The vast majority of people – likely yourself, included - are not happy with their job and not engaged at work. You’ve seen Venn diagrams galore about the sweetspots between what you’re good at and your passion and what pays well and the like. Maybe in college or in high school, you took ASVAB or another long assessment that spits out ten possibilities of jobs you might want to consider.
And yet, you’re sitting in your cubicle and wondering what is it that you’re meant to do in life. What do you want to be when you grow up? Your mother’s voice rings in your head. Yet still, you have no magic answer. At times you seriously doubt there is an answer possible.
A part of you, in fact, just never wants to grow up and to focus on one thing. Deep down, you never quite believed in that annoying maxim that your parents and your teachers drilled into you, that says you have to choose and stick with your profession for your life or drift away, become a failure. There is a wisdom there and also folly, equal in their measure.
As we well know, Millenials pursue portfolio careers – they can be product managers and writers or risk analysts and DJs. There is no simple definition of profession anymore, as well. Most people change careers and jobs like gloves. There is no longer a straight path to glory or fulfillment, save for a few fields. There’s no such thing as meritocracy. Your personality and sense of politics are equally (if not, in fact, much more) important for advancement than your brains and execution.
Allow me to propose a heresy - life’s meaning doesn’t have to stem from work! It is a paycheck and an occupation and a means to learn, contribute and perhaps enjoy. There is no biblical commandment for your job to be your all-consuming purpose. There is your family, your hobbies, church or synagogue, non-profit work, whatever it may be.
But no, come on, you say. I’m young and smart and energetic and I know that I can be successful if I only knew where to apply myself. That may be true. Even if you are not a prodigy from childhood, you can easily still bloom much later and succeed beyond your wildest dreams. Think Warren Buffett and Ray Crock, Mark Pincus and a thousand others who created famous brands and giant value late in life.
You may be in your twenties, thirties, even older, if you’re reading this. Many of us pursued name brands of companies, degrees and fancy titles, but are unfulfilled. There has to be a better way.
Here’s my approach:
1) Beyond the many tests of personality and culture fit, there is the question of your role. A role encapsulates what motivates you in a given situation.
What role – that is, opposed to title - do you really, truly, actually enjoy in any situation?
Are you the expert who excels in giving consultations on in-depth details and who analyzes trends?
Are you the silent helper in the background who makes sure the others are on track and doing well?
Are you the planner that can carry off the complex project plan?
Are you an inborn manager and delegator, telling people what to do and how?
Are you the Type A CEO who lives by mission and are hell-bent on achieving it?
Or are you the observer who enjoys his writing far removed from business action?
You may be all these things in some capacity, but which one gives you real enjoyment in the moment?
2) Once you have narrowed down a favorite role, you can move on to adding value.
In what capacity can you help others best and thrive? In what capacity would it be easiest for you to make things cheaper, better, faster and kick ass and come home happy after a long day?
Are you a stickler for the right word in the moment? Then try marketing or writing.
Are you in inborn salesman, full of energy, who loves convincing other people that it’s time to buy, buy, baby? The sky’s the limit, GO AND SELL!
Do you enjoy forecasting profits or new trends? Then maybe you should be a data scientist in your favorite field.
Do you see years ahead of everyone and outwork all the rest to get to where you want to be? You might be the right person to go off and start something yourself.
3) Once you collect the evidence to show yourself what you enjoy the most, you can go on to mapping it to function in a company by title. Don’t fixate on the title, but on job description. Will this involve a lot of things that get you up all bright and early, thrilled to run to work? If not, keep looking.
4) Next, industry makes sense by what you value most. Everyone likes to say that they enjoy helping people. Those in the medical professions want to cure, improve their patients’ health. Investment bankers want to raise the capital for companies to grow. Climate researchers want to turn the tide and save the planet. Sometimes the industry is not so terribly important.
What medium or context is it that excites you most for doing your best work?
You could be crunching data in a healthcare startup, just as well as finance or at Uber.
5) Next, go and research companies where you might want to work. It doesn’t have to be the Googles, Apples, Ubers of the world – at least not right away. Often, your break can come inside a tiny startup or established, boring player, where the degrees and fancy titles carry much less weight than motivation, problem-solving skills and good experience.
