How to pick a career you’ll like

Most career problems stem from the fact that we are terrible at picking jobs. We think we are picking a good job and then it turns out to be a bad job. It’s almost impossible to pick a good job on the first try, actually. So don’t think you’ll be the exception.

I’m not an exception either. When the reality TV people came to our farm , I expected that it would be fun for them and it would suck for me. In fact, though, my family had a really good time, and I couldn’t believe how difficult the work was for the film crew.

Economist Neil Howesays that only 5% of people pick the right job on the first try. He calls those people “fast starters” and in general, they are less creative, less adventurous and less innovative, which makes a conventional, common path work well for them.

So it’s questionable whether you should even aspire to be one of those people who picks right the first try. But, that said, we all still want to be good at choosing paths for ourselves. So, here are some guidelines to think about – whether it’s our first career or our fifth career.

Don’t believe the hype.
We have a grass-is-greener approach to professions that are not our own. For example, this award-winnng video from Chipotle about farmers becoming more animal-friendly pretends that it’s just a mental and emotional evolution for farmers to realize that going back to nature, and being good to animals, is what feels best, so they should do it. It’s so easy, for example, to take the pigs out of an assembly line.

The Chipotle video is total crap, to be honest. It’s not that farmers don’t know that pigs on pasture is nicer. It’s that there is no market for pigs on pasture because consumers won’t pay enough to eat humane meat (without farrowing crates, for example, pork prices would quadruple). So the idea that being a farmer is so beautiful and back-to-the land is just absurd. Being a farmer is actually really complicated, hard entrepreneurial work with very low wages.

Another example of a hyped up job is a lawyer. You see their exciting life on TV: a gloriously safe path from college to law school to a high paying job. But behind the scenes, each year the American Bar Association conducts a survey to ask if lawyers would recommend their profession to other people, and the vast majority of lawyers say no.

Pick a lifestyle not a job title.
Look at the lives you see people having, and ask yourself whose life you would want. That’s easy, right? But now look deeper. You can’t just have the life they have now. You have to have the life they lead to get there. So, Taylor Swift has had great success, and now she gets to pretty much do whatever she wants. But could you do what she did to get there? She had her whole family relocate so she could pursue her dreams in Nashville. Do you want a life of such high-stakes, singular commitment?

Look at the successful writers you read. Most of them wrote for years in obscurity, risking long-term financial doom in order to keep writing. Do you really want that path for yourself? Marylou Kelly Streznewski, author of Gifted Grownups, finds that most people who are exceptionally creative have to give up almost everything else in order to pursue “creativity with a big C”. For most people, that path is not appealing.

The same is true for startup founders. It’s a terrible life, to be honest. Your finances will be ruined,  you will not have time for anything else in your life, and your company will probably fail. So when you decide you want to do a startup, look at the life the person had before their company got stable. Most people would want to run their own, well-funded company and control their own hours. Very few people would want the life you have to live to get to that point.

Don’t overcommit.
Testing out lots of different jobs is a great idea. Job hopping is the sign of someone who is genuinely trying to figure out where they fit. Quitting when you know you’re in the wrong spot is a natural way to find the right spot. A resume with lots of wrong turns is not cataclysmic. You can hire a good resume writer to fix the resume so it looks like you actually had focus and purpose. (Really, I rewrite peoples’ resumes all the time. It’s about telling a story and everyone has a way to tell a good story about their career no matter how many times they’ve changed jobs.)

The important thing is to not overcommit to one path. Graduate school, for example, is overcommiting becuase if you don’t end up liking that field, you will have spent four years gaining entrance into the field. Taking on college debt is overcommitting because you are, effectively, saying you will ony take jobs that are relatively high paying in order to service the debt.

Buying a big house has that same effect: you overcommit to a high-earning field. Very few people want to have the same career throughout their life. Leave yourself wiggle room to switch because there is little reason to believe you’ll be able to predict what you will like in the future.

Daniel Gilbert, head of the happiness lab at Harvard, has shown that evolution has ensured that we are terrible at guessing what we will like. We guess that we will like stuff that is possible for us—that looks attainable—which is what makes us keep going in life. We are generally optimistic that things will get better. This is not rational because, for the most part, things stay the same in terms of how happy we are.

