by Dustin (bio)
NOTE: This is the third installment 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. Read Part 1 or Part 2.
|Image via Richard Blank|
Yesterday I ate lunch with a friend and we were talking about what in the world drove him to major in bio-engineering. He said he showed up at Rice University and asked around to find out what the hardest major was and then signed up for that. He's obviously driven by different values than I am. Pretty much any hard class or major I ever came across at BYU-Idaho got the ol' "sayonara." But he illustrates an interesting point: People land in majors and careers for really random reasons. You might be able to relate. I know I can.
I chose public relations as a sophomore because I met with a career counselor who asked me what I like to do and I said "work with people" (just like virtually every other human being on planet earth). He said, "Do you feel like you can relate well with them?" I thought about it and said, "Oh yeah. Actually I do that really well." "Then you should go into public relations," was the reply. So I went into PR. The joke was on me when two years later I was gainfully employed at a top-tier PR firm in Dallas sitting in a "call booth" cold-calling media from wellness magazines to pitch them my client, Beano, and it's discovery of Complex Carbohydrate Intolerance (aka stinky toots). Choosing a major or career is tricky because we don't know how to approach it and our default strategy is random.
From what I have observed over the past ten years, there are really two ways to go about choosing your career path, the Outside/In Model or the Inside/Out Model (trademark pending for the super creative names). Most people choose this one:
You begin your career search by looking at all of the options "out there" and then fitting yourself into the one that most peaks your interest. You use what I call Outside/In Model, looking at what is available and then deciding if you fit in one of those options. From the 200+ individuals I've interviewed, the consensus is that most people choose a major or career based on at least one of the following:
- My dad was a _____ so I will be too (as if career is consistently passed through the blood line).
- XYZ career path pays really well so I'll do that.
- XYZ major only takes _____ credits to graduate. Let's do this!
- I really liked studying the Renaissance in high school, so I'll be an English major.
- I loved Mr. Jones, my high school math teacher. He changed my life. I'll be a math major.
- My parents are paying for my schooling and they said, "We're not paying for you to go to ABC school to get a degree in that!"
In other words, when people choose a major they typically follow a relatively arbitrary and ineffective model of looking at all of the options they perceive to be available to them "out there" and then fitting themselves into one of them, much like fitting a round peg into a square hole. A graduating college senior might say, "Well, I can go into teaching, consulting, or pursue graduate school," pick one, and go with it. I did this when I graduated and most of the individuals I career coach do a similar thing. When I graduated with a degree in public relations my first Google search was for "jobs" in "public relations" in "Dallas." Likewise, when I initially selected my major I chose it based on super limited information. There are really three problems with this method:
1. It takes a lot of time to find a job you love. The common refrain is, "You can do anything for a year." While this is true, and I've definitely had my fair share of one-year jobs, an accumulation of one-year positions over a career can be detrimental because you may never get very much depth in any one career. You may select a major or career path, try it out for a year, bail and move on the next, try it for a year, and so on. People say, "Just dive in. You'll figure it out." While true, it's also very time-consuming and frustrating.
2. You're limiting your options. In other words, you don't know what you don't know. The options that you have before you are limited because you don't know what else might be available. I have never seen this more clearly than during my time at Rice University. Students come into college with the mindset that they have three choices: medical school, graduate school, or consulting. Law school may be in there for a few of them, but generally speaking most students matriculate and graduate with the same mindset. Most students don't even realize there are thousands of firms and agencies hiring for all kinds of jobs if you are willing to do the legwork to find them. Granted, we're preconditioned to think this way in college because there are a predetermined number of majors, say 32 or so, and we're supposed to fit into one of them. The result is that you graduate believing there are also a finite number of jobs that fit neatly into those 32 majors. Then, when you realize there are 32 billion different jobs you panic and default to what you know. For me, again, this was public relations.
