How to Choose a Career

by | May 28, 2004

The basic rule to follow in a process of identification is to choose the career in which you will spend the most time doing the activity you love to do the most.

During the next 50 years, you will spend more time working than anything else. If you have a career you love, that time will be spent happily. If you don’t, it won’t.

Howard Roark, the hero of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, sums this point up eloquently: “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working…If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture.”

In an ideal career, you face and overcome great challenges, maximize your creative capacities, and progress from achievement to greater achievement–all while doing the work you love most. The model to aspire to is the basketball career of Michael Jordan. It was clear to anyone that watching Michael Jordan on the court that he loved basketball more than anything else in the world. He put an incredible amount of effort into developing his game, becoming a dominant scorer, accurate shooter, expert defender, and outstanding on-court leader. His career was a straight ascent: going from a national championship in college to becoming the most dominant scorer in the NBA to becoming the league MVP to winning six NBA championships. By the end of his career, a team with Michael Jordan was considered literally unstoppable in the playoffs. Few people love life the way Michael Jordan did during his career, and the key to his happiness was his passion for his work.

To have a successful career you do not need to achieve on the scale that Michael Jordan did–but you do need to achieve as much as your ability permits, doing the work you love at the highest level you are capable of.

Sadly, most people do not have careers they love. Most adults’ feelings toward their work range from mild enjoyment to bored indifference to absolute hatred. Work is generally viewed as an unfortunate burden, endured for the sake of weekends, holidays, and retirement.

The lack of joy most people get out of their careers raises an important question: Why do so many people fail at choosing a career when the decision has such a crucial effect on their happiness?

Obviously, there is something wrong with the approach they are taking to make this decision.

Most students I talk to have at best a vague idea of what they want to pursue as a career, and no clear idea of how they are going to decide. (There are a small number who know what they want to do and are actively pursuing it.) When I ask them how they plan on arriving at a career I inevitably get responses like “It’ll come to me somehow,” or “I’ll find something I like,” or “I’ll just try a bunch of different things.”

This, of course, doesn’t work. The knowledge of what career to choose does not come automatically, so they end up deciding by some chance means: choosing the most lucrative job they can get given their degree, doing whatever their friends are doing, putting the decision off by choosing to attend more school, or (at best) picking a job in an area they think they might be interested in. This is why so many Duke students end up going to law school or into consulting.

Contrast how people approach choosing a career with the way they approach buying a car–something they are much more successful at. When a person buys a car he gathers all the relevant information he can before making a decision. He knows he wants a safe, attractive, reliable, affordable car suited to his needs. He does not expect the knowledge of the right car to come to him automatically, so he does a lot of thinking and research. He asks himself, “How much can I afford to spend on a car? How many people do I need to haul? How important is safety? Styling? Speed?” He finds the different brands and models that have the type of car he is looking for. Then he does research. He looks up safety information on cars he is considering, like crash tests. He checks the reliability records of the different manufacturers. He looks into how quickly the value of the car will depreciate. He takes test drives. After doing this research and sorting out all the facts, the buyer is ready to make an informed decision on which car to purchase, and will be able to choose the best car for him. The key to his success is his rational method.

But imagine if the man, instead of logically approaching the issue, took the approach most people do with career. Instead of going through the facts methodically, he would leave his success to chance–going to the nearest dealership and buying the first car on the lot. Such a person would end up paying $10,000 for a Yugo or purchasing a sports car for his family of five.

A bad car can be sold and replaced. The years of unfulfilled life a bad career leads to are irreplaceable.

If you do not want to end up with the career equivalent of a Yugo, you must employ a rational method in choosing your career.

I developed the following method after consulting several adults I knew who had successfully chosen their careers. It is, in essence, the one I used in choosing my own career. (I do not claim that it is the only rational method for choosing a career.) The method consists of three major steps: introspection, identification, and validation. The meaning and justification for these steps will become apparent.

Introspection The logical place to start in finding a career you will love is to find a productive activity that you love. Every career consists of one or at most a few primary activities. An engineer applies scientific theories to the design of new products; an academic thinks abstractly, writes, and teaches; a professional basketball player plays basketball. Having a career you love means doing the productive activity you love as much as possible.

To find such an activity you must introspect. Introspection is “the action of looking within, or into one’s own mind; examination or observation of one’s own thoughts, feelings, or mental state.” (Oxford English Dictionary) Introspecting in this context means monitoring the emotions you feel while engaging in productive activities. For instance, while designing a program in computer science, you can identify your emotions–do you feel exhilarated and purposeful, or frustrated and bored?

Your past experiences are the best place to start introspecting. Take stock of all your past classes, jobs, internships, extracurricular activities, and memorable childhood experiences. Think of the activities you did and the emotions you felt. Note when you felt happy, purposeful, efficacious, excited. Maybe in computer science class you loved the process of breaking down a complex problem and creating an efficient algorithm to solve it. Maybe at a marketing internship at a business you felt you were using your mind to its fullest capacity while developing a marketing strategy for the company’s new product. Maybe you have been playing the piano since you were 7 and you find no greater joy in life than flawlessly performing a beautiful piece of music. Or maybe when you were five you loved designing and building things with Legos, and ever since you have been obsessed with architecture.

While monitoring your emotional responses to different activities, it is important to keep a high standard in mind. Your career may well span 50 years, so you are looking for an activity that you are absolutely passionate about–it is not enough to find one that merely interests you.

Usually, if you introspect thoroughly enough, you will find one type of activity that you are far more passionate about than anything else.

