How do I know which career is right for me?
July 18, 2012 2:26 AM   Subscribe

No focus, no idea about future career. What do you guys do and did you always want to do it?

I'm 20 and just starting to think about the future.

How do you guys know what you are doing career wise? It does seem that I have no focus; I'm a jack of all trades but passionate about none. I don't have any idea what I'm supposed to be doing, whereas my friends are all going into their second year of college with some sort of idea.

I think physical/outdoors work will be best for me, with my health and fitness interest. I also like to help people. I also like graphic design, photography, IT, etc. etc.

I'm very confused! Did any of you go through a similar problem?
posted by Colibri to Work & Money (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I've always been taught that this is exactly what college is for.
posted by item at 2:59 AM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was pre-med at first, briefly, then changed my mind to go for biology but I couldn't deal with killing even things like meal worms. So I tried majoring in math but then fell in love with English and French literature. I was at the end of my junior year deciding what grad school to go to for comparative literature. One of my English profs pulled me into his office and told me I'd never make a living at literature. It was a completely dead end financially. I'd never have money, etc.

End of junior year and I took his advice seriously. So, I tried a computer programming class that summer. Fell in love with it. Thanks to my dabbling in math, I had all the prereqs out of the way. I completed the computer science major in one year. (They'd never let anybody do that now but this was 1980-81.) I've been in software development ever since.

My daughter was majoring in all kinds of things, then decided on culinary school, heard how hard it was going to be, switched to photography, finally changed her mind and tried respiratory therapy because she'd had asthma as a child. Now she's graduating as a respiratory therapist.

My other daughter was a business major, joined the army suddenly, and after 8 years is getting out right now to return to college. She was thinking about teaching, then healthcare information systems, and now wants to try nuclear medical technology.

My point is that being young and indecisive and wanting to try different things out is completely normal. It is a shame if anyone tells you otherwise or rushes you to make a decision on that final thing you must be. If you can afford it, dabble in things that interest you a little or a lot. You will find yourself. You will live a long, long time and you will evolve into all kinds of things that will surprise you. Don't assume that 20 is the age that you decide what your life will be like when you are 60. You will be wrong.
posted by loosemouth at 3:03 AM on July 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

When I graduated from college, I spent a summer as an intern at a magazine. One of the great things they did for the interns was, one by one, the writers and editors of the magazine would sit down with us and tell us how they ended up in their current job.

Every single person ended up taking a completely different path -- and in most cases, it was a pretty circuitous one. There were one or two people who had always felt called to do magazine journalism, but more who tried a bunch of different things before finally ending up where they were. Some of them felt like they had finally arrived at the right job for them; others felt like they were still looking.

All of your friends who think they know what they want to do-- well, some of them are right. But some of them are going to change their mind and stumble around for a while. You might feel like you're a step behind them-- but you're actually a step ahead, in that you know you don't know what you want.

There are definitely things you can do at 20 that will shape your life forever, for better or for worse. You can have a child, or get in a drunk driving accident and permanently injure yourself, or save the life of an eccentric billionaire and get adopted as his child. But barring that kind of outlier, the decisions facing you are much less permanent than they might feel.
posted by yankeefog at 3:32 AM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't fall into the passion trap, OP!

First point: You can - and will do lots of different things during a career that will probably span more than fifty years. You do not get fined for changing your mind further down the track, indeed, most people do.

Second: Making some kind of decision is much more important than your age at making the 100% right one. Something feels okay for you? Do it, do it a little more, try to get involved with some professionals as a volunteer or intern or whatever so you get a sense of what the job is like, and start setting yourself up for doing it when you graduate/finish apprenticeship/whatever. There will be others doing this, you need to be competitive to be hired at desirable jobs.

Third: Often what people value about their jobs is not necessarily the job itself. I value my job primarily for salary, security, and flexibility it gives me. I can pay a mortgage off, travel, have kids, or thinking about switching careers with my current employer because of those things. Would you value a job that has good earnings potential at a part time wage? Or perhaps a job that is internationally very transferable? Think about those things.

Fourth: Just because you like doing something, doing it for a job is a very different story. I know this because I was once a freelance writer. I loved writing, and still enjoy it greatly, and I loved the accoutrements that went with the lifestyle (free tickets, books, movies etc, working in my pyjamas, interviewing thoughtful people etc). However, as a job - like many jobs at the artistic end of the spectrum - I ended up hating it, and myself for what I had become. It was very competitive, I was frequently broke, I had to compromise a lot of my ideals, and had no job security, the prospect of starting a family, buying a house etc was fantastical. That might not bother you; it bothered me, I changed careers.

