Wrong job or wrong career? Here’s how to tell.

I took my eleven-year-old son to Colorado for a paleontology adventure. Digging up shards of tibia bone with a toothbrush is so not what I want to do with my time, but I want to support my son in finding his passion, and he is enthralled with paleontology.

There’s a great program at the Museum of Western Colorado. We drove there. Omaha is a mid point between our house and the dinosaur dig, so we stayed there for a day at a hotel where Warren Buffet, who is known for being a reasonable, down-to-earth guy, drew the line at drinking  a Pepsi (he’s on the board of Coke), so the hotel guy had to walk five blocks to get two Cokes.

On our first day of our dig, we go to the edge of a cliff in the badlands near the museum. We look down and the guide says, “That rock down there is about 150 million years old, but we don’t have enough money to know for sure.”

My son can’t look. He already has altitude sickness. At the point where the paleontologist shows us the cliff we will dig on, my son, who has read too many earthquake books, announces that we might die, receives unimpressive reassurance, and then throws up.

This is either a photo of my son doing his perfect dream job, or my son right before he throws up in all over the pleistocene period.

We go back to our hotel.

He told me he could never do a dig. He said next time we should just go to Omaha. “They have such a good zoo,” he said. He was scared he’d never be a paleontologist. I wanted to tell him that he was doing the dig because it cost $1500. But instead I told him that maybe this was a good job for him at the wrong place.

This is a common problem with our work.

1. It’s the skills you use in your job that matters, not the industry you’re in.
My son learned so much from the trip. He learned there’s a high demand for fish experts. “We are in the age of fish,” said the paleontologist who was nice enough to leave the tour and drive us back to our car. “There are more fish right now than any other type of animal, and only fish people study fish.”

My son is fascinated by the idea that because fish skeletons are so varied and so different from mammals, you have to specialize in that to understand it.

My son is also fascinated by the idea that someone needs to organize the excavation trips. He likes managing. Of course: he’s an INTJ. If you know your personality type, and you know your strengths and weaknesses, then all you need is a job that leverages your strengths. An INTJ is great at solving complex problems and managing teams to solve problems. He could do that in technology, in education, or in paleontology.

So I told him he should keep reading those paleontology books he loves. And we are still planning to go on more paleontology trips – just no treacherous digs. Because he’s a lot like a career changer in that he’s invested so many years in reading about environmental science that it seems a shame to focus on a job in another field when he doesn’t necessarily need to.

2. Trends in an industry matter more than whether you like the industry now.
Before you decide if you’re in the right career or not, look at trends. Most of you will need to continue working for at least a decade or two. The jobs that will be around in the next decade are nothing like what we have now.

The types of careers that will open up in the near future—vertical farmer, weather modification police—foreshadow huge shifts in the workplace. The shifts also underline how important it is to position yourself in a growing industry rather than one that is dying. So instead of focusing on how much you like the career you are in – since that is largely a function of the skills you are using anyway – focus on whether the field you’re in is growing or dying.

I recently read that the trend in fossil digging is that it is becoming privatized, because professors don’t want to put in the insanely long amounts of searching time, and universities don’t want to pay the insanely high prices that private collectors will pay for fossils. 

So private companies are excavating private land. It’s controversial, sure, but I’m impressed that someone dreamed up the idea of putting fish fossils in kitchens. It’s a great way to change the fish fossil market from lemonade-stand-budget, ten-year-old boys to renovation-budget interior designers.

3. We don’t need a perfect job in order to be happy. We just need to be growing.
So many of us have an unguarded obsession with wanting things to fit perfectly. I look at this page of photos of random things fitting perfectly and I want the page to go on forever—it’s inherently satisfying just to know it’s a good fit.

Yet wanting a perfect fit gets us into so much trouble.

The quarterlife crisis is a new coming-of-age event that describes the emotional turmoil resulting from the gap between baby boomer parents telling kids their job should be a perfect fit for their passions and talents, and Gen Y kids realizing that the work world does not offer that type of job.

Looking for a perfect fit in a relationship also gets us into trouble.

We do not get perfect harmony in a relationship.

Psychology Today describes the best romantic relationship as not necessarily with the partner who has the best traits, but rather the partner who allows you to grow into your best self. Daniel Jones edits the Modern Love column in the New York Times. He says that after reading 50,000 submissions over the course of a decade, he realizes that the best way to be fulfilled in a relationship is to settle for imperfection and focus on being your best self.

The connection between a job and happiness is overrated. And the connection between our romantic life and happiness is overrated. A full 70% of our happiness is determined genetically.