Gilbert explains in his book, Stumbling on Happiness, that we have a happiness set point, and that’s pretty much how happy we are today and it’s how happy we will be tomorrow. But evolution has made us certain that something will make us happier tomorrow. Which means we are generally poor at predicting what will make us happy since that was not a necessary trait in preserving humanity.

Gilbert says you need to try stuff to see what will make you happy. Do that. It’s scary, because it’s hard to find out that what you thought would make you happy will not make you happy. But then, it’s true that being a realist is not particularly useful to human evolution either.

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  1. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    Interesting post, but I was wondering how one’s identity and job are intertwined and how job hopping changes (if at all) one’s sense of self. My husband tells me “You’re more than your job” and gets mad at me when I demean myself because I have a job I’m not proud of and I always assume I’d be prouder of myself if I was doing something really cool, but now I’m doubting that based on your article…

    • Tanya
      Tanya says:

      For what it’s worth, I agree with your husband. The only thing that matters about your job is whether or not you like it and whether or not it pays enough to provide the lifestyle you want.

      My first career lesson came very early on in my late teens/early 20s. I worked as a school janitor’s assistant one summer. I worked with a fellow student – who was always joking around and just fun to be around – and two older gentleman who let us have a little fun. It was a great summer and a great job because we had fun! The next summer I got moved to a different school, no fun was to be had at this school – I about died, didn’t think I was even going to make it 3 months.

      Likewise, I have also had jobs which I have enjoyed the work I was doing, but hated the work environment… I came to realize I would rather go back to my janitor days at the first school any day. That was 20+ years ago, but I have taken that lesson with me all this time.

      When I finished college and realized within a year that I’d make a very specialized wrong decision (nursing home administrator), my earlier job experience told me it was more than okay to move on.

      So the question is… do you like what you do? Do you like the environment you work in and people you work with? You could be shoveling poo and have a blast doing it with some fun co-workers, and I would say the job is then absolutely perfect. … Of course, just my opinion. :-)

      • Eliza
        Eliza says:

        you were a nursing home administrator? I just quit the Nsg home industry as a speech therapist-it was miserable and i did it for nine years-no one gets it unless the worked in one-could you tell your story of nsg home days

        • Diana
          Diana says:

          I have to so agree with you Eliza! At the ancient age of my 27th birthday I decided NOT to be an occupational therapist, the career I picked at 20. I was so wrong to set my heart on it. Do you work in the schools now that you quit SNF? Both those settings have serious issues, I’m glad I didn’t get into those golden handcuffs.

    • Rob
      Rob says:

      Amanda, my sister tells me the same thing. ‘You are not your job.’ That’s true, but our sense of self worth gets intertwined, for better or worse, with our job title or situation. We just have to rise above that and recognize that we are in fact better and more talented than we get credit for at work.

  2. Paul Basile
    Paul Basile says:

    It’s all very true that people don’t pick the right careers. Even sadder, in a way, is that we could. There exists the knowledge and the analytics to give everyone quite specific guidance on the most likely best-fit career. Penelope’s good advice makes sense but it’s not enough. We rely on medical diagnosis and prediction from trained doctors using powerful and proven analytics. We can do the same for careers – are doing the same for careers. In time, this will diminish the too-frequent bad choices that people make for their careers.

  3. Stephan
    Stephan says:

    It’s a dilemma, because there is no “the one best thing”. I believe that finding the right group of people is the key. Then you can enjoy the shittiest tasks, achieve crazy results and feel satisfied.

      • Andrea
        Andrea says:

        Tanya – it is not me I was talking about. I have coincidentally a number of friends who are doctors and seem to be in the same spot – they’d prefer not to be doctors. As Penelope said, it is not a lifestyle that many can handle – lot of work, not the financial reward one could expect in the past, little to zero family time. Most of them are, however, supporting their families and have put so much time and effort into their careers, changing career seems to be impossible to achieve. I wonder if there are any doctors who switched careers reading this? Suggestions?

        • Tanya
          Tanya says:

          I am absolutely not surprised. I can’t think of anyone personally that I know who switched careers, but I know many in the health care field who have made adjustments to work part-time, less demanding positions (ie giving up management responsibilities), switching to different facilities, etc. to better accommodate their family life – some of these were doctors. Oh, and I remember a TV show a long time ago (maybe Dr. Phil or Oprah) about a doctor who gave up her career (amidst a family of doctors and high family expectations) to become a music DJ (which I thought was very cool) and other professionals who made shocking career changes.

