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. Roy
    Roy says:

    It’s very good advice you have written here on how to pick a good career based on what we like it without forcing. So by following this advice I know very well how to reach my goal or success in my life and of course this content has become my good inspiration to move forward for real success.

    Many thanks,

  2. Vircara
    Vircara says:

    The best advice I can offer to help avoid picking a career that won’t pan out is talking to others. If you are interested in being a farmer, talk to other farmers. Find out what they enjoy about their job, as well as the things they don’t. You’ll never really understand about a profession unless you ask.

  3. Rik
    Rik says:

    For me re-entry to work after being a stay-at-home dad has been a challenge. I realized that I didn’t enjoy working in IT (my previous occupation). I’m probably an INFP who somehow earned an MBA from a big-name school, but I finally figured out that I am not really a business-guy. I like helping people, but I not skilled at speaking. I am not good working with my hands. My wife thinks I should be a writer, but I have limited experience writing anything. I’m 48 so that’s a challenge as well at least in terms of getting interviews.

  4. John
    John says:

    I just wanted to thank Penelope for her atypical style and advice. I went back to grad school after I realized that I was no longer thriving doing what felt interesting to me (which was molecular biology in a grant funded lab). Perhaps, I should have hopped around labs first or tried industry, but I effectively needed to rebrand myself to myself to get unstuck and fake it at times. I think it took well over a year after finishing grad school and the $450/month payment kicked in that the decision actually helped me pivot my career; Anxiety was also big deal as this created new expectations of what I needed to bring to the table. The first job after school really defined the context by which people approached me because I started presenting my self differently and accepted what they wanted from me. (being seen as a “software developer” seemed to be the role that was most well received). Now that I have my first gig on my resume, I’m looking to decide freelance, startup, contractor, big company. Contracting or freelancing seems like the least commitment for hopping around until I find my ideal set of co-workers. Do you agree?

  5. Ozzie Saunds
    Ozzie Saunds says:

    Wow only 5% of people find their career calling the first try. I wonder what the percentage of people are that hate there job. This is a well needed article Penelope. Too many people are doing something they don’t love because they don’t know how to find their true calling.

  6. Nikolay Perov
    Nikolay Perov says:

    A good point not to choose your profession, but choose a lifestyle.

    I want to add to this point that there is now much in working as a programmer in office or a marketing expert in office, providing that you don’t like office work, and you want to have more spare-time.

    So It is better for some people, not to seek profession, that will suit them most, but to seek a job, that will fulfill their life needs (like having more spare-time for example). Now matter what this job will be – freelance translator or a high earning blogger if it gives enough freedom and leisure time, and doesn’t consume a lot of energy every day it is OK.

    I want to say that it is not necessary for every person to identify their life with their job. It is better to chose any job that suits their life expectations.

  7. Kerry Collins
    Kerry Collins says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I am a 43 year old woman who has been a Chef for 22 years. I made the decision to go to culinary school just out of high school, knowing at the time I should have been enrolling in college and eventually getting a law degree. The thought of 8 more years of school overwhelmed my 18 year old brain! It was the “easy” way out. Although I am very good at what I do and my career has afforded me a very nice and adventurous life, it’s no longer enjoyable for me.

    My husband is a retired Marine Corps Lt. Col and has offered me his GI Bill which will allow me to go to any 4 year school I choose. What a gift…. But…. How does one decide at my age what I really want to do??? I would be devastated if I made the wrong choice and wasted such an opportunity.

  8. Ayanna
    Ayanna says:

    Very interesting article. I particularly took interest in your comments about overcommitment. I over committed to three different careers by enrolling and completing degree programs in fields that I have absolutely no interest in pursuing. Several wasted years later and a ton of school debt, I’m now pursuing something completely different. I wish you wrote this article and your other one about graduate before I went down that road, but I’m glad I finally found someone with the courage to write about the truth. Thank you!

  9. Tita
    Tita says:

    I would say that it is difficult for 14-year-olds to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives and yet they have to make such a decision. They don’t really know what kind of jobs are out there – they are probably aware of the professions that people in their families practise, and the known ones (teacher, doctor, dentist, …) and then they end up choosing one of those.

    What often happens with students is that they don’t get their degree because, when they get to their final year of studies, they realize that this is not what they actually want to do. Before, they were focused on passing their exams, and in the final year they are faced with ”this is what you will actually be doing for the rest of your life”.

    What would be great is if children had field trips and would go to the local hospital, post office, farmaceutical company, car mechanic, bakery, etc. and see what people actually do and, if possible, try their hand at it during these field trips.

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