So in summary: Pick something, see if you like it, move towards doing it more and more as a job and if you stop liking it, pick something else. Be realistic about what jobs - especially jobs for young, inexperienced people - are (hint: mostly shit. People work for years so they can get to do the fun stuff). Whilst all this is happening keep experimenting with your hobbies and lifestyles. At 20 you have so much to learn about yourself. That voyage of discovery can be exhilarating and really fun, if a little bit scary at times. And you will learn more and more about what you value - not just in jobs, but in life.

PS everyone around you is just as unsure and nervous about things as you are. In fact, they probably think you have it all together. Everyone's bluffing.

PPS This holds true far, far longer in life than you might think at 20. There will probably not be a point where your confusion will wholly dissipate; when it threatens too, life will throw you more complexity, ambiguity and challenge. Learning to embrace that and not let it affect your happiness is arguably the best life skill going.
posted by smoke at 3:36 AM on July 18, 2012 [13 favorites]

[To keep this within the realm of what Ask Metafilter is for, let's do continue keeping this a thread focused on advice for the OP as opposed to simply sharing your own stories, despite the invitation... because that would make this a chatfilter post, and would need to be deleted. Thanks for helping, everyone. ]
posted by taz (staff) at 4:37 AM on July 18, 2012

You should listen to Mike Rowe about working.
His TED talk is full of great advice about work.
posted by Flood at 4:43 AM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Of course! I think this is something that most people go through, and it can be really easy to let that anxiety sweep you up. Fight that. I'm sure there are retirement-age people who still feel this way. I'm 28. Along the way, I've found a number of things I've loved, but I'm just now settling into what (I hope!) is the thing. But who the hell knows. It's a cliché, but it's all about the journey, yeah? And the journey's been fun. Yours will be too.

(Phase 1) Explore your interests. See if there isn't a way to turn those interests into (phase 3) profit. You'll find whatever it is you need to find eventually. And then you'll probably move onto something else anyway.
posted by divisjm at 4:47 AM on July 18, 2012

I don't have any idea what I'm supposed to be doing

I always knew what I wanted to do with my life, so I don't have any personal anecdotes about how I figured that out, but what I will do is tell you what I wish someone told me when I was your age:

Envision how you see yourself in 20 years: where you want to live,what kind of house you are living in,what kind of family you have, what your leisure activities are. Work backwards from there to figure out what kind of job/income/ifestyle that requires and use those parameters as guideposts to getting you there.

Don't get the impression I'm making this all about money-- I'm not. More along the lines of, if you see yourself living in downtown Chicago in 20 years, then being a Park Ranger is probably not the path that will get you there.
posted by deanc at 5:08 AM on July 18, 2012

I don't have any idea what I'm supposed to be doing, whereas my friends are all going into their second year of college with some sort of idea.

1) And a lot of them will change that idea, because that is the nature of being 19. In addition, a huge percentage of them will graduate and go on to careers that have zero to do with their undergrad major.

Additionally, please note that an undergraduate degree is not vocational training. You can graduate with a degree in theatre and be a literary agent (my dad). You can graduate with a degree in early childhood education and be a web designer (me). You can graduate with a degree in classics and be an educator (my youngest sister.)

It does seem that I have no focus; I'm a jack of all trades but passionate about none.

That's fine. You need a job to pay rent and take care of yourself and the people around you. You do not need that job to be your life's passion. Which when you consider that the average worker these days changes careers four times in their working life, makes a lot of sense. You are not making a choice forever today.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:36 AM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was 20 I had no idea what my major should be, much less what my life should be about.

I'm 32 now and still have no idea what to do with my life.

Bottom line: do stuff that interests you and that you won't regret. Because honestly, it's more important to do something that you love than something that pays you a ton of money.

Since you're still in college, just take some courses you are interested in. If you like health and fitness and helping people, why not go into, say, physical therapy or sports medicine?
posted by ditto75 at 5:39 AM on July 18, 2012

Have you tried volunteering?

I'm actually in a similar position now, where it is I don't know what it is I want to do.

