Choosing a Career—10 Practical Tips for Deciding What to Do With Your Life

A group of young professionals gather around a conference table to listen to a flip-chart presentation.

Choosing a career is a monumental task. Not only do you have to decide what to do for the rest of your life, but there is also a ton of advice that can steer you in the wrong direction.

Consider this common piece of advice: “Follow your passion, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

There’s a lot that’s misleading about that statement. First, it assumes that you have one passion, whereas most people have a variety of different things they enjoy doing and learning about.

Second, it presupposes that you know your passion, and it doesn’t acknowledge that people discover new interests all the time.

And third, it makes it seem as if any set of passions is static, when in fact people’s desires change throughout their lifetime — not to mention that people are often terrible at guessing what will make them happy in the future.

MyPath was created to attract and recruit talented young professionals to careers in the risk management and insurance industry. At the same time, we believe that if more people make more educated decisions about their career paths, then a greater number of people will naturally select rewarding but underrated careers like actuarydata scientistrisk manager and underwriter.

For that reason, we’ve compiled 10 of the best tips we could find for choosing a career, which should be helpful regardless of whether you’re a forward-looking high school senior or a 30-something-year-old thinking about trying something new. If you have any other tips that we may have missed, please leave us a comment at the bottom.

1. Try a variety of experiences before you decide.

Some people know from an early age what they want to do with their lives, they do it, and are happy. For the large majority of others — those who aren’t quite sure what they want to do — two reasons support gaining a range of diverse experiences.

First, by steadily building up knowledge about what the world has to offer, you’ll simply have more data for making a decision. You’re essentially reducing the risk of missing out on something you may prefer. Second, after you do decide, you’ll be more successful, according to research that shows how personal diversity facilitates creativity.

There’s no one set way to get many experiences, but taking a variety of classes, consuming various kinds of media, and traveling to far-flung places are great ways to start. The more you learn, the more you’ll realize just how much you don’t know.

2. Separate your goals from the goals that others have for you.

At some point in your life, people will offer recommendations for you about your career path. Many of these suggestions may be generic and won’t have anything to do with what you would like to do. To greatly simplify your thought process, you should make a clear distinction between what you want and what others want for you.

Of course, you should certainly consider any advice you receive, and it’s possible that your goals may be similar, but always evaluate whether your plans are driven by your wishes, as opposed to expectations from others.

3. Find opportunity and make the most of it.

Another fallacy of the “Follow your passion” statement is that you only need to look inward. That’s kind of absurd if you think about it more deeply. What if, for example, you think your passion is being an astronaut? Isn’t it relevant to consider that there have been fewer than 600 trained astronauts in history, and more than 18,000 people recently applied for only 14 new astronaut openings? Being ambitious is one thing, but being wildly unrealistic is another.

For most people, knowing whether opportunities are readily available in a particular field is relevant information. Some would even say that you should first focus outward on the available opportunities rather than focusing initially on what you think you want to do. Mike Rowe, former host of the TV show “Dirty Jobs” and current host of CNN’s “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” offers this perspective: “The people I’ve met on my journeys, by and large, didn’t set out to realize their dream. They looked around for an opportunity. They identified the opportunity. They exploited the opportunity. They worked at the opportunity. Then they got good at the opportunity. Then they figured out how to love it.”

To determine where opportunities exist, a good start is by looking at job growth information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or…

4. Get the latest career-path info from LinkedIn.

You know another, maybe even more accurate, tool for determining where opportunities exist? LinkedIn.

The professional social networking site offers ways for students to look at people’s career paths by breaking down the connections between their majors, schools and careers. Jeffrey J. Selingo, author of College (Un)Bound, explains this: “As we live more of our lives online and use social media to update friends, family and colleagues on our job moves, much of what we need to know about the changing labor market is crowdsourced in real time.” Smart students and young professionals should take advantage.