Sometimes individuals have multiple, interrelated activities that they love. For instance, a young engineering student might love the process of using theoretical knowledge to create new products, but also love the process of marketing and selling the products. This is great, because there are jobs that combine these skills, like being an executive at an engineering company. Or a history student may love both writing and teaching–which is a perfect combination for becoming a history professor. If your passions cannot be combined into a career, though, you have to identify which one is the most intense, and go for a career in that area.

If, after taking inventory of all your relevant experiences, you cannot find anything you are really passionate about, you should try new activities and closely monitor your emotions. Look for emotional “sparks,” feelings of joy when engaged in an activity. Eventually, if you do not find a passion, you will need to pick a career doing the activity you are most interested in, and grow it into a passion by devoting yourself to it. Identification Once you have introspected thoroughly and found the activity you most enjoy doing you are ready to identify a potential career.

The basic rule to follow in a process of identification is to choose the career in which you will spend the most time doing the activity you love to do the most. This is a fairly straightforward process. If you love designing and building things, you would identify architect as a potential career. If you love writing fiction, the logical career to choose is fiction writer.

Another consideration when identifying the right career is whether you are qualified to do the work or not. Every career requires a specific skill set, knowledge, and educational background. An engineer must have knowledge of physics and math; an English teacher must have a degree in English; a businessman needs knowledge of economics, management, and the field his business is in. When considering a career you must evaluate whether you have the necessary skills, knowledge, and degrees, are in the process of acquiring them, or are willing to make the effort to get them. If not, then you must choose a different career.

A proper identification of a career also takes into account the challenge you will get out of it. Taking on tough challenges is one of the most exciting parts of a career. If you are not challenged by your career, you will stagnate and become bored. The specific career you choose should be the one that challenges you most in your favorite activity.

For instance, let’s say you have a passion for the study and teaching of biology. So, you decide, you want to become a biology teacher. But on which level? Junior high school? High school? A small college? A university? You must ask yourself, in which will I find the greatest and most exciting challenges? If you have a strong desire to do research and make new discoveries in biology, then it would be wise to work at a university rather than a junior high school. If, on the other hand, you yearn for the challenge of showing youngsters how exciting and important knowledge of biology is, you should teach in a junior high or high school.

Validation Once you have identified a potential career based on your introspection, there are more issues to consider before you can decide it is a valid career for you. For instance, how will this career fit in with other areas of life, like romance and family? Will you be able to support yourself? What obstacles will you encounter? You must consider all these factors before plunging into a career. This is the process of validating a career by understanding, in detail, everything that it entails.

Your career is a crucial aspect of your life, but it is not the only one. There are other aspects of life crucial to living well–like romance, friendship, and recreation. Those aspects can be affected dramatically by the career you choose, and you must be ready for this in advance.

For instance, if you aspire to be a world-class businessman, you must recognize that this often involves 70 or 80-hour workweeks. This raises many questions about other areas of life. How much time will you be able to spend with your children, if you plan on having them? How will you go about preserving your romantic life when you are often away on business trips? How many friendships will you be able to maintain? How will this impact how often you get to go dancing or skiing or play tennis? By simple arithmetic, you will have much less time to devote to these other areas of life than a writer who works 40 or 50 hours a week.

Another consideration for validating your career is how much money you will make. Money should not be your first concern when choosing a career–what you love to do should be–but it is a crucial one nonetheless. In certain careers it is very difficult to make money, especially at first. It is hard to make money as an artist, journalist, freelance writer, actor, or radio talk-show host. If you want a career in one of these fields, you must be prepared for the difficult path ahead–which may include getting a temporary job in another field until you are able to support yourself doing what you love.

Cultural obstacles are another factor to consider in validation. The culture of the United States is continually becoming more anti-reason and anti-individual rights. Politically, the government is becoming more statist and intrusive. These factors can make a career in the field you love much more difficult or in some cases impossible. If you become a businessman, you will have to deal with hundreds of government regulations that limit your ability to run a profitable company. If you want to become a university professor in the humanities, you will face a great deal of opposition from anti-reason movements like Postmodernism.

In the field of medicine, the cultural obstacles you face are especially dramatic. There is a real threat that the US government will socialize medicine. If you are a doctor, this will allow the government to determine whom you must give care to, what price you can charge, and how many hours you can work (it does this to a large extent already, which is why so many doctors have retired early). With the state of today’s medical malpractice laws, you are continuously under the threat of a lawsuit. Are you willing to work under these conditions? Many are not.

I do not mean to dissuade you from your chosen field by citing various difficulties and obstacles you might encounter. If you have found a career doing the work you love you should go after it with everything you have (unless it is literally impossible to succeed in that field), but you need to be aware of the challenges ahead. Also, if you are debating between two careers, these factors may well make the difference.

The final step of validation is what I call the “typical day test.” Write down, in as much detail as possible, what an average day in your career will be like. What type of work you will be doing, what your coworkers will be like, how much relaxation time you will you have, how much time you will have with your spouse, your friends, what type of house or apartment you will be living in, and anything else relevant to your quality of life that you can think of. This will serve the purpose of making your future career as real to you as possible.

After completing the “typical day test” you are ready to decide. Ask yourself: “Is this what I want? Am I willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in this career?” If the answer is “Yes,” dedicate yourself to pursuing that career to the fullest, and achieving your highest potential.

Alex Epstein is a philosopher who applies big-picture, humanistic thinking to industrial and environmental controversies. He founded Center for Industrial Progress (CIP), a for-profit think tank and communications consulting firm focused on energy and environmental issues, in 2011 to offer a positive, pro-human alternative to the Green movement. He is the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas—Not Less. He is the author of featuring hundreds of concise, powerful, well-referenced talking points on energy, environmental, and climate issues. Follow him on Twitter @AlexEpstein.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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