I would love to give you awesome advice on choosing your crystal-clear career path . THE career path that fits you perfectly and brings you unwavering happiness and rains sacks of money upon you until retirement.
However, I don’t believe that’s how careers work.
Long gone are the days of our parents when you’d start and end your career with the same company. Which is why, to me, premeditating a definitive career path is a waste of effort.
I started my career as an engineer but followed an unconventional path (including quitting my first job altogether) that led me to my current roles as a project manager, freelance writer, and co-owner of an online coffee shop.
Welcome to the new norm for our generation — aka finding success in doing whatever the hell you want.
Here’s my advice on the new best way to choosing your career path:
1. Start with what you’re good at and moderately interested in
I no longer agree with “follow your passion”.
Nor do I believe you have to start your own business to find happiness. I believe you can live a happy life within 4 cubicle walls if that’s your thing.
That said, I full-heartedly think you should start your career in a field that you’re good at and have at least a moderate level of interest in.
- First, entering the professional world can be scary, and you want to make a strong impression right off the bat. Having a baseline level of knowledge gives you a much-needed confidence boost and allows you to work from stable ground.
- And second, being interested in your work piques curiosity and drives learning. It will keep you motivated to drudge through the highs and lows of the workweek (and make you not want to gouge your eyes out every Monday).
Chances are high that whatever career you choose, you won’t be stuck there for the rest of your life. So don’t worry about finding the “perfect” fit for you.
It’s more important to stop thinking about choosing a career path and just start walking one. Because really, all the magic happens once you get your foot in the door.
2. Don’t blow it all on education
One thing you’ll want to keep in mind is your upfront investment in education.
Should you choose to attend an expensive school and put yourself in debt, you want to make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.
I got “lucky” in that I went to school for engineering. This allowed me to comfortably pay back my loans without much stress.
If you want to go to an expensive university and are getting into a field other than medical, engineering, law, etc., you may want to reconsider.
This is the harsh reality of choosing a career path. You may be much better off finding an apprenticeship, showcasing your skills online, or learning somewhere else without lighting your money on fire and throwing it in the trash.
There are lots of free or affordable alternative education programs that can teach you the skills you need to get started in your desired field.
3. Do your job well
Now to the good stuff. You’ve got your first job and aren’t sure what comes next.
The best career advice given to me came from my very first boss, who taught me there’s nothing more important than your personal brand.
Whether you know it or not, you start building your brand from day one. The question is — are you playing this game consciously or unconsciously? Because rest assured, the game is real and you’re playing.
Coworkers, bosses, customers, and anyone else inside or outside of your workplace will all develop an impression of you, sometimes before you even meet! If you don’t know, word in the office spreads like wildfire.
Which is why it’s your job from day one to build a positive rapport with everyone you interact with.
You accomplish this by doing your job well.
This will set you up for success by creating a metaphorical launchpad for future promotions, job seeking, and many other ways yet to reveal themselves.
Do your job well and everyone will want to help you succeed, you’ll build one heck of a network, and you’ll find that many more doors will open further down the road.
4. Focus on learning new skills
Companies have a lot more to offer than just a steady paycheck. High performers and people who look to succeed know this and seek to learn as much as possible.
If you ask around your workplace, you’ll likely find a ton of tools and knowledge opportunities at your disposal. Unconscious players of the self-branding game waste these opportunities. Conscious players take advantage of every chance to learn because they understand that new skills:
- Make you a more valuable asset
- Open new doors for different positions at other companies — even ones outside of your initial field, which you’ll feel much more confident about applying to
- Can lead to bigger leaps in whatever direction you’re trying to go within your career path
Oh, and if you’re worried about the whole “stay in your lane” advice — it’s dumb. It’s important not to step on other peoples’ toes (because A LOT of people get offended by this), but absolutely you should explore areas outside your primary job function.
5. Keep an eye out for opportunities
The other day on Twitter Nat Eliason posted:
…and I’ll be damned if that wasn’t the most honest advice I’ve read on the internet. My number is probably even lower than 5% because Nat’s right — goals steer you in the right direction, but rarely do you end up where you planned.
For example, I had zero plans to start a coffee shop this year. But when that door opened I chose to walk through it, and it’s been one hell of a positive experience.
Most amazing opportunities reveal themselves on the way to your initial destination, but you’ll miss them if you don’t actively stay on the lookout and if you aren’t willing to detour when you see them.
6. Value matters more than money
After you’ve gotten your first position under your belt, you may want to consider looking for your next opportunity.
As you’re on the lookout, whether it’s within your company or external, it’s important not to get stuck only focusing on the next step-up in pay, which is where many people make mistakes.
Money can be a great thing. But you should know that the value you receive from a job matters way more in the long term than how much you make.
For example, If I got the opportunity to work with someone like Nicolas Cole, a highly successful online writer and business owner, I’d probably leave my 6-figure job and work for free for a while if I had to. The long-term gain working close to someone like that would be invaluable.
Obviously not everyone can afford to do this. I won’t pretend like money isn’t important in the world we live in. I’m just saying keep an eye out for high-value opportunities in addition to higher pay, ideally striking a positive balance in whatever you choose.
Bonus tip: Even though this isn’t a personal finance article, here’s some advice anyway. If you can, try not to get caught in the lifestyle of incremental upgrades where every time you land a higher paying job, you accumulate more stuff and more debt that basically requires you to keep making more and more money. This will allow you to be more flexible in the opportunities that you can pursue.
7. Make your next move when it feels right
You’ll never really know. But if you’ve done all of the above, you should have the confidence to trust yourself when an opportunity arises and you need to make a decision.
When that time comes, you’ll be able to use your personal brand and your new skills (in addition to your old ones) to take the leap into your next role to continue to learn and grow along your career path.
All I can say is to make the choice based on the best information you have in front of you at that specific time and don’t worry too much about the “what-ifs”. If you’re a rockstar, more opportunities will come. That’s a promise.
So forget choosing a 30-year plan for your career path. Hell, forget trying to figure out a 5 year plan. Instead choose to navigate on your own terms. Yes, goals provide direction. But in practice, it’s up to you whether you stay the course or roll with the punches along the way.
I’ve chosen the latter, and it’s worked out pretty well for me thus far.