A recent article by Cal Newport in the New York Times stirred up the debate on how people should choose their career path. The mantra of ‘life coaches’, self-help literature and career counselors alike is to ‘find’ your passion and “Do What You Love And Never Work Another Day In Your Life!” Some know early on that they want to become, doctors, entrepreneurs, scientist or even ballerina’s and are lucky enough to identify and live out their passion.
However in my experience most people are aware of what they don’t want to do rather then knowing what they want to do, or they don’t get the opportunity to do what they want because of what life throws at them. In my view it is more likely for people to follow a career choice that is (a) familiar to them (your grandfather and mother were both doctors so that is what you wanted to do) or (b) an opportunity that was presented to them and they pounced on it (who would have imagined that I would set up a successful consultancy firm in Asia).
I have a slightly more pragmatic approach. My advice to people looking for career guidance is to look for the sweet spot of three intersecting spheres: What are you interested in? What can you be the best in the world in? What lifestyle is important for you?
What Are You Interested In?
Obviously work would be a lot easier if you could do stuff that you are interested in and that drives you. If incentives and money are your overriding motivators than maybe an investment banking career is the route for you. If your interests have to do with impacting the community, then find a career with an NGO, the government or teaching. If you are looking for development and opportunities to learn and work across the globe then maybe a large cooperation is the right choice for you.
Make sure to understand whether the career you are interested in is indeed fulfilling your interests. Over my career I have had thousands of interviews of people that wanted to join HR. Upon the question “why do you think you would be a great HR manager” invariably their answer was that they want to work with and help people. My standard reply to this answer was ‘fantastic, I would suggest you become a hair dresser or taxi driver’.
What You Can Be The Best In The World In?
Being interested or passionate in something is not the only thing that should drive your career choices. I am very interested in playing the Cello, but can I become the world’s next Yo-Yo Ma; probably not. However, I am pretty sure that you know what you are the best in. What are the things that people praise you about, which work activities do you like and don’t mind spending hours and hours on. Those are the ones that you “Can Be The Best In The World In” and those activities are the ones you should continue to develop (In his book Outliers, Gladwell suggests that you can be the best in the world if you spend about 5,000 hours honing and perfecting a skill).
Remember being the best in the world has nothing to do with level or seniority. You should have the ambition to be the best nurse, teacher, astronaut, carpenter, musician or president of the world.
What Lifestyle Is Important For You?
So if you have figured out something that you can be good at and interested in, then the last step is to see whether this fits with the lifestyle you want to live. You have to ask yourself the questions that determine your future. Are you willing to give up your personal life in search for that stellar career? Are you willing / able to move out of your hometown in search of that perfect opportunity? What income do you need to support your lifestyle? How important is work versus family?
My friend and colleague Nate Thompson has a wonderful example of this. He tells me; “Paul, my family is full of dentists and do you really think that they are really passionate about sticking their fingers in others people mouths the whole day? Of course not! They are dentist because it gives them a four day work-week, have no over-time, don’t have to answer emails 24×7 nor have a ‘crappy’ boss that they have to please. So they do it cause it gives them a great lifestyle and that is most important for them”.
If you want to get your career to take off, find that sweet spot. Find that job that interests you, you know you will be good at and fits with the life style you are looking for. Love What You Do and I am pretty sure you will have a prosperous life.
– Paul Keijzer