          • Penelope Trunk
            Penelope Trunk says:

            You make such an interesting point, Tanya. That sometimes you can achieve your career change goals by simply cutting back your hours and picking up a hobby during the extra time — or making room for family, or whatever your goal may be.


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That link about doctors is really interesting. Thanks.

      As for career change: There is no magic path that makes it easy. You have to start over. The best way to start over is to do it at the same time that you have your first job. That way you can do the entry-level work, and make connections while still holding onto the job that pays the bills. When you ultimately switch over, you can enter a little higher up. A good career coach can help you set up a plan that leverages your skills to avoid having to live off an entry-level salary.

      The bottom line here, though, is that no one can change careers without first figuring out how to live way below their current salary. If you have to maintain a certain lifestyle you don’t have flexibility to change careers.


      • Jen M.
        Jen M. says:

        This is absolutely, 100% true! This is the situation I’m in now.

        Another tough thing about this, too, is that even if you CAN take a pay cut to start over with something else, good luck convincing an employer you WILL take a pay cut!

    • Naz@agentlerebellion
      Naz@agentlerebellion says:

      Hi Annabel , I am at the exact same situation as you are( 35, doctor and a mom) . When I have committed half of my lifetime to medicine, the very thought of trying something else is nerve wrecking and makes me extremely vulnerable. But I refuse to let my past control my future. I am now taking small steps to nurture my other interests (art, writing) and setting up my blog “agentlerebellion ” . As Penelope mentioned there is no easy way, you just have to start with very small steps and explore your other skills. It is a very challenging process but the risk of not trying is just existing not living my life.

  4. Tanya
    Tanya says:

    In this article, you say not to overcommit to any one path and to leave yourself wiggle room to change jobs… but in previous articles if you have said people need to specialize. The two are mutually exclusive, no? Can you explain that further?

    • Karthik
      Karthik says:

      You want to become a T or an F (on its side) shaped person. Someone with a broad base, but with one or two areas where you’ve gone very deep. Having gone deep once, you know how to get there again. And having a broad base means you can quickly jump to another track and start there.

  5. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    Dear Penelope,

    I just ordered “Stumbling on Happiness.”

    You covered a number of subjects here, and that’s good.

    One of the variables about choosing a career/lifestyle is a compromise between financial security and the risk or depletion of income when pursuing a creative life or entrepreneurial endeavor.

    As an example, MARRIAGE for me had a huge influence on my choices because I needed to create an income to maintain HAPPINESS for my my wife and our union. We needed the joint income to build the lifestyle we wanted and my writing career had to take second position behind a weekly pay check, freelance style. (Nothing secure about that either.)

    Honestly, I’m not happy as a starving artist. But I’m not happy as anything BUT an artist. So I did both and eliminated the third time consuming possibility: being a parent. And since my wife is matched with me creatively we agreed on NO kids, which made our life much simpler.

    My wife and I have different ways of being happy, and I think we both came pre-wired this way. My wife wakes up happy and stays that way unless something happens that makes her unhappy. Then she gets happy again pretty fast.

    I wake up neutral (on a good day) and wait for something “positve” to happen that bumps me up into happiness.

    My wife in internally happy. I’m variable with my happiness determined by my perception that I have control and that things are working out.

    I would much prefer to be more like my wife and have strived all my life to seek internal contentment. I’ll see what Daniel Gilbert has to say about this.

    As usual, an interesting post and food for thought.


  6. Chris
    Chris says:

    I’m 33, and So far I’ve tried:
    -Corporate jobs
    -Starting a business
    -Cabinet building
    -Mowing lawns
    Nothing has really felt right. Is it possible that for some people jobs just aren’t meant to feel right? Isn’t there a better option than just trial and error?

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      By the way, I’ve performed above expectations at everything I’ve tried (except the sales gig but I’m not sure thats all my fault).

        • Chris
          Chris says:

          Thanks for the response Penelope.

          So, right now I’m a Data Analyst in the IT dept of a really good company. According to the Myers-Briggs results, my job is a perfect fit for my INTJ personality, but I’m bored and unsatisfied!

          What does one do in my position, besides just deal with it?

          I like the outdoors: hunting, fishing, anything where I can be outside and around wildlife. As far as I know you can’t make any money at that, plus I have a degree in business and not biology.

