It’s the most simple but cruel question: What is the career you want to dedicate your life to?
As a recent college grad, my obsession over this question has given me a ton of misery and dread. It makes me uncomfortable because it assumes that if I don’t know the right answer, I’ll fall behind and won’t be able to catch up.
It’s a type of pressure that leads to decision-making paralysis. The more I couldn’t decide on my career path and the more time passed, the more I felt an insane feeling of pressure build up. It felt like an endless cycle of misery, especially so when I sat around and saw peers add years of job experience to their resumes.
But I recently saw a TED Talk that changed my mindset and stopped the carousel of torture.
In a TED Talk by lifestyle blogger Tim Urban about procrastination, he showed a slide of what a 90-year old’s life would look like if each week in their life was a box. When I saw the photo, I had a shocking realization: There aren’t a whole lot of boxes in life– and even fewer that are left.
I apologize if that image just filled you with existential dread. That’s not what I’m trying to do. What I’m trying to do is make the point that your career should start now. We don’t have any more time to ponder when our careers are going to start – start them now. And here’s how to do it:
1. You Better Recognize: You Already Know What You Want To Do
In Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade, she recounts a conversation with a 25-year-old male named Ian. In the book, he explains his terrifying existential worry about not knowing what to do with his life. He describes feeling like he is in the middle of the ocean, not being able to see land, and not knowing which direction to go. He’s so overwhelmed by the experience that he feels like he physically can’t swim in any general direction. All he can do is tread water in the same place to survive.
The first time I read this story I knew I identified more with Ian’s struggle than with any other career challenge examples I’d heard. Throughout my life, being overwhelmed by my career options was my modus operandi. Growing up, my parents were always supportive, often telling me I could be anything I wanted to be. “The choices are limitless!” my mother once told me. And they are. But it’s for that reason it’s even harder to make a decision!
But Meg Jay wrote something in her book that unlocked a part of my brain that finally solved my indecision and explained the related anxiety connected to it. She says that by the time people are in their 20s, they’ve spent more than two decades shaping who they are. Most people at this age have “experiences, interests, strengths, weaknesses, diplomas, hang-ups, priorities. You didn’t just this moment drop onto the planet,” she says in her book.
After reading this quote, I no longer felt like I didn’t know where to start. I do know where to start. I’ve had more than two decades to show me. Realizing this truth gave me a huge sense of relief. The answer to my questions was never too far from me!
2. Learn About Yourself
You need to really get to know yourself to find what you like. It turns out self-questioning is an integral part of choosing a career.
Author Jay says the only way to truly grow and understand yourself is to be specific and thorough when putting yourself under the microscope. Ask yourself these questions, to start:
- How do you think, really?
- What do you really enjoy doing?
- What brings you gratification?
- What excites you to get out of bed every day?
- What parts of that one project you did that one time were your favorite things to do?
- What are your strengths and weaknesses?
- What do people compliment you on or criticize?
According to career experts, learning as much as you can about yourself will lead to the most successful job hunt. In his job-hunting manual What Color Is Your Parachute?, Richard N. Bolles explains that “by doing this homework on yourself…[you] end up with a picture of a job that would really excite you, and not just any old job.” Bolles says that by being as honest as you can with yourself, your abilities, and your sense of commitment to your self, you will stand out over other candidates.
“When you are facing…competitors for the job you want…you will stand out above them all, because you can accurately describe to employers exactly what is unique about you, and what you bring to the table that the other do not,” he says.
3. Find Solidarity
This is another truth you should always keep in mind: You’re not the only person who hasn’t known what to do with their life. What did those other people do, who also didn’t know at some point, to figure it out? Find out by talking to them. You’ll be surprised that many people, old and young, friends and strangers, will be happy to tell you their stories of motivation that leads to action.
Look for all the other resources available to you online and off. Go to the nearest career centers, find a good website, and take out books at the library.
Beyond the two books I’ve already mentioned by Jay and Bolles, there are many recent ones you can check out that cover the same material. The advice on The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life is great. And Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life is a favorite of friends. Each are filled with wisdom and great advice, as well as introspective and eye-opening exercises.
4. Make Acquaintances
And not friends. This is key.
Sociologist Mark Granovetter conducted a famous study of social networks called “The Strength of Weak Ties” that showed it’s not close friends or family who are most valuable during the job hunt. Instead, new job prospects usually come from contacts who are seen only rarely or occasionally. This is because the people who you hang out with the most will be the most like you, thus creating a homogenous clique where everyone thinks the same and knows similar things. It’s people with weaker ties to you that can introduce fresh new information and opportunity into your circle of influence.
I’m sure you’re reading this and groaning, ‘Ugh I hate networking! Eye roll!’ And yea, I get it. Making new acquaintances is not as enjoyable as hanging out with people you already know you like. But if you don’t network, you might as well throw in the towel, boxing-style, to find your career. I’ve landed eight out of the nine jobs I’ve ever had through referrals. And the one I didn’t, I ended up hating.
So go to events and network. Go to non-networking events and network. Just meet new people. Send them a friend invite on Facebook or LinkedIn and keep them in mind so one day you can hit them up when you see they work at that dream company you’ve always wanted to work at. Also, keep in mind when you make an acquaintance and connect with one person, you’re connecting with every person they know, and every person those people know. Stop wasting time and make acquaintances!
5. Have Real Conversations
Talk at length with those acquaintances you’ve just met, with the acquaintances you already know, and even with people you don’t know, but found randomly on LinkedIn!
Talk to anyone who has any job, or are in any industry, that you’ve had any interest in. Talk about what they do. Talk about how they got there. Gather information about the different jobs that are out there, and that you could do.
Collect first-hand perspective on what it’s like to be in that position or company you’re curious about.
Bonus Tip: Google Yourself
While you’re doing all the above tips, go ahead and thoroughly Google yourself. Because you have to make sure that when you reach out to these acquaintances and new contacts, they and future employers are finding ONLY what you want them to find out about yourself.
Delete, or make very private, everything online you don’t want them to find. This means old pictures buried in Facebook photo albums of you during your freshman year of college, dressed in costume, and doing a keg stand at that one frat party. Definitely not speaking from personal experience!
Get yourself ready while you figure out what career you want. Beef up your resume and your LinkedIn, and have a sample cover letter. That way, when you finally find the career you want, and you will, you’ll be ready to go.
Best of luck, and remember, the time to start your career is — right now.