As you look around for a hint about next steps in your life, there is no shortage of advice. Sometimes it’s practical. Sometimes it’s inspirational. The most frequent advice I heard when I was in my teens and twenties? “Just follow your passion!”
I thought this was useless advice. It was too vague and didn’t offer any practical roadmap. What if you’re not sure what your passion is? What if you are very clear about your passion, but don’t know if you can make a career out of it? What if you can’t figure out how to connect your passion to your skills and talents? What if you have many passions that don’t fit together in any logical way?
Let’s get the bad news over with first: there is no quiz, article or personality test that will give you a definitive answer. The good news? You can figure it out. Keep in mind that many people change their passions and their directions throughout their careers as opportunities arise.
First, it helps to define our terms.
Your passion is the thing that fascinates you, that lights you up, that you can spend hours talking about. It can be playing an instrument, or reading about history, or exploring the outdoors. They don’t have to be central to your career, but your passions can be a wonderful guide when considering your next step.
Your skills are the practical talents you can offer to the world – and to an employer or client. It can writing, public speaking, or programming. It can be math skills, budgeting, or making a killer spreadsheet. It can be working with children. You can always learn new skills, whether in classes or on the job. When you think about making a career out of your passions, be realistic in figuring out what skill set you’ll need to succeed.
You need both passion and skills: the best jobs are in the sweet spot when these overlap. There are many ways to strike that balance. As you think about your next step, here are some do’s and don’ts.
Do think about what excites you.
When do you lose track of time because you are so absorbed? When this happens, pay attention, and try to figure out what specifically made you feel this way. For example, you can’t stop thinking how much you enjoyed your role as a camp counselor. Did you enjoy being outdoors? Or was it being with kids and teaching them new things? Or was it the sports and activities? Same thing with hobbies – what aspect of your hobby do you find most satisfying? Reflecting on this will help you figure out your priorities.
Do think about what you’re good at
What comes easily to you, when others struggle? What do teachers, parents, and friends compliment you on? You don’t have to have innate talent to pick up a new skill, but don’t ignore the talents you already have, and consider how they fit in with your passions.
Don’t bother with personality tests
Many skills assessments spit out a list of stereotypical jobs - teacher, doctor, lawyer. But the range of careers is incredibly diverse - and new jobs are getting created all the time. And while personality tests can be fun, they are mostly bogus. You have a unique set of traits, skills, and passions – don’t let a quiz make any big decisions for you.
Do consider your values
A passion can be for a subject, but it can also be for a cause. For example, if you value education or the environment, consider the multiple ways you can be involved in roles that honor your values. You can be an environmental activist, or you can work in corporate sustainability. You can be a teacher, or you can be an education policy researcher. There are many pathways to making an impact.
Don’t worry about money – yet
Early in my career, I often heard the phrase, “Do what you love, and the money will follow”. While not exactly true (you should think carefully before racking up debt), try exploring directions that you are curious about without making assumptions about your future salary. For example, if have always dreamed about being a musician, but you’re worried that the career doesn’t pay well, don’t automatically rule it out. Try to take a volunteer role or unpaid internship to help you explore a career you’re curious about, or pursue it as a part-time role. On the flip side, picking a path just because it promises a high salary – without considering how it aligns with your skills and passions – oversimplifies this process, too.
Fear and anxiety are not always bad – it’s perfectly natural to feel these emotions. But learn to distinguish between helpful gut feelings and your fear of failure. Do listen to your gut (it says, "this isn't right" or “this is the direction for me”). But don't listen to your anxiety (which usually says "What if this goes wrong?")
Do take action
You won’t know how you feel about something until you try it. Take jobs and internships, take classes on a new subject, and talk to people already doing the work you‘re curious about. People are happy to talk about what they do – ask your high school alumni office or college career office to connect you to grads you can talk to. Whatever you choose as your next step will not define the rest of your life – but you do have to start.
A last word
Many of my friends and colleagues are doing work that has little to do with their college major or first job. And that’s very liberating! Cate was passionate about music, but didn’t want the uncertainty of being a professional musician; she is now happily working as a music librarian. Joseph loved working with kids as a youth counselor, but needed a higher paycheck; he went back to school to get a nursing degree, and now works in the pediatric ward. Raya always loved the outdoors and felt something was missing, even though she enjoyed her job in marketing; she now leads women’s wilderness trips on the weekends.
All of these friends, over the years, tweaked the formula of “passion + skills” to find the right fit. The job you’ll have one day may not even have been invented yet! But every class, job, internship and volunteer role will bring you closer and give you clues. All you have to do is take the first step.