          • Mara
            Mara says:

            I felt the same way about my career as a designer. I, too, am an INTJ and have varied interests. My career choice is limited, since I have no intensions of moving and I have no desire to start a business. When I analyzed my situtation a bit more, I realized I can make my life more satisfying by pursuing my many interests on the weekends and/or evenings.

          • Daniel Baskin
            Daniel Baskin says:

            If you can’t find satisfaction, but it has less to do with the kind of work you are doing, and more to do with the purpose behind the work. If it’s a company that, no matter how neutral / innocent / noble, you don’t feel actually makes a difference in the world / grand scheme (or even small scheme), then maybe that’s it.

          • Zee Stylist
            Zee Stylist says:

            Chris why don’t you merge your business degree with your love of wildlife and open a specialty store. You’ll have very little competition, have full control and make great money. Or if you don’t want to run a store then find out what kinds of career options are available in the outdoors/wildlife industry. Could you work for a company that makes kayaks? Just keep thinking of every possibility and don’t settle until what you choose feels right.

  7. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    So if you have a job that you love (which I do) but you never seem to get ahead (which I don’t) should you go do something else even though you love what you do or should you stick with what you love and learn to be happy without getting ahead. Translation: money or no money, that is the question……

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Life is not a race. You don’t need to get ahead.

      If you have a job you love then you are probably just worried about money, right? So either learn to live within that salary, or stop calling the job a job and call it a hobby, and do something that pays you enough to call a job.


    • Irving Podolsky
      Irving Podolsky says:

      Hi Kathy,

      I’d like to add a comment here.

      You haven’t told us if what you do is isolated to only one company or industry. Could you change employers and still do what you do?

      I think in many cases, the company one works for withdraws value of their employees. They take them for granted and keep their salaries low for all kinds of profit reasons.

      What is stopping you from looking for another job doing the same thing that you love? You just might find a more productive situation where you will gain the appreciation you deserve.


  8. Debt Free Teen | Chase
    Debt Free Teen | Chase says:

    This gives me a lot of freedom! Thanks Penelope for sharing that we don’t pick careers well and that it takes creative people even more tries to pick something they like. It’s tough being 18 and trying to figure all this out.

  9. rachel
    rachel says:

    I wish I could talk to you about food science- its one of the coolest jobs in the world and there are only 300 people that graduate with degrees in food science every year. The reason why no one goes into food science is because they have never heard of it- WHY? Because the food companies purposely hide people in lab coats from the masses because they want everyone to think Betty Crocker and Ronald McDonald is making their food- not scientists like us- end result- no one knows who makes their food or that the job is really fun and exciting and involves travel and culinary arts and politics- and having all your friends say… “I had no idea that kind of job even exists”. I keep waiting for money magazine to list is as the best job to go into in 2013 but as usual, everyone just ignores the field- and I keep fielding calls from recruiters begging me to help them find someone to place in this or that position.

    Oh- and I am a consultant and do whatever I want and charge as much as I think i deserve and I didn’t bother having any kids because they would have interfered with my fun times and awesome career that only a tiny percentage of the world does.

    the few , the proud, the food scientists!

    • Daniel Baskin
      Daniel Baskin says:

      I realized I am projecting my own career satisfaction standards onto you, but how can you feel good about being a food scientist? Sure, great pay, great flexibility–whatever. If the compan(y/ies) you work for stop making their processed food, would the world be a worse, or better place?

      Maybe I just don’t understand how artificing food is a good thing.

      • channa
        channa says:

        Maybe she is working on healthy food science? Nut bars? Hummus? By definition science isn’t good or evil – it’s the decisions people make about how to use it.

        • Daniel Baskin
          Daniel Baskin says:

          Maybe she isn’t working for a large food corporation (statistically unlikely, though).

          But even “healthy” food is 90% of the time worse than “normal” food. Don’t get me started. Almost anything labeled “bar(s)” is just a candy bar in disguise, yet worse because instead of using sugar (which is bad enough), it uses artificial and “natural” flavors.

          I went to Safeway today to pick up some yogurt. NO regular whole milk yogurt out of a big selection. It’s all nonfat and “lite and fit,” which will deprive you of the fats your body is craving, causing you to eat more until the sugar in everything gives you diabetes (I exaggerate).