The best way to get information is, once more, from people on the inside. These are the folks who get your resume directly past the tracking system and into the hands of the HR / recruiter. They are the ones who know interview questions, preferences of the hiring manager, the team dynamic and company culture. NEVER take the company’s own marketing at face value. Read Glassdoor and other reviews, keeping in mind that most reviewers tend to be either quite pissed or drunk with Koolaid. Stay skeptical until the end – at least until the ink is dry on your new contract with the firm.
6) Now that you’ve done your research and reflection, you can start to strategize.
What is the shortest path to get to that specific role inside your chosen industry?
First, focus on the practical. Can you get in a sponsored hackathon and then get hired directly? Great, go for it.
Or can you take a General Assembly course for it? It might be worth the money, then.
How about taking MOOCs for credit – would that show your interest and dedication to potential employers? How about being active in industry groups on LinkedIN and in real life?
Depending on what role you want, you may be able to network your way into a job without much (or any) prior experience. Ask questions on Quora to get a straight-forward, no-nonsense answer from high-end professionals in the field.
Next, read all the books you can about the path the leading lights have taken to start out and grow, excel at the particular profession that you chose.
Before you rush to spend your hard-earned money (or take student debt) for a degree, for courses or for boot camps, go online and find the high-end free resources recommended by professionals (see Quora).
Contact the people in your network in the field who do exactly what you want (over LinkedIN, through alumni network or another way). Take them to coffee and prepare good questions about paths to get there and the tasks and functions of the job, then companies and titles, then how to interview and what to know, etc.
This is the crucial process of intelligence gathering. If you don’t do it well, you’re liable to get the wrong ideas, spend too much money and get lost. Those working in the field (not academics in the field) generally have their nose to ground, a set of realistic views and expectations.
That said, beware of doctors hating medicine, those angry, burnt-out lawyers, bored accountants and the other misfits who are stuck – naysayers, who are not your friends. Talk to the doers, people with large networks and portfolio careers. They generally have the clearest and most sober view of things. Get second, third and fourth opinions, always, as a rule.
It is worth noting that at different stages in your life, you’ll likely want to be in different roles. You’ll find completely different things enjoyable when 22 than when you’re 30, 35 or 45. Exiting college, you are hungry for experience through solid training. You may already know exactly what you want from life or you can struggle through crap jobs, self-doubt until you’re sick and want to change direction. This easily can happen at the age of 30, 35 or 40, even later.
Consider this example. At 22, John starts his job at Google as a Junior Product Manager. At 24, he moves to LinkedIN and there gets his break, leading a team to build an awesome feature that affects a hundred million people, At 27, he’s recruited as VP of Product at a healthcare startup and begins to take the plunge. Here, he begins to build a team to take on cancer through great diagnostics. At 30, his equity stake is worth $3 million and he cashes out after the IPO.
After 2 years, he moves into the dark side, a VC firm, Kleiner Perkins. From his new perch, he is an expert and thought leader, now investing in healthcare and tech. He gives TED lectures and advises startups on their product strategies. After 5 years investing and an awesome record, he plunges back and starts a company with friends from college. He’s got 2 kids, a wife.
His interests, priorities and worldview have completely changed – several times - since 22. Once he got married and had kids, family's meant the most to him, his job taking a backseat.
Each person's finances and circumstances, personality and motivations may be different and change with time. The key's to keep things in perspective. It's great to love your job, but not at the expense of family and loved ones - or your health. Life is a trade-off, but a lack of balance brings great harm.
Not all of us (frankly, quite few of us) can have a straight path as our friend John mentioned here. Most of us will go from job to job and career to career until we reach apathy, complacency or maybe a small share of transcendence along the way. The bliss is really in the journey, often hard and bumpy, crooked as in Snakes and Ladders.
It gets quite hard and harder to amend directions in your life once you have family and kids, so try to get your stuff straight earlier. That said, it’s never quite “too late.” Think of those Buffets and Ray Crocks, Mark Pincuses and all the other fabulously successful late bloomers.
Enjoy the ride, stay humble and stay firmly on the ground, Marty McFly!
I’m rooting for you!
Are there other tips and strategies you’ve found useful in finding your ideal job or career? Share them with the community in the Comments section below.
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Yuri Kruman is a Healthcare Product Manager, published author, blogger at BlueprintToThrive.com and health tech entrepreneur based in New York.
*The views expressed herein are his own*