But personal growth is something we have total control over. So get yourself into a job that allows you to do that – but recognize that it rarely requires a change in industry. Usually a change in your job but within your industry will get you where you need to go.


52 replies
  1. juliette
    juliette says:

    I needed this, Penelope. Thank you. I left journalism years ago (dying industry) and got into content strategy (it wasn’t called that then), and I have no regrets. But it feels good to read this because there are so many areas of my job that don’t fit me perfectly. But I’ve grown so very much.

    • Ash
      Ash says:

      I’ve been in journalism for six years and I am desperate to get out. Love the skills I have, but industry is not helping me to grow.

  2. Lizzete
    Lizzete says:

    I love this post Penelope! I’m also an INTJ and it made think about why I enjoy my job a an audit senior at a big four accounting firm.

    Not because I enjoy auditing so much, actually what I value is the chance to lead a team in order to solve complex problems.

    Auditing is a lot like solving a puzzle, figuring out what doesn’t fit in and why. And I love leading a team to do that.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for commenting, Lizzete. This brings up an important issue which is that since you can find a good job for your type in any industry. So why not choose an industry that is not so competitive. Accounting, for example, is a thousand times easier to get into than fashion, but an INTJ will end up doing the same type of work in either industry — managing systems and making sure people get stuff done.

      The same is true of every type– you can get a job in a tough industry or a non-glamourous industry. You’ll be equally fulfilled doing the right work for you in either one, so why not take the easier route?


  3. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    Somehow I think the same holds true for online. I haven’t quite figured out how to take my skill set and apply it to online. I think so many people think they just have to do a “blog” and set up social media and will do well. But I think that you need to start with your skill set and strengths and then plug that into the multiple opportunities online. For example, if you love researching and organizing and have good conceptual skills perhaps your blog would be constructed in a manner conducive to using those skills. I’d love to read more about how you can adapt your skills to your internet work.
    Thanks for this article. The juices are flowing.

  4. Larry Hochman
    Larry Hochman says:

    This is great stuff! I had a conversation today with a bunch of high school juniors, and one of their first concerns is their future careers. Faces went a little blank when I told them there’s a good chance the job they have in ten years probably doesn’t exist today, and may not even be a “job.” The idea of self employment was totally out of their mental set.

    Your career doesn’t have to be the be all and end all of your happiness. Nothing outside your locus of control should be.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hm. That’s an interesting idea – to make you happiness revolve around something that is within your locus of control. But then I think nothing is totally like that.

      Relationships make us happy, but we cannot control more than our own 50% of each relationship we are in.

      By the same token, we probably can control 50% of our career trajectory.

      So maybe it’s okay if our happiness revolves around something that is not totally within our locus of control.


  5. Rachel C.
    Rachel C. says:

    Yes! Point #1 was exactly the point I was trying to make in my comment on the mailbag a couple of weeks ago.

    I see people so concerned with what industry they want to be in when in fact, that matters so little compared to what you are doing. It’s easy to get caught up on the “job recommendations” for a personality type, but usually you can find a job that meets your skills almost anywhere if you know where to dig.

    I think this is where poor job descriptions and “ideal candidate miming” are really a problem. A lot of HR people don’t know the nuances of a position to define properly, and people are so eager to be liked and considered they just claim to be the ideal candidates even when it benefits neither party.

  6. Bryan Greifinger
    Bryan Greifinger says:

    This subject of finding the right job has been a thorn in my side my whole life. I’ve had several jobs along the way and none were perfect. I’ve been fired from quite a few of them. And this left me wondering what the hell I am good at. What job or place was the right fit. But each one had something of interest and taught me something. My latest career was in nursing and once again I don’t fit in. I’m 61 now and the process keeps going on. Somehow I manage to keep getting work but it only lasts a year or 2 or 3. Now I’m thinking of leaving nursing and trying to focus on singing.. It’s the one thing I was always told I do well. But once again I don’t have all the capability I need. Now I have to learn an instrument. And so it goes. But I can’t say I don’t get into interesting situations and learn interesting things along the way.

    • sandy
      sandy says:

      I would hate to see you leave nursing only because you can’t figure out the skill set you have. As a fellow baby boomer and after reading this blog post, perhaps you want to find out your Myer Brigg strengths first and then see what type of job you could do using new nursing trends. Many babyboomers will not want traditional nursing as they get older but may want a nurse consultant on how to make their home more accommodating for disabilities. That is a new trend, for example. If I had a nursing background I would do research and find out how the field of nursing is changing before dropping that field. Just my two cents. Good luck.

