Friday, May 31, 2013

How to Choose a Career: A Non-Lame Guide to Finding More Joy in What You Do Every Day -- Part 1



by Dustin (bio)

NOTE: This is the first in a series of posts that piece together things I've learned over the last eight years of using my life like a lab rat to figure out the question "what should I do with my life?" This series is aimed at those who are exploring career, looking to change jobs, or who are simply searching for more happiness in their daily work regardless of what that work entails.

Image by Thomas Leuthard

This time of year makes me nauseous, mostly because I have flashbacks to my time as a graduating senior from BYU-Idaho almost 10 years ago. For some, graduation was an epic day because they transitioned smoothly into ready-made jobs with benefits. For me, an educational drifter who dabbled in seven majors in college, graduation marked the end of procrastinating one big, universal question -- what should I do with my life?

I graduated in public relations and spent one year in a job that drained my energy before I abruptly quit and devoted the next eight years to figuring out how to figure out what to do with my life and find more joy from 8am-5pm. I worked 8 jobs in 6 states in those eight years including stints as an alarm system salesman, corporate relations specialist, large appliance delivery man, program adviser at a university, community service intern, and a leadership development coordinator. I interviewed more than 200 people, read countless books and articles, and researched career exploration like it was my job. From all of this, two things happened: 1) I found a dream job that I get paid above average to do and 2) I figured out how to figure it out. I put everything I learned into a massive 98-page Google doc on my Gmail account and have spent the last few years teaching the concepts to every person who would listen, particularly to college kids at UNLV and Rice, to do my part to alleviate world suffering and global warming. I've coached hundreds of people through career exploration and believe the things I've learned in my journey can blow the lid off choosing a best-fit career and enjoying what you do. In this series of posts, I'll start with some basic things you need to know to figure it out. I'll then give three simple strategies to get you started. If after all this you need more help let me know by contacting me at dustin (at) petersonleadership (dot) com. No spam or Canadian drug offers, please. I am, however, open to wire transferring money to Nigerian kings or old ladies with big inheritances.

Know This First
It's important to understand at the outset that when people tell you to "just do what you love" they are both right and wrong. Yes, you should pursue something you love because you are more invested in things you love and you get more return on your investment. Think puppies. Or your family. But they may be wrong in suggesting that if you love singing you should be a singer. Or if you love basketball you should head for the NBA. I made the mistake of charting a course to a career in professional basketball that ended when I was 14 and got cut in tryouts. I didn't get far. All my life when people suggested I should just do what I love for a living I poo-pooed them, feeling like I had missed my calling in basketball and was forever doomed to just work out the rest of my days in job purgatory. "Well, if I failed at doing what I love I guess I should fall back into line with the day laborers."

So how do I do what I love for a living if we can't all do what we love? I'm glad you asked. When you ask yourself, "Well, what do I love to do?" I think you are asking the wrong question. Instead, try asking, "What do I love about what I love to do?" Say what?! Let me explain. I love basketball and yet I can't do that for a career. But one day three years ago I looked at it differently and instead asked, "What do I love about basketball?" Through some serious guided reflection I came up with this list:
  • Working with a group toward a common goal (winning) vs. working alone.
  • The strategy of working in a dynamic (constantly changing) structure to achieve a goal.
  • The communication that takes place on the court, both verbal and nonverbal.
  • The instant gratification of scoring vs. delayed reward.
  • The use of vision to see the court and envision how it could shift in the next few seconds.
  • The competitiveness and winning and the affirmation that comes with winning.
  • Finding connections between teammates during the game that result in success -- that whole synergy thing.
  • Being better than other people at the same activity.
  • Encouraging others and motivating them to be better.
Now of course some of these statements have been wordsmith-ed for a presentation I gave on this topic, but the concept is clear. Basketball isn't what I really love. The act of putting an orange ball through an orange rim doesn't yield energy in and of itself. It's the other elements of the activity that drive the energy and joy. When I looked at what I loved about basketball and what I love about my current job it's the same. Here's how it fits:
  • Working with a group -- Working with a team to create leadership programming for individuals
  • Strategy in an ever-changing, dynamic environment -- Predicting the needs of my target audience (a dynamic audience) and strategizing to be most effective
  • Communication -- Training, teaching, and conducting one-on-one coaching
  • Instant gratification -- Watching over the course of a 30-minute session as someone “gets it”
  • Connectedness -- Finding connections between seemingly disparate ideas to help a client discover their leadership style or career path
  • Envisioning future trends -- Creating a 3-5 year vision for the department
  • Competitiveness -- Being better at my job than my predecessor
  • Affirmation -- Clients thanking me for helping them change their lives
This was mind-blowing to me and I haven't looked at what I love to do the same ever since. I don't generally love things for the sake of loving them, I love them because of what they allow me to do. One last example: Last year at my wife's command I built a board and batten for our wall. I actually loved building it. I was even passionate about it, losing myself in the project, feeling fluid and natural as I did it, and coming away with more energy after completing it than before I started. One could argue that I should go into carpentry because that sounds like a passion. However, the board and batten happened to be the "subject" of my passion but was not necessarily my passion. My true passion was using my innate ability to take something that was average, visualize a better product, and break it down into tangible steps to get there. It turns out that I use this same skill each time I coach someone in their leadership or career and I get the same energy as I did building a board and batten. Sure I love the smell of freshly cut wood and nails (not really) but there are likely other talents or skills at work that I was using when working on it that released some passion/energy that I could replicate in other lines of work.

So doing what you love is not a "do-or-die" proposition. If you love to sing you don't have to be a singer and if you love numbers you're not destined to be an accountant. Anyone can do what they love most of the time if they look at what they love and ask what they love about it and then do more of that wherever they are. Identify the transferables and transfer them to every activity you do. If I do any of the above bullets as a husband or father or early morning seminary teacher or t-ball coach I feel the same satisfaction as if I were on the court dunking on someone's head or working my job!

It's an amazing principle and yet it's nothing new. In fact this concept has been around for a few years: "And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey ... Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same (put them to work over and over, no doubt) and made them other five talents. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord (Matthew 25)." Note the emphasis added on "joy," a natural by-product of using your talents to benefit others. So before you even start looking for an ideal career fit, understand that doing what you love is possible in everything you do if you shift your mindset away from a subject- or industry- or topic-based search (e.g. I want to be a doctor!) and toward a skill- and talent-based one (e.g. I want to be in a position that allows me to do _____, _____, and _____ ).

After you've spent some time figuring out why you love what you love you'll find that your potential industries and career paths are blown wide open. Everything's an option as long as you can do what you love to do within its structure. Now it's almost time to dive into the three steps to career exploration. But first you've got to have a strategy. Most of us use a trial-and-error approach to figuring out a career, bouncing from job to job trying to narrow it down.

In the next post I'll talk through three reasons why that's lame and share a better way. Don't be shy with questions. I'm here to help. Use the comments or send an email. I'll get back to you as soon as I can.

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