A Tough Test
Even if making big bucks isn’t a factor in finding a job you love, this quote from the book How to Get Rich is worth considering:
“[Choosing your career is] the biggest decision over which any of us is likely to exercise real control. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our nationality. We do not choose who we fall in love with. We do not even choose the personality or character of the children we bring into the world or our own personal characteristics—random configurations of DNA do it for us. But we do get to choose, if we are determined enough, what it is we want to do for a living. Most of us flunk this test.“Felix Dennis, How to Get Rich
And since you’re reading this post, I imagine you’re among the “most of us” who are flunking this career choice test.
There’s no shame in that. It’s one doozy of a test. Not only does it have a million options to choose from, but there’s also a blank “Other” space at the bottom. And cheating off of others won’t help you.
But you can and should have some strategy to whittle down your options and minimize regrettable choices.
The following is the framework I settled on. It took nearly a decade of tweaking, trial and error, and of studying books on career, purpose, and fulfillment. But it seems to have worked. I made a great choice and found a job I love. Maybe it can help you do the same.
What’s your problem?
Should you “follow your passion”?
Or is that a recipe for disaster and you’re better off developing deep expertise until a sort of professional passion emerges?
Career-choice-ologists make their own careers from debating and defending their answers.
I’m still not sure whose side I’m on. I don’t care much, either, because I think the better approach for finding a job you love is to look for the opposite of what you’re passionate about:
What’s a problem in the world that makes you angrier than most? Other people shrug it off or don’t acknowledge its existence, but you actually lose sleep over it.
That problem is your fuel. It’s the most important clue for finding the job you love.
Here’s my problem.
The problem that gets me going is human’s inane and innate instinct to stick to, settle for, and even defend the status quo.
When I watch the Star Wars Kid from the video below, I chuckle with everyone else at his dorkiness. But I smile even harder because I feel inordinately happy for him for having found something weird he’s so into.
And I feel equally inordinate disdain for people who mock him. I want this kid to assemble an army of “nerds” like him and vanquish those bullies. Better yet, maybe he can show them how to stop caring what other people think and start doing their own thing, too.
Crazy as you may think that sounds, just writing that gave me goosebumps. And that motivates me to keep plugging away at The Unconventional Route—and keep loving it even when it’s a struggle.
Pick a fight you can’t win.
Like any actual fight the Star Wars Kid might get into, I’ll never win in my battle against the defenders of the status quo. All I can do is inflict a little bit of damage.
And that’s a good thing. That means that I’ll always have a steady source of fuel for the little flame under my butt.
Make sure whatever problem you take is equally unbeatable, and not a goal. As we’ll see shortly, it’s more like a constant headwind you can use to fill your sails.
Other people’s problems.
To help you find your problem, here are more examples of others’ and what they’re doing about it:
- Hairdresser: For one of the hairdressers in this article, the problem she’s taking on is people’s struggle to express themselves. In her job, she has to read between the lines to understand her clients’ desires and use her expertise to make sure their hair reflects that.
- Software designer: In his excellent talk, Bret Victor shares his problem: ideas that are stunted or stillborn because people can’t get immediate feedback on what they’re doing. So he works in designing products that rescue those ideas from dying.
- Small business owner: My brother’s problem is that technology is causing people to physically drift apart and into their own little bubbles. He’s doing his part to fight it and bring people back together again by owning businesses like a cafe and a climbing gym.
What’s in it for you?
The problem you decide to take on for your career should be for some greater good. But that shouldn’t be the real reason why you’re doing it.
To find the job you love, you’ve got to be honest with yourself about your selfish motivations.
Quit faking like you’re a saint and ask yourself:
Stop pretending you’re so selfless.
It’s hard to find people these days who’ll admit the selfish reasons they do what they do.
Doctors and nurses do what they do to “save lives.” Soldiers are “fighting for freedom.” Engineers are “building the future.” Entrepreneurs are “solving the world’s problems.” Stay-at-home parents are “sacrificing for their kids.” And I’m “inspiring people to get out of ruts to make the most of their lives.”
We’re all heroes. Yay.
There’s nothing wrong with professing such altruistic motivations. But it is wrong to think that’s the only reason for having chosen your career.
If you do, you end up pushing your head so far up your butt repeating your do-goody motivations that you start believing it. Then you forget about what’s in it for you, which leads you to feel like your job isn’t rewarding.
Dig into your ego.
If you want to find a job you love, be honest about the internal, ego-boosting rewards you seek. And we’re not talking about money or power. Those are a means to satisfy your deeper needs.
Try these sub-questions to reconnect with your selfishness:
- What’s your answer to, “I want people to respect me for _____”?
- What do you want to be able to shove in the faces of your haters?
- Decades from now, when your future self looks back on what you’ve done, what do you want them to be most proud of?
In my case, by fighting status quo bias I want to prove to the world (and my future self) that my ideas are worth listening to. And I want people to come to me for creative solutions, rather than think, “Who is this bozo blogger shouting to nobody on the internet.”
How can you make the most possible progress?
If the problem you’re taking on is an incessant headwind and your reward is the ego-boosting respect you get from making progress, your job is what allows you to build a ship to sail right into it.
This draws on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You’ve probably seen the old five-tiered pyramid before. Well, that’s been replaced. The new-and-improved model’s a two-part sailboat. (See diagrams below and my related post on this.)