3. You're fitting yourself into a preexisting paradigm that may or may not be accurate. What’s a paradigm? It’s simply a pattern of thinking. In other words, you have "patterns of thinking" or natural biases about various jobs and careers that may be (read: likely are) inaccurate. When I was called to teach seminary I literally wept because I thought to myself "I can handle college kids but high school!?! They'll crush me." Needless to say my paradigm of teenagers was skewed. I ended up thriving in the calling. This concept happens all the time in my career conversations with people. I've met with several students who have a talent-set that would make them excellent educators. When I say "educators" did you think "teacher" as in "high school" or "college?" It turns out every industry in the modern economy employs educators but we may call them by different names. Marketers, brand experts, sales staff, etc. At their core, these individuals educate. Typically the knee-jerk reaction when I say "You would be a great educator" is a panicked look of doom. For the record, I'm an educator in the purest sense, as in a teacher, and I love it and find it to be a noble and satisfying career. But the idea that we foreclose options based on our paradigm of what they are gets us in a world of trouble. Lawyers don't necessarily chase ambulances, psychologists aren't necessarily counselors, IT people do more than program (maybe), and educators exists in places other than institutions of learning.
In lieu of pursuing an Outside/In Model, I propose the following:
Instead of searching for a career based on limited information and perspective, start with what you do know -- yourself. I call this model the Inside/Out approach to selecting a career path.
First, spend significant time answering the question "Who am I?" That's a complex question to answer and most people struggle to answer it because it's huge. I prefer to break it down into three distinct areas:
1. What do I care about? (Values)
2. What do I do best? (Talents)
3. Where do I thrive? (Environment)
Based on the answers to those three questions, you would then use that internal information as a lens of sorts through which you can sort the myriad options that are "out there" in the world. Filter the results through your new lens and ask yourself, "Does this position align with what I know about myself? Does it allow me to be who I am?" By the way, this is where another person acting as a sort of career coach, asking the right questions and taking notes, can be invaluable. You then narrow your options to eliminate the jobs that you know ahead of time are going to cause internal conflict or handcuff your strengths and consider the jobs that are most likely to set you up for success. Using the Inside/Out approach has three distinct benefits:
1. You increase the likelihood that you will gain satisfaction and energy from your field of choice. By predetermining that the conditions of the job align with who you are, you set yourself up for satisfaction. During the interview for my last job, my future boss asked me if I had any questions for her. I essentially took out my notes on what I knew about myself and phrased that knowledge as questions. "How much opportunity will I have to teach concepts to people who choose to come to our programs to learn about them vs. people who are forced to be there? Will I have opportunities to retool existing programs? How much of my day will be spent engaging with people? Is there flexibility to innovate and take the programs in a new direction?" When I realized that this job would yield massive energy because it would allow me to be who I already was 85% of the time I knew I would be able to bring my best self to work every day and essentially get paid to be me.
2. You increase your success rate because you are basing your decision on information that is concrete, that is, information that you know to be true about yourself based on past experience. In the past I have thrived coaching people one-on-one. I have a mind for it and they generally walk away feeling like they've improved or gained new insight and direction. So if I find a career that allows me to do that daily, the chances that my employer will recognize me for what I do well shoots through the roof! Suddenly people will be applauding you for a job well done when all you are really doing is what you have historically done well 99% of the time. Use what you know to set your self up for success in a career that lets you be you.
3. You potentially increase your earning potential depending on the marketability of your skills. It's my hypothesis that when you base your career on happiness instead of money, the money follows naturally because you are doing what you love and you become better at it than those who are doing it just because. With time you hit a tipping point when the market recognizes your greatness and pays you to be you. Happiness and financial success become intertwined in an upward progression. For years as I was toiling away in obscurity and making a median salary I questioned if that tipping point would ever occur. I'm here today to say that it does happen, although it takes time. You reap what you sow, and sometimes those seeds take some time to sprout.
Below is a handy chart to summarize the concepts:
We're almost ready to dive into those three areas (Values, Talents, and Environment) one at a time, after which you will have a clear lens to look through to analyze your options. Before we do that, though, we need to define success or "how we'll know when we've 'made it.'" I'll cover this in Part 4.
Let me know what questions you have by using the comments below or hit me up at dustin@peterson leadership.com. And if you know someone going through career transition or trying to choose a major in college, spread the word!