Discovering what you want to do has gotten easier and harder in recent years – it’s somewhat of a paradox.
It has gotten easier with the advent of the internet. No longer do interested students have to go out and find people in any particular field; now they can read about the discipline online, watch videos and talk to others in a much more connected fashion (i.e. forums).
It has gotten harder as roles, jobs and professions change more rapidly. What might be a growing discipline one day, could be a shrinking one the next. Also, the flow of information has two negative consequences. Firstly, it overloads our senses with too many job possibilities – we become paralyzed by the number of avenues to explore, so we end up exploring less. Secondly, it allows the ‘trendy’ jobs to be more rapidly promoted and shared, so that it has the effect of drowning out the more ‘off the radar’ jobs.
I Thought I Would Simply Figure it Out One Day
I used to look at highly successful people in a state of disbelief. When interviewed, they would always talk about how much they enjoyed their career – how it hardly felt like work. I was jealous of the fact that someone was able to find something that they not only enjoyed, but also got paid to do!
Then, when the interviewer would ask them how they originally got into that role/industry/area, it always seemed like a pure fluke. They had been out with friends and met someone, they had someone call them out of the blue, they heard of something through a friend of a friend – in every situation it sounded like the cosmos aligned itself to make sure they found their calling.
This led me to the belief that many people who find that perfect job – one that has almost everything they want – do so out of nothing more than luck. They just happened to be a little luckier then the next guy, and everything came together for them. Hey, if the approach worked for them, why wouldn’t it work for me, right?
So, I came to the conclusion that most students come to – I would do one of two things.
- Throw a bunch of resumes against the wall and see what sticks. This is exactly what I did for my first coop term. I had no idea what I wanted to do – and I didn’t have much interest in figuring it out. I made one standard form cover letter (“to whom it may concern”), and applied to close to 100 jobs (it doesn’t take long when you aren’t changing anything in the package!). Out of those jobs I might have gotten 15 interviews, which turned into a few job offers, which turned into my first coop job. Literally, my only criteria was reading the posting and then deciding if it ‘sounded cool’. I think this is the first phase that almost every student goes through
- Take advice/feedback from others, and follow the consensus. I think this is probably the biggest explanation for why students from particular schools tend to cluster around similar professions. It’s not necessarily that the school is ‘known’ for that career, I think it has more to do with the growth of group think. Get 5 students in a group of 100 to start wanting to be widget producers, and before you know it you will have 10, then 15, and then 25. Then recruiters who need widget manufacturers start recruiting those 25 students, who in turn tell students younger than them about their grand new job, and so the process begins. The group starts to grow as they attract people who otherwise have not made a decision either way – it’s easy to paint an impression on a blank canvas.
In both of the above options, I figured it was the universe telling me what to do – doesn’t everything happen for a reason?
What I soon learned was that it doesn’t take four months to figure out if a job is a good fit for you or not – you can usually figure it out in a few weeks. Even more effective, you can have lunch with a few different people already in that job, and then guess what? You never have to make the commitment if you decide against it! And if you decide to go for it, well now you already have a few connections in the industry!
I Learned the Perfect Job is Rarely an Accident
The truth is usually far less interesting then either a fabrication of the story, or carefully selected ‘pieces’ of truth.
What I came to understand is that those interviews you saw on CNBC and other channels rarely told the whole story. No one was interested that the person being interviewed had lived on Ramen noodles for four years, or spent two years at Toast Masters, or one year cold calling trying to break into an industry – all they focused on was the result which, without the hidden process, seemed extraordinary.
Determining the particular career that you will pursue is not an activity best left to chance. Imagine a lottery system for your degree – we will determine what you spend the next four years studying by drawing disciplines out of a hat. Whatever you get, you are stuck with for the next four years. It seems absurd – no sane student would want that deal – but that is largely what most students are committing to by treating their future as destined, but instead of 4 years it is 40!
A smart student (smarter than myself – as I was late to the game) would turn it into a top down exercise. First, they would complete an exercise in understanding both themselves, and what a dream job looks like. You need to understand yourself as that will dictate what environments are best for you, what kind of people you want to work with, what kind of business you will want to work in, etc. You can do this through taking self assessment tests (i.e. Myers Briggs, etc.), talking to your friends and family, and through some quiet moments of self reflection.
Once you have figured out what kind of environment or atmosphere you desire, then go to work finding out where that exists in the world. Talk to everyone you can, and after you talk to them, ask them if they know anyone else you can talk to. Share your journey with them – explain what you are looking for – and ask if it is a good fit. Talk to people you run into, look online, and explore every possible avenue.
The most important thing is just getting out there.
An interesting story to share: when I was finishing up my first coop term, I had determined that I was meant to be an investment banker. I didn’t have much of an idea about what they did, but I heard they paid well, and the work was challenging (see above for group think). So, I started talking to people. If I had skipped that step, I most likely would have found out the hard way that the career wasn’t for me, but luckily I got the chance to talk to a couple great people – including a one particular guy named Ajeet. He was the first person to bluntly point out to me that I didn’t have the personality for investment banking, but he recommended I look into sales & trading – which would be a much better fit to my personality style.
That conversation led me down the path towards sales & trading, which led me to exactly where I am now. That conversation (amoung many other conversations) was a defining inflection point in my career trajectory – without it, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
In my opinion, before you come anywhere close to finding your perfect career – your passion – you need to find at least ten that you hate – that way you will know when you find something you love.
If I Could Go Back
Firstly, I would suggest to any student currently in school to get a wide variety of internship/summer job experiences. Just because you have a great summer working at an ad agency, don’t be afraid to try something else! Be very upfront with them – say, ‘listen, I loved working here over the summer, but I am going to try something else next summer. I am at a point in my life where I can afford to try several different careers and I want to make sure I get that opportunity.’ The best place to try on different running shoes is before the race starts. It’s much easier to switch from marketing to finance after four months then it is after fourteen years – at which point it’s probably impossible.
Secondly, I would highly recommend taking all opportunities to shadow different roles at any jobs you may get. Just because you join a firm in the accounting department as a coop for 4 months doesn’t mean you are stuck there. Talk to your manager or boss, and let them know you would like, if at all possible, to spend a day sitting with marketing. Then spend a day sitting with operations, sales and IT. Don’t let your work suffer (as you will most likely lose the privilege if that happens), but don’t be afraid to ask. You can turn an experience as one particular role into an experience with several different roles.
Finally, a message to all current students and young adults: discovering your passion is a contact game. You need to get out there and run into things – people, opportunities and ideas. You need to talk to everyone you bump in to; you never know where the insight will come from.
You might stumble into your passion, but in order to stumble, you need to be moving!
Blair Livingston Blog