          I’m not saying food shouldn’t be studied, but often times, that knowledge is of no benefit to the food company employer, because we already have millenia of knowledge of what is actually healthy–and it’s not very profitable.

  10. Peter
    Peter says:

    Gilbert also advises talking to people whose lives you think you might want to lead, to see how happy they are actually and whether they’d recommend it … more great advice as one tries to find their fit.

  11. Kelly Poppe-Gale
    Kelly Poppe-Gale says:

    Great Conversations!!
    I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up!! I remember a conversation with my dad when he said, “I have finally figured out what I want to be” excitedly I said WHAT!? to which he replied…RETIRED! He is an entrepreneur and very successful and I guess I may too realize retirement is my preferences as well.
    Loved meeting you in Iowa, thanks for your visit Penelope!

  12. jim
    jim says:

    I have met many people in all walks of life. Some are happy with their work, some not. And some are just resigned to doing what they do and either can’t or won’t change it for a host of reasons. But I was talking to a buddy at the gym the other day. Married, mid 40’s. He was telling me that about 10 years ago he was a drug rep for a few years. He wanted to make a lot of money. He realized he hated it. He hated the schmoozing, the constant networking. And being in watings rooms with 10 other reps in a day and knowing that what he was selling wasn’t all that different from the other guy’s.
    He walked away and became an insurance adjuster. He says it’s great. It is just a job to him. It doesn’t answer life’s questions. He likes what he earns. And at the end of the day he can go home to his wife. And his wife is pretty awesome too.
    He is without a doubt one of happiest men I have ever met. He just lives life.

  13. Brooke
    Brooke says:

    I definitely had my share of false starts, mostly in sales. In my late 20s I went to a counselor who put me through a series of tests and determined that I was an ENTJ/INTJ (introverted extroverted split down the middle. I tested out to become a technical writer and that’s exactly what I did. I liked it in every respect–pay, lifestyle, and a certain amount of geeky cache. Now I am an Operations/Project Manager and I like that even more!

    I have learned that when you don’t like your job there are often aspects of it that you don’t like. I used to not like running kick-off meetings. I changed the meetings to be more focused and now I don’t mind them.

    By the way, I would completely pay four times as much for pigs raised in a humane way on a small farm. I think we should drastically reduce our consumption of animal products and eat more plants so the price change wouldn’t affect us as much, but I see no reason to eat meat from factory farms.

  14. Taryn
    Taryn says:

    Thanks so much for this wonderful article. Your tip about choosing a lifestyle, instead of a job title really resonates with me.

    I’m still in my late twenties, and I’ve tried out a bunch of different career paths (yes, even grad school). At this moment in my life, job-hopping seems to suit my personality and creative disposition, so I’m pursuing it as a conscious choice. However, I’m dreading this weekend (Canadian Thanksgiving) and the inevitable “what are you working on now?” questions from my family members. I come from a family whose members have chosen very traditional occupations (teacher, doctor, dentist, etc). Like I said, I’m content with the path I’m on, but I still feel like the black sheep in comparison.

    Any tips on how to justify the “lifestyle” career path to family and friends, rather than the traditional “job title” career path?

    • Jen M.
      Jen M. says:

      You don’t have to justify anything to anybody, ever. That’s my opinion.

      I have come to this conclusion over years of being a part of a family to whom nothing I do is good enough or “cool enough” or “normal enough.”

      It’s very freeing to live one’s life with only one’s own satisfaction in mind. ;)

  15. Tim
    Tim says:

    I agree with your suggestion about trying many different jobs in order to find fulfilling work. In terms of my life, in my early 20’s, I figured that I would be working 35+ hours a week for the rest of my life. Given this reality, I decided to work at a variety of jobs in order to find work that I liked doing. Here are some of the positions that I held: real estate broker, light machine assembler, house parent in a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed teenagers, assistant to a clothing store entrepreneur, purchasing manager, product manager, and internal consultant.

    It was not until my 30’s that I realized that I got greatest fulfillment from consulting, teaching and writing. It took quite a few years to get there, but, in the final analysis, what matters is the journey, not the destination.

