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Self-Efficacy Is at the Core of Career Interests

We often find our passion in what we're good at, not the other way around.

Key points

  • People's career interests often spring from the things they are good at, whether school, sports, hobbies, or other activities.
  • Performance in career-related activities, career role models, and representations in the media all affect a person's career self-efficacy.
  • Students struggling to find their career interests could examine what they’re good at and how those competencies translate into careers.
Fredrick Tendong/Unsplash
Source: Fredrick Tendong/Unsplash

What career did you dream about when you were 6? I wanted to be a basketball star/best-selling novelist (FYI, I am neither.) By 4 years old, most children have a basic understanding of work and can answer the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But where do career interests come from, and how do they change and mature through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood?

This past summer, many schools and colleges I work with have redefined course selection and academic majors within the context of career planning. We’re more focused than ever on helping students connect what they learn in the classroom to multiple pathways to occupational success. To support these efforts, I advised partners on evidence-based practices to help students identify their career aspirations, guided by the tenets of Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT).

The most important thing to share about SCCT is that the typical assumption that career interests arise phenomenologically, spurring us to obtain and improve the skills necessary to get our “dream job,” is wrong. We’re motivated to feel competent, and fulfilling this need has more to do with our happiness than we often realize. Thus, we usually want to do what we think we’ll be good at. In other words, career interests don’t foster career self-efficacy as much as self-efficacy drives our interest in specific careers.

3 Sources of Career Self-Efficacy

A lot of kids say they want to be a doctor when they grow up, but they have no medical background suggesting that they’d be a good doctor. The same goes for police officer, marine biologist, astronaut, president, and a lot of other jobs. So where does self-efficacy come from before we have any career experience? SCCT describes three main inputs that tell us whether we’d be good or bad at a particular job.

#1. Performance. Career-related activities give us a sense whether we might succeed in that career. From childhood through adulthood, many of these activities take place in school and are assessed largely by grades. I was informed early and often that I had exceptional reading and writing skills compared to my peers, hence wanting to be an author (I’m also tall, hence the hoop dreams). Other kids excel in math, science, or art, whereas others still find self-efficacy outside of academics in sports, hobbies, or religious activities. With high school and college students, self-efficacy can begin to develop more directly via jobs, extern/internships, co-ops, and volunteering.

Importantly, SCCT acknowledges that the feedback people receive on their self-efficacy can be influenced by their gender, race, and ethnicity. Poor evaluations, microaggressions, and disciplinary problems that may be unjustly experienced by women, Black, and Brown individuals at school or work will dissuade them from pursuing related careers. Preventing or reframing these experiences requires a combination of macro- and micro-level interventions; for brevity’s sake, here are a few of my posts on nudges for academic equity: growth mindsets and values affirmations.

#2. Vicarious learning. My father was a postman like his father, until he shifted careers into law enforcement. My brother also worked for the post office, but he’s now in law enforcement just like our dad. Following in the professional footsteps of a parent or other family member is a tradition as old as humankind. When we see people like us succeed in a career, we believe we can succeed in it, too. We can also develop career self-efficacy from role models outside of our family, which is why representation in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and more is so important in all career paths.

#3. Social persuasion. In a recent episode of LEGO Masters, a contestant revealed that her daughter wants to work for LEGO after seeing on TV a same-gender role model, Brickmaster Amy. For better or worse, we learn a lot about who belongs in what careers from TV and movies. In fact, a 2018 study found that girls who regularly watched Dr. Dana Scully on The X-Files were 27 percent more likely to study STEM and 50 percent more likely to have worked in a STEM field. Representation matters in media, as well.

Finding Career Interests via Self-Efficacy

When students are struggling to identify their career interests, a good place to start may be a conversation about their strengths. In which courses do they earn the best grades? For what parts of their job are they most praised? What do they do in their free time that makes them feel competent? Even their media preferences might reveal patterns (e.g., lawyer shows; medical shows; cooking shows) that suggest a career path. From there, you can drill down to the specific activities in which they excel. For example, many youth today love competitive video games, which is often erroneously correlated with an interest in coding. These youths’ competencies may be teamwork, strategizing, and problem solving under pressure, skills that suggest a number of careers that may appear distant from video games but capture the same self-efficacy that makes gaming appealing.

Students can also complete career aptitude and strengths assessments. There are far too many of these on the market to list, and chances are your school already has a subscription to one of them. But be sure these are administered as part of an ongoing career discussion (check out my advice on leveraging behavioral science to get more students to use career services). It was not helpful during college orientation to fill out one of these surveys, only to be told weeks later I was suited for one job, and one job alone: dictionary editor. To be fair, I’d make an awesome dictionary editor, but without any context or follow-up that result meant nothing to me at the time.

Finally, let students know that career interests are constantly evolving. The myth that we choose a college major and follow a straight path through to a career remains pervasive and malignant. Most of our careers have meandered, partly due to circumstance and partly because our self-efficacy is continually updated by performance feedback, vicarious learning, and social influence. Remind students that the key to success is rarely bullheaded determination, but rather flexibility and knowing when to step off one path to follow another, no matter how unexpected it may be.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The" what" and" why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. (2019). The “Scully Effect”: I want to believe…in STEM.

Lent, R. W., & Brown, S. D. (2019). Social cognitive career theory at 25: Empirical status of the interest, choice, and performance models. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 115, 103316.