Stop Trying to "Figure Out" Your Future

April 2, 2013
Year On TeamFuture of Work

Original post by Jay Cross

Jay is the founder of The DIY Degree. In 2011, Jay used a strategy known as credit-by-examination to rapidly accelerate his degree and now shares his time and money saving graduation systems with others on his blog.

From as early as elementary school, all of us are asked what we want to be when we grow up.

Like most questions we’ve encountered this early in life, it seems to be one that we can simply “figure out.” We try to crack the code of our future with formulas, as if your career were a math problem or a writing prompt. So-called “career tests” promise to swallow our personality traits and spit out the right answer. Math-savvy and socially awkward? Accountant. Visual and creative? Graphic designer. Charismatic and outspoken? A salesman you shall be.

These answers satisfy us...but only temporarily. Before long, common sense returns and we realize that an online quiz cannot answer the question that has been keeping us up at night.

But what can answer it?

Passion vs. Skill: Why “Figuring Out” Your Life’s Path is Impossible

The assumption underlying the “figure it out” approach to career choice is that we all have a passion and just need to find the career that calls upon it. And so, like explorers on a quest for lost lands, we set out in search of our calling: raising the concept of a dream job so high upon its pedestal that merely discovering it seems like the key to eternal happiness.

In his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, Cal Newport deals a devastating blow to the passion hypothesis. According to Cal, most of us do not have pre-existing passions that naturally become dream jobs. Instead, those who love their work get really good at something first and then trade in their “career capital” for the lifestyles we all envy.

Likewise, one of my mentors (John Carlton) is famous for telling rookie copywriters to “get good, get connected, and get paid.

Think about the writer of a hit television series. Did they just decide to write TV shows one day, apply, and get hired? Probably not. Instead, this person is much more likely to have landed an internship, hustled his butt off, and acquired the skills to seize promotions when they came.

In other words, career success is not about discovery, but skill.

If getting really good before landing a dream job sounds foreign to you, it shouldn’t. It is nothing more than supply and demand applied to careers. Everyone wants big paychecks and meaningful work, but far fewer people invest the effort to build amazing skills. Companies only give dream jobs to the latter.

Lawyers often tell their clients “there’s no pay window at the courthouse.” The judge doesn’t cut you a check for your damages when you win a lawsuit. They merely record a judgment allowing you to pursue the defendant and spend however much time and money is necessary to collect. It could take days, it could take years, or it could never happen. Without assiduous action, your “victory” just gathers dust in the filing cabinet.

The same is true of careers. No company asks what your passion is and hands you a dream job. Rather, you make the effort and acquire the skills a dream job calls for!

The Serendipitous & Ongoing Evolution of “You”

Another thing to keep in mind is that while you are trying to “figure out” your career, you are still evolving as a person, both personally and professionally. What you think you like at 18 may have little resemblance to what you actually like at 25.

When I was 20, I was absolutely sure I wanted to be a lawyer. Today, I work at a creative agency and run a college hacking website.

What happened? First, I learned more about myself. I started freelance writing in college and loved it. As my skills improved, I landed better projects, commanded higher rates, and established myself as a top talent. When my top client grew into an agency, I had already proven my value to them for three years. Why would they hire anyone else?

I also met a lot of lawyers, which crushed my teenage fantasy of what lawyers do. Turns out, lawyers don’t spend most of their days making brilliant arguments before a jury. Most never see the inside of a courtroom. They fill out paperwork and quietly settle 90% of cases before trial. Worst of all, the path to becoming a prominent lawyer is filled with at least 2-3 years of lowly-paid grunt work, 60-80 hour workweeks, and politicized ass-kissing to please the right person and “maybe” becoming partner someday.

The 20-year-old me would have said, “I’ll do whatever it takes.” The 25-year-old me knew better and understood that I would never be happy in such a career. As it turns out, the traits a career quiz associated with a legal career (strategizing, communication, project management, etc.) were actually better suited for a creative career.

These are the hard-fought insights a career quiz cannot anticipate. They come only from experience.

Don’t Wait...ACT!

Many of you are no doubt asking “great, so what do I do next?”

My answer is: get started!

If you are interested in drawing, don’t sit around trying to figure out the one perfect role in the animation field. Do whatever it takes to get hired at a studio...even if it means starting out for free. Soak up everything you can. Take the boss out to coffee and pick his brain. Ask what his biggest challenges are and help him solve them. When an opportunity comes along, guess who will be right there waiting for it?

It’s easy to dismiss this advice as simplistic or unsatisfying. Many of us are searching for “the one right move” that connects us to our dream job quickly. Yet in my experience, and the experience of every high achiever Cal Newport interviewed, it is precisely the kind of path that leads to lasting happiness.

Remember: there’s no pay window at the courthouse. And there’s no company waiting to hear what your passion is, either.

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