Try reading What Color is Your Parachute and doing the exercises in there too. Even the ones you may not think are relevant, like location.
posted by commitment at 5:50 AM on July 18, 2012

Hee! Your friends in their second year of college don't know any more than you do, they're just marching towards something.

I had dropped out of Arizona State when my parents moved to California and I tagged along. I had a solid 2.0 in my quest for a degree in English Lit, and was basically majoring in Frat Parties.

So I did what I always did, started looking for a part-time/full time job. I answered an ad in the paper (a loooonnnnggg time ago) for a $6.00 per hour customer service job for MCI. I remember distinctly saying to myself, "This will do until something better comes along."

I stayed in telecommunications for 20 years!

The point is, a lot of people don't know what they want to do, or don't have a burning passion for their jobs. That doesn't mean we don't find our work fulfulling and exciting and interesting or on bad days, paying the bills.

No matter what your profession, there are going to be days, weeks, months, years even when it's nothing but a slog. Where you perk up on Friday because it's the weekend and get a bit sad on Monday because you have to go to work. But you motor through it.

You don't define your life with your profession, you find other things to define yourself with. You volunteer, or form a band, or hang out with friends, or have a family, or travel or make quilts or sit in the basement and answer questions on AskMeFi.

Americans have this thing about careers that most of the rest of the world doesn't. Sure, you want making money to be as painless as possible, and if you could actually enjoy what you do...Bonus! But in America we really attach too much importance to our professions/jobs.

Next time you're at a party or other function where you don't know a lot of people, think about how you introduce yourself when someone asks, "So, what do you do?"

Do you say, "I work at XYZ corporation in the thingummy department." Or do you say, "Oh! I'm absolutely nuts about rescuing pit bulls."

I mean. Work is important, but not THAT important.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:05 AM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm very confused! Did any of you go through a similar problem?

Certainly most of us.

Your friends in college with a good idea of what they want to do, it's pretty much certain that some or all of them are wrong, they just haven't figured that out yet. Try lots of different things. Pursue those that you seem to be good at, particularly if you enjoy them.

Care, intensely, about the quality of your work, even if you're not passionate about that work. Through that caring, get good enough at one thing whether you're passionate about it or not that you can use to put food on your table and keep a roof over your head, but beyond that keep experimenting.

People who are passionate about something care about the fine details of doing it well, but that process can be reverse-engineered - you can become passionate about something by caring, and giving a damn consistently about all the little details of your work that matter.

Invest yourself in whatever you're doing. Your interests may change over time, and that's basically fine. Read a lot.
posted by mhoye at 6:08 AM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll take issue slightly with ditto75. It's true that doing what you love is more important than making a ton of money. But for many of us, making a ton of money isn't really one of the available options. As for doing what you love, you may not make any money at all, depending on what it is you love to do.

So pick a direction that you think might be suitable: Something that plays to your strengths, has a reasonable chance of putting you in a job with a living wage, and has some elements that you can get into. It doesn't have to be a perfect match and fill you with joy. Try it for a few years. If nothing else, it should give you some insights into what's really important to you. If that original direction isn't working, re-set your course toward something that looks like a better fit. You can even do this several times.

There's no guarantee of success. But that's also true of the people who have a rock-solid belief in what they are supposed to do with their lives. There's no reason anyone has to have a single career.
posted by Longtime Listener at 6:18 AM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

i faced similar problems and i'm not going to put my backstory here so it stays less chatty. suffice to say, i'm 33 now, went to college at 18, dropped out, went back at 25 and got my degree and have worked in a completely unrelated field ever since.

remember, a degree doesn't mean a job.

find work that you don't hate doing and work at getting better at it. if it's being an outdoorsy tree guy or a construction worker or whatever, there's nothing wrong with that. if you want to help people and like photography and IT stuff, i'm sure the park service needs people like too.

you can go thru any number of careers if you want to. don't be afraid of that. with the exception of some lawyers i know, almost all of my friends who have degrees don't actually work in those fields. so just because your friends are in the second year of college only means they're working towards a degree, not a career (it could be both, but not necessarily).

and as mhoye says, being a good, dependable, quality worker is really really important. if you are that when you are young, you will move up quickly wherever and whatever you do. people will train you because they'll see you are competent and reliable.

don't worry so much about "the one" career anymore than "the one" true partner.
posted by sio42 at 6:26 AM on July 18, 2012

I always knew what I wanted to be, went straight through college and professional school to get there, did really well, started work, and went, "uh .........." Because maybe 60% of the work I actually did was sort of peripheral to the job, and it was annoying and tedious and stressful and not well-suited to me. I had mostly really enjoyed the process of getting to my professional credentials, but practicing it, not so much. And I realized over time that it wasn't going to be possible for me to structure a career where I'd get to do the parts that I liked more than half of the time; I was always going to be spending at least half my time mired in the peripheral tasks. And the lifestyle was appalling.

