Why picking the right career-path is like climbing a mountain.
Finding the right career is much like climbing a mountain. Let me explain.
The world is full of different mountains to climb. Some lower, some taller, some easier, some of them freaking hard. A hiking or climbing enthusiast has to choose which one of them to pick. If they are experienced and thoughtful they will look at their skill and their gear to decide which mountain would be a good fit for them.
The same is true for picking a career path. There are many different careers out there and not all of them are equal. And you too should look at your gear (your personality, interests, strength and weaknesses) before choosing a random career that just happens to be the first one you come across. What are the steps for picking the right mountain and climbing it?
At its most fundamental it is very simple:
- Check your gear
- Search the map
- Pick a mountain
- Start climbing
What do we mean with these vague, wishy-washy steps?
Phase 1: Check your gear
Before going on your adventure and picking a mountain to climb you should check your gear. To make the analogy more accurate, let's assume the gear was mostly given to you and you getting different or better gear will be difficult and time-consuming. So let's start with what you have right now.
In our case, your gear is your unique personality. Including your interests, values, motivations, and strengths and weaknesses. It's really important to look inwards - at yourself - and ask some serious questions. What do I like? What interests me? Why the hell does it? What is my personality baseline for social interactions, how organized and hard-working am I? Do I enjoy creative or abstract activities? How anxious am I? How stress-resilient?
By looking inwards and checking your gear certain options become much more promising than others. We sometimes wish that everyone was born with equal amounts of strengths and talents and proclivities. The genetic and psychological research is pretty clear on this though: We are not. Certain things come more easily to some people than others. You don't have to like this fact about human nature. But ignoring it could prove foolish in your own life and how you treat others.
When it comes to understanding yourself, 3 questions are essential:
- What interests me?
- What am I good at?
- What value can I bring to others?
What you want to look for is the overlap between those 3. And that's why understanding science-based personality research is so important. Your unique personality connects to all three of these questions. Personality is not just a vague sense of what you're like but personality is fundamentally about how highly evolved systems in the brain perceive and deal with the world (see The Science page for more).
We know that certain personalities have different interests. Your interests are not independent of but spring from your personality. People high in Openness are pulled towards creative and intellectual activities, people high in Agreeableness care about other people and their well-being, people high in Conscientiousness like things that have order and predictability.
So are your strengths and weaknesses. Knowing what you're good at is important when thinking about a career. The starting point should be your interests (sometimes called passion, but that which seems like a very high threshold for many).
But interest alone is not enough. You also need to be good at it or at least be willing to put in the time to become good at what you find interesting. The beautiful thing is that if you're really interested in something getting better at it doesn't feel like homework it feels like playing. It will come much more naturally and easily to you.
The last point is about bringing value to others. Your interests and your strengths are a great start but we need to be honest and also test our interests and strengths against their usefulness. It sounds unfair but not everything you're interested in and good at will be a possible career path. We're not saying ignore all of that just for the sake of what can bring you a job, but be somewhat realistic in how your interests and strengths could provide value to others and the world.
Let's say you have looked at yourself and you have a pretty decent understanding of what you like, what you're good at, and what provides value to others. What's the next step in climbing your mountain? Time to look outwards!
Phase 2: Search the map
Now that you have checked your gear it's time to search the map for potential hiking targets. You need to scan the landscape to understand what is out there. What options exist and what is the difference between them. Getting a broad sense of the landscape and the topography will allow you to make better choices in your route planning.
In career terms, this means becoming familiar with different career paths and options out there. What are some typical options (more traditional roles like an employee in a big company, lawyer, consultant, doctor, engineer, truck driver, cashier, sales rep, etc.)? But also what are some less known opportunities (like starting your own company, maybe work abroad for a year, or start a new education in a different field).
This second phase is much easier if you have invested the time in understanding yourself and your unique personality better. By looking for an overlap between what you are good at, what interests you, and what provides value for others you can considerably speed up your search for potential new career paths.
One of the fundamental questions that you might run into is whether you should pick another mountain if you're already stuck in one job. What if your gear is not that suitable for other mountains? Should you invest time and energy in improving your gear? Those are hard problems and almost impossible to answer in any broad terms that apply to everyone.
But we believe that if there is a way for you to improve yourself (play in your personality strengths, work on your weaknesses and learn new skills or follow an education) to pick a mountain that interests you and provides value to others - then go for it. Yes, you have to take financial and family risks into account, so be smart and plan it out but the risk comes in many forms. Most people underestimate the risk of spending 40 hours every week doing things they don't particularly enjoy or care about. Over your career, that's a lot of time-wasting. Regret is a risk too.
Take your time in this phase as well. Learn as much as you can about different options and how they align with your personality, interests, strengths, and values. Certain things will make more sense than others. But now comes the truly difficult part...
Phase 3: Pick a mountain
You gotta commit. There is no way around this. The act of picking one mountain to climb and not a vague sense of 5 different targets is so important. This is the scary part. With commitment come fear and doubt. What if this new job is not as great as I hope it will be? How can I know if I'm making the right choice? Maybe it's better to stay with my current job. Those fears are normal and part of every uncertain decision in life.
Nobody can guarantee you that you're making the right call and looking for someone to provide you with that certainty is false hope, in our honest opinion. Sometimes you just have to take a risk. But we believe you can mitigate that risk by doing step 1 and step 2 first. By understanding yourself/checking your gear and having a good sense of what career paths exist (having searched the map) you make a well-informed decision with a much higher chance of success. No guarantees - but you staked the deck in your favor.
Take your time with this step if you need to. Sometimes it might take weeks or months to come to a realization, especially if you're already in a job. But don't be afraid to make that choice once it becomes apparent to you. Once you commit everything will be easier. One mountain to climb provides focus and clarity. Leaving your options wide open out of fear and doubts only provides uncertainty and scattered attention. Our brains love certainty - help your brain and commit to one path!
Phase 4: Move towards it
There is only one thing left to do now: start climbing.
A little secret about our brains and happiness; the reward system in our brains does not care as much about actually reaching the mountain top. Yes, the immediate feeling of having succeeded is amazing. But the dopamine system is set up mostly for pursuing goals and making visible progress towards them. Meaning and happiness in life come not from having everything you want.
If that were true then buying a new car or clothes would make us content forever. But it doesn't because our brains are set up for striving and going after things - not possessing them. Have a long-term goal that you care about and then work every day on that goal is what you should be aiming for. Making constant progress towards a meaningful goal in life is the secret to happiness.
This is why you need to put in the time and effort to understand yourself first. Knowing what interests you and what you care about in life (which is fueled by your personality) is such an important step. And by committing to one career or mountain you can get into that pursuit of one meaningful goal in life. If you haven't committed to one path and you might have several vague goals in your head you interfere with that reward system.
Of course, life is complicated and this theory is more useful for some people than others. It requires a certain sense of freedom, you need to be able to switch careers if necessary or put some time in to learn new skills. But it's the best way out there for finding the right mountain to climb, for finding your path in your career and life.
How Career-Basecamp tries to help
We created this site to be a guide during these phases. Currently, you can take a free personality test that will help you with Phase 1: Check your gear. It will help you in realizing who you are, what you're good at, and what interests you.
If you haven't given it a go yet you can click the button below. Future versions of the site will add additional features that will help with Phase 2: Search the map and Phase 3: Pick a mountain. So much more to come, we're excited. We hope you are too.