    • thatgirl
      thatgirl says:

      Sandy makes excellent points. As any of us age, we’ll find those larger transitions more daunting (at least I anticipate that–risk aversion often grows with age), and it would be wonderful to find another career direction that utilizes those hard-won skills.

      Indeed–that kind of consulting is a growing field, particularly as we see people living longer and with handicaps to accommodate. There are also nurses on board helping patient navigation in our evolving insurance markets, and nurse specialists who work with pharmacos in care programs that help patients stay on therapy. Given your singing skills, I imagine you have some performance skills, too; those are essential to these public-facing, responsive career directions. Maybe singing is something you should simply enjoy doing well, without it becoming your livelihood–unless you’re incredibly confident that it will sustain you in all directions. That’s down to you.

      Good luck in your exploration of what’s next!

  7. redrock
    redrock says:

    ‘…because professors don’t want to put in the insanely long amounts of searching time, and universities don’t want to pay the insanely high prices that private collectors will pay for fossils. ‘ Many professors in paleontology would love to spend lots of time on digs… there just is little to no funding for the “fundamental science” any more….same reason Universities can’t pay for the dinosaur bones. And, that would drive tuition even higher.

    Do we really have to specialize at the age of 11? At that time I wanted to be an archaeologist, a historian, a photojournalist, a writer, an astronomer, a medical doctor, an adventurer, travel to the south pole , a tennis pro …. depending on the time of day one would ask.

  8. Scott Asai
    Scott Asai says:

    Penelope, you sound like an investor! Being current and trying new things is also a great way to figure out what you like and don’t like/are good at and suck at. Life is like a big internship. Experience is really your best teacher.

  9. sandy
    sandy says:

    Perhaps some challenged Human Resource person will develop a job board that is organized by skill set as the first priority then by subject. I hope they are reading this post.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Really? omg it makes me itch!

      I hate when things fit perfectly. It makes me feel like my fingers hurt when trying to get them out. How interesting that what makes some people feel good is a nightmare for others.

  10. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    So I admittedly haven’t read the rest of the post yet, just the bit about your son and altitude sickness. Next time, just stay in Nebraska and do a dig at Ashfall fossil beds. Or, yes, go to the zoo. The Omaha zoo and the San Diego zoo are at odds with each other every year for the top zoo in the country.

    Ashfall: http://ashfall.unl.edu/

    Sarah M

  11. Ruth Dettman
    Ruth Dettman says:

    Great post and the word that comes to my mind is flexibility. I am a chartered accountant but have done almost no true “accounting” work for many years. While the title got me in the door, it was my open willingness to try new roles which moved me along. I now have a skill set and confidence to move into a lot of areas as my circumstances change or the environment around me changes.

  12. Matt Schmidt
    Matt Schmidt says:

    Too many people are blaming external factors for their own lack of job satisfaction whether it’s conditions of the economy or lack of jobs. Most of the time job satisfaction is an internal process where we need to grow develop and adapt. This is the reposnsibility of the individual to do this.

  13. Enrique
    Enrique says:

    Would this then meant that nothing will ever fit perfectly? That shaping yourself is the best way to go? Or perhaps once one has shaped themselves, their job will fit perfect?

  14. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Recently I’ve been trying out many different things within my industry. For some of the things, people who know me well tell me I am not cut out for them or will not enjoy them. This post reminds me of why I do them anyway. I want to know, not intellectually know, but internally know why long term I’m not cut out to do that – basically like your son, I want to taste the bile in my throat. And that seems to make me happier when I do do what I am cut out for.

  15. C.A. Lewis-McCarren
    C.A. Lewis-McCarren says:

    You should bring him to Ohio – my husband is a geologist. We homeschool and he takes groups of kids out on digs around here. If you didn’t know – SW Ohio is well known for its Ordivician age fossils…..AND it’s flat……AND he would have a blast with my two sons…..AND we are Jewish…..AND my husband looks like a Viking. Oh – and you need some rest and we could talk about life. I’m an “INFJ”…….plus I have a lot of major screw-ups too. It would be fun. Think about it.

  16. Cathy Goodwin
    Cathy Goodwin says:

    I’d agree that often what you do in a job -your skills and activities – will be more important than your industry. However, I would add that culture and work environment also matter. In some fields you need a lot of face time and punctuality is critical. Government jobs attract people who can say, “In just 7 – or 10 or 15 – years I’ll be vested in my retirement, so I’m not going anywhere.” People who work in medical fields genuinely believe doctors are close to infallible (except doctors who believe other doctors are wrong but they’re infallible). ANd so on.