  16. cj renzi
    cj renzi says:

    Easily one of the best posts I have seen on choosing a career. Yes, definitely go for the lifestyle and figure out what it takes to get there. I tried social work. I am not a serious person, so that sucked. I tried music teaching, but I am a classically trained guitarist, so that sucked. Now I own a guitar studio, which is fabulous and grants the time and money for the lifestyle I want. But I am still tweaking which, again, my lifestyle allows for.

  17. Allison Williams
    Allison Williams says:

    I am making a switch right now, from trapeze artist (my dream job) to writer (my other dream job). What’s making it work is that I’ve focused on writing this past year by participating in a year-long contest with hard weekly deadlines, while letting my colleagues pick up slack for me in my show, so I got a chance to try out writing a lot more of the time, and realized yes, I like it.

    And I think you’re right on about the money – I’m taking six months of not working for money to jumpstart my writing, and it’s only possible because I’ve saved a lot of money that can fund this. And I have no kids. And I filled my house full of roommates who drive me nuts, but it doesn’t matter because they’ll cover the mortgage while I travel.

    Anyone CAN have any life they want. Most people aren’t willing to make sacrifices or work incredibly hard to get it.

    On a more inspirational front, I found this idea that we all have eleven chances to have a brand new life very compelling:

    That it takes seven years to be great at something, but every seven years we have a choice to decide to be great at something else.

  18. Elaine Enlightening
    Elaine Enlightening says:

    It’s my first time visiting your blog. The fact that home schooling was one of your topics caught my eye. I home schooled my 3 daughters all the way through school and my son through most of grade school.

    This career article was interesting, but I don’t have much background or advice in job or career picking.

    I went from being a stay at home mom and farmers wife to pursuing my entrepreneurial dream and passion. It was like I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.:-) You are right that it is a more difficult path to take because it requires your all. I am so grateful that I did search until I found my passion. It certainly has been a totally rewarding experience.

    I look forward to visiting your blog again!

  19. David Lawrence
    David Lawrence says:

    This is a well-written, thoughtful piece. I worked from home writing for a while, then took a job in an office again for the security and higher income. I’m still writing, but I have to be in the office all day long. I hate that. So your point about choosing a lifestyle is well-taken.

  20. Alan
    Alan says:

    I don’t think that any discussion of choice of careers is relevant to most people. Only the gifted have the luxury of choice. The vast, vast majority of people just need a job, and a lot of us can’t even manage that.

  21. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    “So either learn to live within that salary, or stop calling the job a job and call it a hobby, and do something that pays you enough to call a job.”

    This is the most profoundly wise thing I have seen anyone write on this subject in a long time. Amen, Penelope!

  22. Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel
    Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel says:

    Absolutely agree. Letters INTJ. Careers after college: computer programmer, financial analyst, direct marketing, interactive marketing, NOW–running interactive marketing I.T. department. I think it is interesting that I combined my first job with my last job in my current job. I find I.T. job challenging and interesting so I am lucky. But I SWORE after I left I.T. early on I would never go back. HAH! My major starting in school was PR (4 years of high school journalism). I realized it didn’t pay and was really competitive so I switched to business/computers (recession of the early eighties). I wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices to do what I thought I loved. I like Penelope’s blog because it gives me new ideas. For example search “work for free”… many posts come up. Read this one:… That is what I am doing now, in my off time. Working for free, researching new things, writing and charting my next direction.

  23. OptiMatrix Solution
    OptiMatrix Solution says:

    100% agree with this article. now days everyone is stuck with their job. they are doing only job no much enjoy with their job. this article give lots of the strength. I more this sentence
    Pick a lifestyle not a job title

  24. khan
    khan says:

    That`s r for really great post for future planning I`m studding commerce but I`m doing part time job in a IT house as a Website developers , this post show me a mirror that what i am doing and what I should do Thanks.

  25. Laura Bobroff
    Laura Bobroff says:

    I used to be a legal assistant, got a degree and doubled majored in the sciences thinking I’d go into medicine (not!), and then started and ran a remodeling business for 12 years. Now I’m a writer, and don’t have a pot to piss in.
    This is the best freakin’ job I’ve ever had.
    You hit the nail on the head. I’ve always been a writer. In fact, I always knew it, but I’ve been putzing and putzing and doing what needed to be done to raise my kids, earn a middle-class income, etc.
    Writing is all about me and creating. There is a price I am willing to pay to take this risk. The stereotypes, the realities you outline are true. They have to be dealt with mentally if you are going to move on. Put in their proper place; otherwise, they affect how you work, WHY you work at whatever it is you choose. Great post. I am new to your site. Very impressive.

