Career Advice: How to Step in the Right Direction

You’ve envisioned a career direction, but what steps will take you in that direction?

Last week I had lunch with a young guy who is feeling the angst of starting his career. As a college student, he thought he wanted to be a lawyer. He smartly tested that notion by working as a paralegal for a while after college instead of investing a ton of money and time in law school.

He learned he didn’t want to become a lawyer.

With some time and introspection, he recognized his career interest wasn’t so much law but policy, particularly international relations. He believes he now has his North Star – a direction of interest that serves as a compass for discovering and navigating his path toward an ideal career. That’s great.

But now the hard part begins.

I define an “ideal career” as one that: (1) gives you a deep sense of meaning and purpose, (2) provides a comfortable income, and (3) can be pursued in balance with other key elements of a happy life – strong relationships and good health.

In my last article, I described a discovery process for identifying and pursuing a path toward your ideal career: (1) establish a general direction of interest—this is your North Star; (2) step forward, making sure each step is directionally correct; and (3) have faith that, with each step you take, the next step on the path will emerge and your North Star will become clearer.

Establishing your North Star is a necessary starting point, providing a set of guardrails that keep you on course. But your North Star does not point to a specific path forward.

Do you go to grad school, take a low-paying internship, start your own business, help out your parents back home, move to a new city, or just binge eat for a while? So many options. It’s “the paradox of choice.”

To make progress toward an ideal career, we have to step forward. We have to make choices. We have to take action. But the paradox of choice often leads to inaction and confusion. We can overcome this – not by having fewer choices but by having a tool to intelligently evaluate our choices. I use a simple decision-making framework to assess each potential career step:

  1. Will this step help build key “career assets” – knowledge, skills, and a professional network – in line with my North Star?
  2. Will this step provide more career assets than my other, current alternatives?
  3. Will the value of the expected career assets outweigh the costs (in money and time)?

The answer to all three questions has to be a clear “yes.” Asking and answering these questions requires discipline and clear-headedness. I often have to remind audiences:

Don’t do what you don’t want to do.

It sounds stupid even saying this. But it’s a common problem. The young guy I was having lunch with was considering a role at a consulting firm because his landlord was in a position to help him get the job. But the role was not in line with his North Star.

I think of these potential career distractions as “shiny objects”— siren songs that seduce us into going in the wrong direction. The immediate, tangible allure of more money, a sexy title, or other shiny objects can easily and tragically distract us from the path toward our ideal career.

I often hear the excuse, “At least I know I can be successful as a [insert ‘lawyer’ or other conventional career].” My response is, “It’s true. You can successfully accomplish what you don’t want to accomplish.” But what have really achieved by doing so?

Some folks imagine they can pursue a conventional career, make a bunch of money, and then jump over to the career they really want. This rarely works. By starting on the wrong path, you are developing knowledge, skills, and a network for that path. You are not developing these career assets for your ideal path. This incongruence leads to path dependence: keeping you on the wrong path.

Even if someone manages to make the jump, they often have to work for a lot less money, at least at first. This is tough to do when you and your family have developed a lifestyle enabled by your current, more financially lucrative career.

To be clear, just like your North Star is imperfect, so too will be the opportunities in line with your North Star. More often than not, your first job or gig – or even your first few – will be only 20, 30, or maybe 40% of what you’re looking for. But that doesn’t matter, so long as you’re building knowledge, skills, and a network in line with your North Star, at a cost that doesn’t exceed the benefits.

As I’ll discuss in my next article, small but consistent gains in knowledge, skills, and a network in line with your North Star, compounded year after year, can yield results beyond your expectations.

Taking step after step in ways that are directionally consistent is analogous to a building a better telescope. It won’t show you all the heavens, but it will show you a lot more.

Chad Thevenot is executive director of the Institute for Humane Studies and a member of the AFF Advisory Board.

This is #3 in a series.  The previous article (#2) in the series is How to Find Your North Star. 

Post author