So, anyway, I'm 34 and I think I've figured it out. And I'd say this is really super key:

"Often what people value about their jobs is not necessarily the job itself. I value my job primarily for salary, security, and flexibility it gives me. "

More than that, what people like about their job is often a subset of what their job entails. I thought back on jobs I'd had, and I really enjoyed one job where when I did my work quickly and accurately, I got to go home when I was done ... and I got paid the same as someone who worked slowly and made a lot of mistakes and had to redo. (In other words, I should have been clear right off the bat that hourly billing is NOT FOR ME! I valued much more being able to work quickly and well, and go home. I hated jobs where I had to sit around and fill time because I worked too fast.) I liked to have discrete tasks that could be completed and say, "Okay, I'm done with that." I liked jobs that entailed working with people to solve people problems. I liked teaching. I like researching and figuring out complicated problems. I like coming up with systems for doing things. I also realized that as appealing as "working for myself" is, I really like to go to work and then be able to go home and be done with my workday, and I really like someone else reliably paying me. When I worked for myself (in an attempt to structure my working life around the things I like), it turned out I never got to "go home" and stop worrying.

I got there by having a broad variety of jobs while in high school, college, and grad school. Some of them in the world of "awesome internship," some of them in the world of "crappy minimum wage retail job." Doing a lot of volunteering, which (if you begin to take on leadership positions) is a good place to learn new skills and try out new functional areas.

And try to pay attention to the things you like and dislike about jobs and schoolwork and volunteer roles you have now. I think I paid too much attention to what other people said I was good at (and I was good at them!), and not enough attention to what sorts of things I actually enjoyed doing day in and day out.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:32 AM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

You may not find your One True Calling right now. That's okay. It's important, though, that you make a decision and work towards something, even if you're not sure you'll still be interested in it five years down the line.

I think somebody mentioned What Color Is Your Parachute? upthread, and that is an excellent book for people faced with these decisions (especially if you're a person who has a lot of interests and trouble figuring out what you want to pursue). If you do all the exercises in it, you will start to realize what kinds of things you really value and you'll start to generate ideas on how to keep those things in your life as you begin your career.
posted by zoetrope at 7:06 AM on July 18, 2012

I changed focus about a million times and, for the most part, happened into my current career by chance. I had only the vaguest inkling that what I do existed when I was your age. Two years before, as a high school senior, I had no idea at all that this was a thing.

I really envy people who Always Knew.

That said, when I look back, I see a lot of patterns that predicted that I would someday grow up to do what I do. I've always been a verbal person as opposed to an analytical person. I was never into crafting or building or making. I was fascinated by media, aesthetics, and cultural products from an extremely early age (like, seriously, my favorite episode of "Reading Rainbow", circa age 6, was the one where they talked about how TV shows are made). As a teenager I worked in a video store and was obsessed with film. I also went on weird jags of marathonning through TV shows via late night cable, was far too into SNL and improv comedy, etc.

When I say I changed focus, what I mean is that I flitted from wanting to be an actor, to maybe an academic/research interest in culture or the arts, to wanting to be a writer, to finally zeroing in on film and TV production. I was never going to be an engineer or a nurse or a software developer.

Just to rein in the chat, I'd say don't worry too much about Specific Job, or even Specific Career Path right now. Focus on developing your interests. Stay in school and try to use that to narrow down whether you'd prefer to have a degree in a something that will have you doing physical work outdoors* or something along the lines of design, IT, etc. Make friends, get part time side jobs, and develop the most basic skills that will help you be generally employable down the road (examples: general office skills, programming languages, restaurant kitchen experience, the ability to fix stuff or grow stuff or sell stuff).

Find one or two things you can do that will result in some sort of livable paycheck, even if they aren't in Your Chosen Career. I know plenty of people who graduated college about where you are, Life Direction-wise, and they just kept tending bar or managing a store in the mall until they figured out where they really wanted to be. There's nothing wrong with that. It's a hell of a lot better than getting a fancy degree in something super focused, having no real skills, and then discovering that you actually don't want to go to medical school after all.