    And I’ve never seen the value of Myers-Briggs, which is based mostly on folklore. See Annie Paul’s excellent book, The Cult of Personality, for a teardown.

  17. Beth
    Beth says:

    I decided to take the Quistic personality test, and what do you know, I’m an INTJ, too. That fits – I own a bookkeeping business, and I’m desperately trying to grow!! That’s the challenge, it’s very hard for me to find people who I think are really good at their job. What personality type do you think would work well with INTJs?

  18. rayne of terror
    rayne of terror says:

    The Quistic personality test gave me a slightly different result than I usually get. It gave me ISFJ when ISFP fits better and is the result I got going through the book Do What You Are. I’m not really sure what to do with that information though. I’ve invested so much time & money into becoming an attorney, but actually I should be a florist? What aspects of being a florist can I use in law?

    I always thought this was a funny story, but now I see it as sad. I went to my undergrad career center when I was considering law school and took a personality test. It said I should be a bonsai artist. I told the career counselor I was thinking of going to law school and he said, yeah, you should do that. Here I am 12 years later and the results still show I should work with plants in an artistic way. But I have free range to do what I want in a 3/4 acre yard and it’s not like I have done amazing landscaping in the last 9 year. I have a huge veggie garden and some native plantings.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      It wasn’t until I moved to the US that I learned that doing a job that fits your personality (not just anything that will support your family) was a thing.

      Good lawyers have to extremely driven to put the puzzle together and get creative as to how make their case and still be in the legal side (I know what I am talking about, I’ve watched all seasons of The Good Wife. Trust me.).

      Perhaps your job as a lawyer will give you enough money for your creative side to be nurture in the form of gardening or whatever.

      I feel like there’s too much pressure to Do what you ARE. It’s as if you have to spend all your life positioning yourself for a job/career that will allow you to do that. And some of us never had good guidance.

      Right now I am sure my job relies on skills that don’t come natural to me and I don’t get to use other things that I naturally have. But you know what? it makes my family life and rest of my life so good. And it’s a place that doesn’t have overstimulation of my senses. Which I love that. And there’s no micromanaging.

      All in all, it’s an excellent job for me. It’s a beautiful office. I am happy :).

  19. Cassidy
    Cassidy says:

    “The quarterlife crisis is a new coming-of-age event that describes the emotional turmoil resulting from the gap between baby boomer parents telling kids their job should be a perfect fit for their passions and talents, and Gen Y kids realizing that the work world does not offer that type of job.”

    Once again, Penelope, you have NAILED it. I want to write this down on every wall I walk by, make posters and stick it to my parents’ foreheads. This is the first time I’ve read something affirming the turmoil that my friends and I have been experiencing. I’ve been calling my experience a quarter-life crisis and people didn’t quite get it. THANK YOU for getting it!!

  20. Dr. Steven
    Dr. Steven says:

    Hi Penelope. I’m a contemporary of yours age-wise and background-wise. Would you consider medicine a growing field, or a dying one? I know the need will always be there, as long as people grow old and get sick, but it sure feels like a dying industry from my perspective (20 years Radiology practice). I’ve never like medicine, but became brainwashed into it by my parents (NY Jewish children of immigrants). What is an INTJ at my stage of llife to do? I persist for the sake of my family, and will until the end. Taking care of them is my first priority, and always will be. I certainly have enough perspective to know things could be worse, but I often wonder…what would be better?

  21. Matthew
    Matthew says:

    “1. It’s the skills you use in your job that matters, not the industry you’re in”

    I think matters should be changed to the singular matter so it would agree with skills. After all, it is skills that matter, not skills that matters. I think the singular word job confused your editor.

  22. David Morris
    David Morris says:

    This is an interesting article. You have a lot of good stuff on careers here. I’d like a piece on “Are you too mentally ill to work, or should you keep trying?”

  23. Alicia Marseille
    Alicia Marseille says:

    This is a great post, and your blog in its entirety has helped me to realize this in general. I’m a serial entrepreneur and am currently a business analyst. While the job is great and has taught me a lot I am ready to continue on my own journey again as an entrepreneur. Your blog, in contrast with several others (Marie Forleo), has inspired me to start one of my own that is geared towards knowledge, systems, and strategies told through narratives, stories and videos. Starting a business isn’t about “have a beautiful life and make money.” It is about following your passions, but it isn’t always unicorns and butterflies. I’m hoping my blog will help people just as yours has to navigate through to seek their own success and learn from others.

