This article is second in a two-part series. Read the first installment here.
Do you have no earthly idea what you want to be "when you grow up”? Choosing a career field or college major can be a daunting task. Often career exploration begins with looking at your grades and standardized test scores to see where your academic strengths and weaknesses lie. Interest inventories and personality tests also can help.
While these are fine approaches, you will want to dig deeper to find the career path that is right for you. Some call this process finding your calling, passion, vocation, purpose, or bliss. Whatever the name, a little navel gazing is okay when trying to figure out want to do with your life.
Set aside some time in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Take out a journal or notebook, and write in response to some or all of the following prompts. You can do this in one sitting, but it might be better to tackle one writing prompt a day over several days. Come back and review your responses from time to time to see if they still fit. Then add, subtract, or tweak as needed.
What’s your superpower?
What are you really good at? This can be anything, from academic skills such as math or writing, to music, fixing things, cooking, negotiating with others, listening to your friends’ problems, or organizing and leading people to meet a goal. Ask friends, relatives, teachers, coaches, and others in your life to tell you where they think your strengths lie.
What are you drawn to now?
Trying to look ahead to what sort of work you might enjoy five or ten years from now, or for a lifetime, can be intimidating. Instead, ask yourself what you want to do today. How do you enjoy spending your time? What do you do when you’re hanging out, just for fun? What do you love so much that you would even pay someone to do it? These are among the first (and most obvious) questions to ask when trying to find and follow your bliss.
What makes you curious? What sorts of reading materials do you choose for your own enjoyment? What topics are you interested in learning more about? Start exploring these interests to see where they take you. What is the next step you might take on that path?
Exploring your interests, learning more about every aspect of them, can lead you to a deeper understanding of related career possibilities. In other words, do what you love, and get really good at it, but also learn about every aspect of it in every way you can.
What if you aren’t very good at the thing you are interested in? Keep an open mind. Maybe you love sports, but try as you might, you just don’t think you have the natural athletic talent needed to make it to the pros. That doesn’t mean your love of sports has to be put on the shelf, though. Look into coaching, collegiate athletic advising, sports management, sports journalism, sports engineering, or the many other career fields related to athletics.
What are your favorite procrastination activities?
What are you drawn to when you want to relax or to avoid what you are really supposed to be doing? For example, do you surf the web or hang out on social media? If so, look into web design or social media marketing as career possibilities. Even if your favorite pastime is playing video games, that hobby could lead to a legit career. In her series of TED talks, game designer Jane McGonigal tells how gaming can improve the way we learn, work, solve problems, and live our lives.
What stirs you?
When and where are you happiest? What experiences make you stand in awe? If hiking in the mountains takes your breath away, maybe outdoor education or environmental conservation is your thing.
On the flip side, what saddens you? What makes your blood boil? Is there some injustice you would like to see corrected or a nagging problem you wish could be solved? Are there burning questions you would like to answer? All these can set you on a path to a potential career.
In a recent speech to White House interns, President Barack Obama offered this advice: “Worry less about what you want to be, and think more about what you want to do.” What problem do you want to solve? Whether it’s global warming or youth unemployment, there are myriad ways to work on most any problem, and many career and job options that could be open to you.
Whom do you envy — and why?
Sometimes our jealousies hint at our deepest desires. Do you feel a little twinge of jealousy when a friend sings in a talent show? Maybe you want to be a performer. Do you turn a little green with envy when someone you know gets a new car with all the bells and whistles? Maybe your interest in cars could lead to a career as an automobile engineer.
What is your dream career?
Given total freedom and no limitations of money or ability, what would you do? List five to ten careers that you would choose if anything were possible. No dream is too wild or too big for this list. Do you wish you could be a ballet dancer, though you’ve never taken a dance lesson? What about a rock star, pro athlete, spy, or President of the United States? Your biggest dreams may not be as far out of reach as you think. There also may be countless careers related to your dreams that you might not even have thought of before. Even if you don’t end up becoming President, you might become a speechwriter, a campaign manager, or a public policy advisor.
Personality tests, such as the Enneagram and the Myers-Briggs, can help you think about the various aspects of your personality and how they might match to your career interests. Search for free online versions of these tests, take a few, and then write about what you learn. Do the results ring true? Do they hint at the kinds of work that you might be best suited for and find success in?
Ask others whom you trust and know well to tell you about how they see you. Are you outgoing? Introspective? Creative? Determined? Look for patterns in their responses, and write down what you learn.
One thing to keep in mind, though: While it’s good to seek input from others, don’t let those voices overcome or supplant your own inner voice. Follow not only the adage to “know thyself,” but also the one that says “to thine own self be true.”
What did you enjoy doing when you were little?
Did you spend tons of time playing make-believe? Maybe you are a fiction writer or actor at heart. Did you like to build things? Maybe you are a future architect, engineer, or sculptor. Have you always been a super talker? Maybe you are meant to be a journalist, teacher, lawyer, politician, or other type of communicator.
Talk to your parents and others who have known you for a long time, and ask them about consistencies they’ve noticed over the long term in your personality, habits, and interests. Look for patterns in their responses.
Ready, set, write!
Freewrite in response to the question, “What is my purpose?” Write nonstop until you reach 50 items in your list. A purpose is more than a career or a goal; it’s your reason for being. For example, maybe your purpose is to heal the broken, create beauty, protect the vulnerable, or work for justice. Each of these purposes could be served in a wide variety of career fields.
This activity will help you get past ideas that you think may be your purpose but are really just distractions. By getting those ideas out of your head and onto the page first, you free your mind to zoom in on the true calling of your heart. To learn more about this approach, read “How to Discover Your Life’s Purpose in 20 Minutes” by Steve Pavlina.
You don’t have to be just one thing.
Exploration is fine and good, and changing your mind as you learn and grow is to be expected. In fact, 50 to 70 percent of college students change their majors at least once, and most change majors at least three times before graduation. Adults also make more career changes post-college than was once common. In fact, even adults commonly undergo one, two, or more career changes after entering the working world.
Many people today are creating “portfolio careers” — connecting their varied interests to form a career path that is a unique fit for them. Portfolio careers allow you to generate income while pursuing a mash-up of interests. For example, an artist may do graphic design for publishing companies, teach art classes to students at a local college, and sell her own art in galleries and online. A freelance marketing expert might create ad campaigns for clients, teach marketing classes, run workshops for other marketers, and host a podcast on working from home.
If you are having a hard time settling on just one career path, check out the inspiring Ted Talk by writer and artist Emilie Wapnick, in which she celebrates the “multipotentialite” — those with many interests and jobs over a lifetime, and many interlocking potentials. Also check out her website at Puttylike.com.
Get in the water!
Once you’ve done some journaling and come up with a list of ideas, dip your toe into the water. Instead of trying to look ahead to possible outcomes of your career choices years down the road, try wading into your interests to see where they take you. Extracurricular activities, volunteering, and job shadowing are all ways to try on your interests. Who do you know in the career fields you are considering? Reach out to someone in your community who is a success in the field or who may refer you to others who are.
Karen Nichols is a freelance education writer living in Iowa City, Iowa.
To learn how to turn all this self-exploration into a winning college admissions essay, check out our step-by-step guide.