* My personal advice would be to do IT or design stuff in school, and then maybe spend a summer working as an adventure tour guide or on a farm or something if you enjoy doing physical outdoorsy type stuff. But maybe what you really mean is that you have a passionate love of landscape design or secretly want to be a PE teacher, which, if that's the case, pursue that, by all means!
posted by Sara C. at 7:59 AM on July 18, 2012

It's true that doing what you love is more important than making a ton of money. But for many of us, making a ton of money isn't really one of the available options. As for doing what you love, you may not make any money at all, depending on what it is you love to do.

I want to take this point a step further, in that telling somebody to "do what they love" when they don't know what that means is akin to telling a teenager to "just be themselves" when they haven't got that anywhere near figured out yet. It's one of those things that people say with the best of intentions, without often thinking about how dumb and offensive it can be. In the very best case, it's merely trite.

"What you love" may not be something you can ever make a living on. Do you love origami? Do you find it a rewarding, fulfilling hobby? That is, no joke, fantastic. Lots of people never find that, but that doesn't mean it will ever pay the bills. That doesn't mean, however, that you can't lead a full and rewarding life that's got a lot of origami in it. You just need to find a job that you can do well enough and reliably enough to fund your origami hobby.

At that point, just to drag this analogy further than it should go, you should start looking for jobs that may not be something you can fall in love with, but that can either futher your origami hobby or complement it. Work in a paper shop or a printer, do something that involves paper decoration or that shares the sort of fine dexterity and finicky manual details that origami demands, and then do that job well enough and consistently enough that it funds what you love off the clock.

If you're lucky you might even find, after a while, that you actually do ove your job.
posted by mhoye at 8:16 AM on July 18, 2012

heard how hard it was going to be

True real serious advice:

Never decide not to do something because you heard it would be difficult, or because "it's hard to get a job in that field", or "what are you going to DO with a degree in [X]".

People go to culinary school every day. Why not you?

Somebody has to be a music producer or a casting director or an archaeologist. Why not you?

Plenty of people graduate college with a BA in Comparative Religion and go on to be gainfully employed in jobs they love.

None of this stuff is on par with wanting to be a pro basketball player or getting a major label record deal.

Don't worry about other people and what they think you should be doing. Worry about what you want to do and what you will need to achieve in order to accomplish that. Be realistic about your abilities, for sure. But don't let others scare you away from doing what you want to do.
posted by Sara C. at 8:18 AM on July 18, 2012

I feel for you, I really do. I majored in one thing with an emphasis in a related thing and double minored because I hated choosing so much. Worked for 8 years or so and got my masters in something else that is directly related to my work.

Slight aside: Have you checked out Roadtrip Nation?

The path to building a career is a windy one, and different for us all. Some excellent advice up-thread, but some things I wanted to add:
  • Find *something* and work towards it. As others have said you may end up doing something completely different down the road, but start building a resume and track record with one discipline/field/whathaveyou and consistently seek to move yourself ahead in it by taking advantage of any and all opportunities that come your way. Regularly think about what next step you should make to move your own mastery or career forward. This not necessarily directly for your career, but so that you can learn and practice the skill of deliberate and prolonged advancement in something.

  • NETWORK! Aside from my final piece of advice below, nearly all the good things came from personal connections I'd made. Be pleasant, genuine, over-deliver on time, and most people will want to help you. Hell, I just had a connection I made 7 years ago pan out and turn into a new contract with a new client. You never know.

  • Finally, my last piece of advice: do the things that will advance your career that scare you the most. Every time I've done this, it's worked in my favor. (Not naturally, but because once I committed, I was determined to execute at the very top of my game from pure ego terror.)

  • If you had told me 12 years ago (when I was your age) that I'd be doing what I am now, I would have been utterly bewildered and bemused, but life is funny that way. Seize the carp and work your ass off and try to enjoy the journey as much as possible!
    posted by smirkette at 8:52 AM on July 18, 2012

    How about AmeriCorps*NCCC? (That is, if you're in the USA) It's focused mostly on short-term projects and disaster relief, it's often physical outdoors work, and it's helping people. If it's a good fit, you can try to get a job in the organization or find similar organizations. If it doesn't work, you've earned a little cash plus a grant for college and/or student loans.
    posted by epj at 6:04 PM on July 18, 2012

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