  24. Ernest R
    Ernest R says:

    “Trend” is a biggie…. A friend’s daughter entered law school almost 3 years ago – at the worst time for real estate. One of her professors suggested real estate law to the students. Most poo-poo’d the professor, but those that listened heard that real estate is cyclical, and they will be graduating into a stronger market that will need their services.

  25. Jill Waterfall
    Jill Waterfall says:

    You are a great career adviser and a great mom. I think it’s very important for parents to be devoted to their children and talk about career choices with them instead of just pushing them to pursue a career in a particular field, it’s probably one of the most important things a parent can do for their child.
    And you are completely right about the industry trends, people often tend to overlook these kinds of constantly changing factors.
    This is a great post, I’ll make sure to share it with my friends.

  26. Carmen
    Carmen says:

    Penelope, Passion is simply energy. You want your son to have the energy to do whatever he feels like doing at any given moment. His career or activities could be anything under the sun.

    If you teach him to construct his life in a way where he has the energy to do what he wants, then he’ll have the power to be a success at anything. He’ll have the passion for it.

    The mistake people make is committing to life choices that are draining. They commit to people who are draining. They have habits that are unhealthy and draining. And then they can’t figure out why they aren’t successful or can’t find their purpose in life.

    We should all be constructing our lives so we have the energy to do whatever the hell we want.

    Who cares what he’s doing, so long as he’s not wasting his energy on things that he doesn’t care about.

    Crap… This should be my next blog post.

    The key is in conserving energy for what matters to us. What matters to us changes as we age. It can change daily even.

    Every kid should be learning not to waste energy on people, activities, and things that drain them. Purpose comes easily after that.

  27. Beth Rogers
    Beth Rogers says:

    Everything mentioned in this post touched me deeply, I can relate with most of the points. We live in a world where dream jobs don’t exist, or don’t come knocking on your door necessarily but being passionate and never quitting has been a career up lifter for me throughout my career. If you don’t feel right about working in a specific division, and you think your skills are drained then find yourself a better option. Because there is always an option out there waiting for you and your passion! And there is always space to grow more.

  28. Duane
    Duane says:

    It’s important to balance what you want to do with what you realistically can do. That being said, there are always going to be things that you initially have a hard time accomplishing that you will have to overcome if you want to get to where you’Re going. It’s all about being able to separate the hurdles from the deal breakers, and the only way to know is to try.

  29. Matt
    Matt says:

    Ya know, e everyone has a purpose and passion… and when people are living their purpose and passion, they are happy and fufilled. This is especially true in the workplace. When you’re living your purpose and passion you’re at your best. As long as you’re not in a dying industry and you’re living that purpose and passion, you’re likely in the right career.

  30. Matt
    Matt says:

    I completely agree. Particularly with point 3, “We don’t need a perfect job in order to be happy. We just need to be growing”. I was recently stuck in a rut and had to look at changing my job and career. It is not an easy process, but once you figure it out you will develop a great passion for your work! excellent post!

  31. Kyle Jones
    Kyle Jones says:


    Thank you! This post really “hit home” for me and was a great read. I loved how you framed the story and made us realize that it what we do – what makes us happy – is what is important. Work may be work but work can be enjoyed. We often – myself included – lose that passion and that steals true enjoyment from what we do. So,again, thank you for an amazing post.

  32. Richard T.
    Richard T. says:

    I think it is good to open oneself to a larger scope of what may be a good job for you, and one area of those is a job that primarily involves physical labor. I started out as a commercial farmer, and now have semi-retired to vegetable farming and firewood harvesting.

    I do believe that keeping ones physical body very active is one way to balance the mind. For those who think these are dead end jobs, one can make a very decent living in careers such as construction, truck driving, forestry , commercial fishing, and the trades such as plumbing, electrician, etc.

  33. john wright
    john wright says:

    The mistake people make is committing to life choices that are draining. They commit to people who are draining. They have habits that are unhealthy and draining. And then they can’t figure out why they aren’t successful or can’t find their purpose in life.

    We should all be constructing our lives so we have the energy to do whatever the hell we want.

  34. Suzi Pratt
    Suzi Pratt says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful piece, Penelope. I’ve gone down several of the wrong career paths before I finally found my dream job, so I know the feeling of searching for the ideal work situation. I could completely rate to your experience as well.

  35. Elina David
    Elina David says:

    Very Interesting Blog. I agree with you that we always kept on looking for perfect fit jobs and we link happiness with it. It might be possible that you get a perfect job still you don’t feel happy. You have to find happiness in the work you are doing.

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