  26. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    I read Gilbert’s book a few years ago and found it fascinating!

    I don’t love what I do, but as a mid-50s person, while I’d love to change careers, employers are letting me know that this will not happen any time soon. I’ve interviewed for entry level positions in fields outside my background but the position always goes to someone younger or with experience in that field. I keep trying, but it’s getting old as am I.

    I think career changing is great, but many of us aren’t multi-skilled enough to find a new position and aren’t independently wealthy enough to not work.

  27. rachel
    rachel says:

    To the daniel baskin guy- not all products are artificial and food scientists work on all kinds of food items. I work for big and small companies, start ups and corporations- Food processing methods include dehydration and heating too- and even a caveman could do that- although perhaps not as precisely as we can now! Not to go off topic of this blog- but there are just so many people out there putting out uninformed info on food science- i feel I must step in and correct the bad information before it spreads to the masses and prevents even more people from entering the field that feeds the world.

  28. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Sound like the key takeaway is that overcommitting will make you miserable, which makes perfect sense and seems like it should apply across most aspects of life. So, then: Is marriage overcommitting?

  29. Drew Tewell
    Drew Tewell says:

    Another great post, Penelope! Have you read Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, or any of his articles. If so, what do you think?

  30. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    what a fantastic post! The overcommiting angle is new on Penelope’s blog. I’m sure she must be reading some really good stuff.

  31. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    what a fantastic post! The overcommiting angle is new on Penelope’s blog. Im sure she must be reading some good stuff lately.

  32. Your Boss
    Your Boss says:

    I think people, in general, think that grass is always greener on the other side. We think we are missing out something somwhere. Do we really know what we love and what we want to do? Of course we do, but we settle for convenience and money most of the time. Money is a huge factor in choosing a career. Money definitely played a big role in my decision.

  33. Clay
    Clay says:

    Great post! When we think about it, we are asked to pick a career so early in our lives, at a time when we’re still figuring out who we are, and often still have no idea about it. That totally makes sense to fail at finding the right path on the first try, yet few people dare to quit their job and exit the system to explore new possibilities. They’re seen as undecided, lazy, unmotivated people, whereas they are trying to find a real purpose and a meaning job to stand out for, that’s a shame…

  34. modest girl
    modest girl says:

    That’s precisely why I recently switched career paths, to find something I actually like instead of being miserable every day! Money is not everything, but happiness is!

  35. Ruth
    Ruth says:

    Interesting and reassuring post. I see the responses are mixed. I totally believe that it takes time to find the right job and only through trying different career paths are you then able to establish what you are best suited to. I also believe that you need to enjoy what you do, a good salary only goes so far in making your life complete.You need to play to your strengths – if you are a caring person and enjoy working with people then why not look at jobs in social care, working with and helping others. So too, if you have practical skills – pursue a career which will utilise these. You can gain relevant qualifications to help you on your way but it all comes back to what you enjoy doing, as this is the decider over whether you will succeed.

  36. Jen M.
    Jen M. says:

    This is one of your better posts. So true! The part about owning a home is particularly true in my case: I have a very high mortgage, and I’m paying it only by staying in a job I hate. I’ve been looking for another job for a long time, and no one is paying what I’m makign now, so the search and the agony go on.

    Very good point about looking not at where the people you think you envy are now, but at the path they took to get there! So very true about Creatives. (I’m one, and I can’t devote the time I want to it, because….I’m trapped in a high mortgage and therefor in a job I hate that is doing nothing for my career.)

    This kind of thing should be taught in high school and undergrad, IMO, so that kids can make better choices about their life paths.

  37. Meredith
    Meredith says:

    This post definitely resonates with me a young 20-something trying to figure out where I fit. After I graduated college, I had a summer internship at a large pharma company in their corporate communication department and quickly learned writing/PR or more of a creative communications path was not my thing. I did however have the chance to work quite a bit on their new intranet system and loved training end-users on how to use the new system and how to make it work for their department’s needs. Following the internship, I took a year contract job in the IT department of a bank as a BA, mainly gathering technical requirements for software applications and coordinating various resources.

