How To Do Life

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Overcoming Psychological Barriers to Picking a Career Wisely

Choosing a career wisely may not be as difficult as you may think.

Choosing a career can cause serious angst:

"Of course, I want prestige but am I smart enough? Sure I am. Am I really? Is that my parents’ praise talking? Some professor who has nothing to lose by praising students? After all, he doesn’t have to pay me. I’m paying him. Should I follow my passion? Yeah but my passions are the environment and entertainment. Everyone wants to do that—the competition will be ridiculous. But if I settle for some dumb-ass career like marketing manager, I’ll feel like I sold out. How could I tell my friends, “Hi, I just got a job as assistant marketing coordinator for the Western Widget Waxing Works, Inc? My dad says I should consider be an accountant. “Consider,” yeah right. That’s his tactful way of saying I should be an accountant. Maybe I should. There will always be a need for accountants. But I hear they’re offshoring accounting jobs. Hell, I don’t want to be an accountant anyway. Or is that just the standard young-adult rebellion. After all, I’m like him and he’d teach me the ropes. No, I don’t want to be an accountant. Thank God mom says, “Do whatever makes you happy.” Actually, that’s no help either. I wish someone would tell me what to do. Shit. I should be practical. I don’t want to be like Mary who followed her acting dream and she’s the cliché—she’s waiting tables in between her once-a-year bit parts in two-bit theatres. Damn. I’m young. I’m not tied down yet. I don’t need to be practical. But what? Become some nonprofit activist? Who’ll hire me to do that? What the hell am I meant to be? A lot of careers sound okay but no one stands out. Maybe there is no right one. The stupid career tests didn’t help. Forest ranger? Funeral director? I can’t stand it. I’ll just choose something. I’ll go to law school and see what happens."

Resolving career-choice angst

First, realize there is no one right career for you. If there were, you would have known it before now, like you were meant to be a ballet dancer, video game designer, whatever. Chances are, many careers will work equally well as long as you find a good place to get trained, land a job with a decent boss and coworkers, and stay with it until you’re good.

Sure, you might have some career non-negotiables: prestige, money, freedom, working for a cause, working for a for-profit, living in Hawaii, whatever. And if you’re a word person but hate math, you won’t want to be an physicist. But beyond that, which career you choose is less important than whether you make the most of it. 

The only other thing you might want to decide is whether you feel it’s worth taking a big risk. For example, countless creatives are willing to try to defy the odds of making a living as a comedian, artist, actor, musician, etc., feeling they’d rather eat ramen and canned tuna with their four roommates than live a middle-class, secure existence as a government or corporate worker. How about you?

To choose your career, rather than rely on friends’ advice or taking career “tests,” I suggest you simply scan an annotated list of careers. Your brain is a computer that considers more factors than can be measured by career “tests.” The most authoritative such annotated list is the Occupational Outlook Handbook. For more under-the-radar careers you might consult my book, Cool Careers for Dummies, which contains brief intros and a link to more information on more than 500 careers, many of which are under the radar. Then simply Google-search the name of candidate careers and read a few articles and perhaps a book consisting of different people’s experience in that career. I'm less convinced of the value of an informational interview or job shadow. That person ot two's experience is too likely to be unepresentative of what your experience will be like.

A bit of reassurance: Please realize that people do make career changes. Yes, it’s harder the older you get but pick something now and if after a year or three it clearly feels wrong, there’s usually plenty time to change.

I worry that you may think I’m taking too cavalier an approach to choosing a career. I can only say that having been career counselor to 4,500 people now over the past 29 years, this is my best advice, what I’d give to my own family members.

Wikipedia’s profile of Marty Nemko tells you more than necessary.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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