Let’s look at how to apply this model to make better career choices that:
- Protect you from sinking, and
- Help you fill your sails and make waves.
1) Protect yourself from sinking.
If you’re early in your career or in a rough patch in life, worry less about landing the perfect job and more about finding something that protects you from sinking.
These are the so-called “security needs.” They include:
- Safety: Protection—financial, physical, and otherwise—against life’s unpredictability.
- Connection: A sense of belonging and supportive network.
- Self-Esteem: Finding self-worth, mastery, and a growth mindset.1See one of my favorite books that change your thinking, Mindset, for more on this.
Just because you’re reinforcing your security needs doesn’t mean you can drift around and lose track of your problem. Find meaning in any work by remembering to ask yourself:
A. Identify and hone your talents.
“You can’t know if you’re talented at riding hippos until you try,” write the authors of Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment. Do, experience, study, and work on different things in search of what comes easier to you than most. This can take years, even decades, to find. My post on being your best self might be of some assistance.
B. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Stay motivated by remembering that the more secure a hull you build, the better equipped you’ll be to seize opportunities in the future. Even in a job flipping burgers, you can save, expand your network, and work on yourself.
C. Find meaning in the mundane.
Look for ways to make meaningful progress against your problem, no matter how trivial or boring your role may seem.
For example, a hospital custodian named Luke from this article found ways to meaningfully combat his problem, unnecessary suffering, by reframing his role as being responsible for making the hospital more comfortable for everyone inside it.
Or when I was working as a corporate accountant, I found ways to challenge the status quo by redesigning company reporting processes.
By finding meaning in the mundane, there’s a chance that you may even be able to turn a job you hate into a job you love.
2) Fill your sails and make waves.
When you have a secure hull, an idea of where you want to go, and wind in your face, find a job that fills your sails by asking:
Here are some questions worth considering when assessing your options:
- What jobs can increase the size of your sail? You increase the size of your sail by improving your skills. Writing (and now making videos) is a skill I can keep getting feedback on and improving at by blogging.
- What’s a drag for you, and what jobs minimize it? You reduce drag by not doing work you hate to do. For example, I don’t like managing people or fixed schedules, so being able to work for myself on this blog is a blessing.
- Does it have to be working for yourself? Autonomy is important and being an entrepreneur is the cool thing to do these days, but keep in mind that working as part of a bigger business may give you access to resources that allow you to move faster.
- Who’s taking on a problem similar to yours and kicking butt? Look for role models and mentors. How are they doing it and how can you possibly do something similar?
If you have security and have come up with clear answers to the previous questions we looked at—What’s your problem? and What’s in it for you?—you should be able to come up with plenty of job ideas.
Best of all, they’re all good ones. You can love any job that meets your criteria.
For example, I love working on The Unconventional Route but I could also see myself loving a job teaching people to think and live for themselves, or a gig analyzing big data to help people find products or other people that match their inherent interests, or working on a huge status-quo squashing project like autonomous driving and redesigning cities.
What job makes for a great journey?
On the scale of human history, nothing you or I do is going to make a lick of a difference. We’re going to die and that’s the end of our story. And the problems we attempted to take on will continue blowing in people’s faces.
But we gotta do something to pass the time, right?
And, in that case, we might as well make it an adventure.
Do it for the fun of it.
Whatever job you do, don’t do it for the results. Do it for its own sake—because fighting against your problem fulfills you, even if you can’t win. That’s the only way you can be sure life never gets boring.
Here are a couple of questions that might help you figure out what kind of meaningful but meaningless adventure to go on:
- If you could pick any job, but you’d have to work at it 40 hours a week for the rest of your life for a fixed salary of $100,000 a year, what would you choose? I like this question for two reasons. First, it takes away financial incentives that sway decisions the wrong way. Second, because it’s permanent it forces you to think of a worthy destination-free journey.
- What would you do even if you know you would fail? I got this question from Seth Godin on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Think about the skills, experiences, and connections a job could give you even if that job doesn’t work out.
Don’t choose a path. Choose a direction.
Winds change. People do, too (especially you). And shit happens. So don’t waste your time trying to predict it. And definitely don’t set yourself on any path you can’t veer off of.
Set a general direction and be open to improvising. When unanticipated paths open up, be prepared to take them. And when unexpected obstacles block your path, shout out “Plot twist!” and find another way.
Ten years ago, I would have thought I’d be CEO of some disruptive start-up by now. But here I am blogging. The only thing I’m CEO of is my life.
Ten years from now, who the heck knows? Maybe I’ll still be writing on The Unconventional Route. Or maybe I’ll be doing something else. I don’t know. All I know is that as long as I’m still making progress against my problem and getting the ego-boosting rewards I need, I’ll love my job.
Final Cheat Sheet
To recap, these are the questions that can help you narrow down your career choices and improve your chances of finding a job you love:
What problem pisses you off more than most?
What job positions you best to harness that power?
What’s the ego-stroking reason do you want to succeed?
How can you make progress, regardless of where you’re at in life?
What work guarantees you a wild ride, no matter what?
These aren’t easy questions, but they’re more manageable than, What should you do for your career?
And if you manage to assemble the answers, hopefully you’ll be as lucky as me to come up with a craft that allows you to take your life on a rewarding adventure.