    I recently relocated and made the leap to an IT Project Manager position. In Agile Project Management a major theme is “fail fast” (with short iterations of software development that produces real working software after each iteration) – “fail fast” so you can see what went wrong, what you like, what you don’t like and then make the necessary changes and adjustments. I LOVE that – fail fast makes sense – you’ll never know for sure until you go and DO it and see the result.

  38. Devrim
    Devrim says:

    In the 21. century, i think everbody thinks the money first. Yes, it would be awesome to have a career that we will like but we are far away from Pollyanna’s world. We are living in a century which capitalism rules! I wan’t to have a career at Greenpeace or WWF but it is only a dream

  39. Eddie
    Eddie says:

    Thanks Penelope, very insightful article.

    Under “Pick a Lifestyle, not Job Title,” I notice several examples to avoid (ie, Point A of eating s*** leads to Point B of absurd compensation and freedom, but Point A can last indefinitely, ruin your life, and may never lead to Point B), do you have particular examples of intelligent lifestyle-driven career searches that don’t involve fighting 1,000,000 to 1 odds? I’ll check out that Myers-Briggs link, and any other similar recommended action steps are greatly appreciated.

    Along those lines, isn’t it true that most lifestyle-inspired changes (go freelance! become a blogger!) either don’t pay well to the point of constant financial stress, or have limited growth options in terms of income and freedom?

    Thanks in advance

  40. miguel12
    miguel12 says:

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  41. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Please help. I went to college for science and did EXACTLY what I set out to do since knowing I wanted to be a scientist in my jr. year in high school. I am almost 40 now and I hate it. I have some money saved and a very supportive husband and could actually make a change but I have been thinking for several years now and I have NO IDEA of what I might like. Part of my problem is that I romanticize things in my head so that I think many many things would be great (although maybe not successful). I don’t know how to focus. I guess the other part of my problem is fear.

  42. Randy
    Randy says:

    My experience (and I’m close to retirement) has been that the job doesn’t matter much as the circumstances. If you have a passion that pays well and reliably, great. Otherwise, friendly, interesting coworkers, variety and perks go a very long way towards making a job enjoyable. The reverse is also true.

  43. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Hi! I’ve already gotten into the hype of law, but I didn’t overcommit by going into debt. My lifestyle is more relaxed than my classmates, but I’m still thin and lack sleep. So I’m thinking that I should someday be a landlady, work online part time, and handle a few cases part time. By the way, the link to lawyers doesn’t work.

  44. stark
    stark says:

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  45. Brett
    Brett says:

    What did most of us hear from our parents growing up, “Go to college, get a good job and make a good living.” When did anyone tell us to find a career that would make us happy? If it happened, it was usually after trying a number of different things. I’m sure many of us know people, who wanted to be an artist or writer or another career, which would not pay the bills, so they opted for a career as a secretary or something less than satisfying for them.

    Taking an interest exam will help us determine, which careers might be a good fit for us. However, until we experience the day-to-day activities of a given career, we won’t know for sure if it is the right fit for us. The ideal situaiton is to do something that makes us happy working with people we get along with. This will help us get through the stuff no one wants to do in a job.

  46. Bill
    Bill says:

    I guess I’m a little late to the party here, but I’ll still share…

    I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s post and as someone who is still trying to figure out their “calling” and career it was been a joy to read all views on the topic.

    The one thing I might add; I find my biggest struggle right now, someone just a few years out of college and no full-time work from my degree (although some work within the field, which I HATED) is when trying to pin down what direction I want to go in, I seemed to have the internal struggle of money vs. career and money seems to be the prevailing thought.

    The reason? I’ve racked up debt because of student loans, so the moment I think I’ve figured out a career path that I’ll enjoy, another bill or expense comes my way that tightens my spending that I instantly go back to the idea that I NEED a career with a high earning potential NOW and in the future.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one in a situation like that, but it just further drives my indecision and hinders progress in any direction. My heart and my checkbook are like the angel and the devil on my shoulder when it comes to career aspirations.

  47. Kristen
    Kristen says:

    I am 19 years old and I know I still have a lot of growing up to do but I don’t want to be stuck in a job that I despise and can’t seem to figure out a direction to go and the job I currently have is really putting a toll on me and making me seriously depressed. Im not in college but I think I would like to go sometime but I don’t want to go for something I’m not sure that I want so I don’t get stuck with a huge debt and an unsatisfying career degree.

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