5. Consider your past experiences.

Hopefully, by the time you graduate from college and start focusing on a career, you’ll have had some experience in the workplace — even if it’s as a server, cashier or babysitter. Make a list of what you liked and hated about those jobs, then look at the elements and skills that you were strongest at and consider how you could leverage them into a full-time livelihood.

6. Embrace your inner child.

One of the simplest and most effective ways to get to the root of what you really want to do, or what really drives you, is through a technique that every three-year-old knows: repetitively asking “Why?”

As a more formal explanation, the “5 Whys” were developed by Toyota as a way to get to the heart of a problem. In Toyota’s case, it was employed to solve a technical issue, but you can certainly use it for figuring out your career.  

Instead of starting with a problem, start with a profession that you think you’d like to do, then ask why until you get to the root cause. For instance, if you think you want to be a doctor, you may find the root reason is because you want to help people improve their lives, you want to challenge yourself, or you want to enjoy prestige and respect, all of which are much broader desires that offer a number of paths, not just that one specific career as a doctor.

Despite the simplicity of the questions, the answers don’t come as easily. Sometimes you have to think deeply to answer exactly why you enjoy a certain activity, and whether you need three whys or nine whys to get to the root cause, just going through this process is beneficial.

7. It’s your right to be jealous.

Here’s another simple test for figuring out what you really want in life: Ask yourself whom you envy.

Gretchen Rubin, a happiness researcher and author, recommends using jealousy as a guide, saying, “Envy shows you when somebody has something you wish you had, and that can be a very helpful thing to know about yourself.”

She gives an example: when she had a law career, she would read her alumni magazine and become jealous of people who had writing careers. Rather than repressing that emotion, she used it as an indication of what she really wanted. You would be wise to at least take note of your own feelings of envy — and ask yourself what specifically makes you envious.

Of course, Rubin’s not encouraging the emotion; there’s a reason that envy’s one of the seven deadly sins. You should absolutely work to reduce the amount of enviousness in your life, but think of it like pain — it’s a signal that something needs to be addressed, and ignoring it completely can lead to problems, making it get worse.

“Negative emotions like loneliness, envy and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life,” Rubin says. “They’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change.”

8. Contact people with past experiences.

You’re certainly not the first person who doesn’t have a clue toward what you want to do in your career. Your older friends, alumni from your school, and the professors and professionals you respect will all have stories about how they got through your present circumstances and about mistakes they made — which can help you avoid making the same ones.

Seriously, this may be the most overlooked tip out there. Far too many people try to recreate the wheel for themselves rather than reaching out to people who have firsthand experience.

You can probably think of a few people whom you’d like to contact for insight, but you may feel awkward about it. Don’t. The person won’t think it’s weird or bothersome — instead, he or she will likely be happy to talk about experiences and share tips and will respect the fact that you’re taking your career search seriously.

9. Maintain a wish list.

Choosing a career is not an overnight process; it’s something that takes time and that you should think about steadily.

As you hear about certain careers, start recognizing your personal strengths, and think about what you’d like to learn more about, take notes. Keep them in a journal, leave yourself voice memos, or collect information in an app like Evernote. This sort of running wish list can actually turn out to be very accurate for keeping track of what you truly want to do. While your specific likes and dislikes may change over time, you can always refer to this list to find the main themes to help guide your decisions.

10. Take full advantage of internships.

Internships are another underused source of career inspiration. While there are a number of ways to get secondhand information about what various careers are like, internships allow you to gain short-term, on-the-job experience. If you like the experience, it can provide a leg up on the competition, and if you hate it, you can still switch majors or at least prepare to focus in a different direction.

While many people do secure one or two internships before graduation, few consider getting internship experience earlier on, such as during the summer between high school and college. Many companies will accept high school-age interns, and because people that age aren’t in college yet, internships can be marked by especially low stakes for asking questions and learning. Regardless, you get more practice with applying and interviewing for jobs by considering an internship before college — something that will undoubtedly help you along your career path.