the inactive, soul-searching time is, in some ways, counter-productive. Try testing the waters with a lot of lower risk moves, instead.

6. Stop choosing dead-end fields.
All things being equal, you’re better off choosing a career in a field that is growing, not shrinking. Once you identify your talents, focus them on a field that has a future. If you write well, go into interactive marketing — one of the fastest growing fields — and not print journalism, which is in trouble. If you like to help people, go into nursing —huge demand, and not centralized, slow-moving nonprofits, which are falling out of favor with donors.

7. Don’t overlook the good points of the job you have.
You can save the world from almost any job, you can shift from a dead end to a hot spot in almost any field, and you can learn and grow if you get good at managing your boss. These are all things you can control. You don’t need a specific career to accomplish these things. So maybe you don’t even need to pick a new career.

8. Make a lifestyle choice before you make a career choice.
Figure out what you want your life to look like, and then choose a career that will enable that life. If you don’t know what you want from life, how can you possibly know what you want from a career? What we want from life might change. That’s okay. You have to start somewhere. So figure out what you want, and an try out careers that might give you that. If you change what you want from life, you can change your career.

9. Talk about yourself the way you want to be.
To figure out what sort of career will suit you, try talking about yourself like you’re already there and see how it feels. We intuitively know what stories feel right, and we can make a career change more efficiently if we create stories about our process. You might actually surprise yourself by figuring out what you want to do by figuring out what story seems natural to tell.

13 replies
  1. Nick D
    Nick D says:

    Having been involved in the direct placement of hundreds of candidates over the last ten years I can say with confidence, too many job moves are a career death sentence! I always am impressed with the person I meet who has tried a bunch of things, recreated themselves over and over , they tend to be interesting and well rounded. Unfortuntely most top companies do not hire people who have spent years making changes and trying to figure things out and more importantly you never become an expert at anything if you keep reinventing yourself.

  2. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    I can’t agree enough with point 8, “Make a lifestyle choice before you make a career choice.”

    You can make a lot of money as an investment banker or consultant, but if you hate the work, you’ll be miserable.

    I can’t tell you how many partners and managing directors tell me that they wonder how much longer they’ll be able to gut it out.

  3. Anna Lisa
    Anna Lisa says:

    Excellent post, but I have a quibble with point three, where you say “Relationships will make you happy.” I think things are a bit more nuanced than that. Career, relationships, etc. are all pieces of the happiness pie. I don’t think either factor, alone, should have a determinative effect on one’s happiness. Furthermore, looking only to others for happiness places it outside one’s control, and ignores the importance of a person’s relationship with themself.

    * * * * * * *

    Anna,

    It’s interesting that you say that one’s relationship with oneself is an important part of happiness. It is, in so far as we work on making ourselves more optimistic. Optimism changes everything. For exmaple, you will like yourself more if you are an optimist. (Learned Optimism is my favorite guidebook for this.)

    -Penelope

  4. Sia F
    Sia F says:

    I always read your blog with my feed reader, never left a message though, It is always pleasant to read your posts

    anyways I wanted to ask you this, I know that having three jobs in 3 years will ruin your resume and makes you look like a job hopper , I was wondering how long being in a job is good on the resume, maybe 3 years?

    and what is the polite way of looking for another job while you are already working for a company? how can you look for a new job without jeopardizing your current position?

    looking forward to seeing some of the answers in the future posts

    Thanks again

  5. yozgatci
    yozgatci says:

    I don’t think there is any time limit on a job tenure anymore. what is important is that you are happy doing what you do. if you are miserable, do not stay there b/c you feel you need a certain number of years to make you resume look better.

    also never reveal at work that you are looking for a job. wait until you are done for the day, go home and start your job search there. a few hours every other day will help you get an interview and hopefully the job of your dream :)

    * * * * * * *

    Good, solid advice. Thanks for posting it.

     -P

  6. Lea
    Lea says:

    Thank you for this post. I had a great career in print journalism that lasted just over a decade — I decided to leave for many, many reasons — but now I have no idea what I want to do. I’m currently temping as a receptionist while I try to sort through my options. Problem is, nothing really sounds good at the moment. I’ve read through much of your blog but I haven’t found any advice that would apply to my situation. I know that I don’t want another full-time writing job, and that I like helping people (but hate science and medicine) and animals, but that’s about it. Can you suggest any resources that might help me puzzle through this? I’ve already worked with a career counselor.

    * * * * *

    Lea,

    Number five in this post applies to you — stop soul-searching and just do something. If you click the links in number five you can read the research about how terrible we are at guessing what we will like. We’re better off just trying something. Anything. And we don’t need to fulfill every aspect of our personality with a job. So maybe you’ll deal with animals but you won’t help people, and that’ll be okay. Choosing your next job is not that big a deal. Try one. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll learn something about yourself and you’ll pick a little bit better the next time.

    By the way, internships are great for this kind of investigation. They are fast and hands-on and you can ask a lof of questions to gather information faster.

    Good luck finding your next career!

    -Penelope

  7. Jackielyn
    Jackielyn says:

    just be yourself whenever you encounter any trouble in life… Let’s face it… tha’s life and you must deal with it as a person as you are and not the person you pretend to….

  8. Lorenzo
    Lorenzo says:

    Im 25 and don’t know what to do with my life, I have a degree in arts and design and cant get a decent job out of sales from it. I have been job searching for 6 months and feel on the break of depression. Luckily I have an amazing boyfriend who wont let me fall that far.
    Thank you for this post x

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  1. tribe.net: blog.penelopetrunk.com says:

    Re: Job Hunting…

    This one seemed good too… it is from http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2007/02/……

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