Advice for the Person Who is Very Unclear About Career Goals
A few days ago, I Skyped into a Taylor University class to talk about personal branding, social media and career development. One of the questions I was asked was not an uncommon one.
"What advice do you have for the person who is very unclear about career goals?"
We talk about this in Branding Yourself quite a bit. It's a tough place to be in, especially if you're in college, or just getting out. You've been through three or four years, and you're starting to realize that your major is not what you want to spend the next 20 years doing. Or, you've got such a big major — Business, English, Criminal Justice — that the field is so big and narrowing it down will be hard.
Or maybe you're looking to make a big career change and want to leave your current career path and try something new, but you aren't sure what that is. There are so many opportunities you could try, you're not even sure where to begin. You just know you don't want to keep doing what you're doing.
How do you figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life?
First of all, understand this: You are going to change careers 2 – 4 times. When my dad was a young man, back in the 1960s, you had the same career in the same field for 40+ years. Oftentimes you were at the same company the entire time too. That still happens these days, but it's rare.
Instead, you're going to switch careers, or at least your field, more than once. Just accept that it's going to happen, and it becomes easier to decide. After all, if you decide you don't like it, there's nothing wrong with trying something new.
I've been in PR and marketing for 25 years, but I've done it for a poultry equipment exporter, a maker of software for blind people, a state government agency, a direct mail provider, and now, my own content marketing agency.
Those fields have absolutely nothing in common, but I was in marketing in one form or another, whether as a generalist, digital marketing, and specifically content marketing. (And before all that, I was going to work in higher education.)
You don't need to get hung up on what you're going to do "for the rest of your life." Instead, think about what you want to do for the next 7 – 10 years. Join that field knowing that you can jump ship and switch to something new whenever you want, so you don't have to be locked into something you grow to hate for the next four decades.
Second, there's a good chance that the job you'll be doing in your 40s does not exist right now. When I was in college in the '80s, the Internet did not exist, at least not as we know it. There was no World Wide Web, there were no blogs, and we barely had email.
Now, I ghostwrite blog articles to help businesses rank higher on search engines.
Thirty years ago, that sentence would have made absolutely no sense to anyone.
My point is, you need to future-proof your career by building adaptable skills. You need skills that will transfer from field to field, technological development to technological development.
For example, nearly every job listing I see asks for "oral and written communication skills." In short, can you write and speak clearly. Do you have strong writing skills and can you speak in public? If you can do those things, you're already more valuable and advanced than many people who apply for jobs. Even jobs in HR, business management, or even teaching are options.
Can you write computer code? You can jump from company to company writing code, even as you change industries. The purpose of the code may change, but the code remains the same. And if someone creates a new computer language for a new wave of technology, you've got the ability to adapt: you learned how to write this first code, so you can learn how to write a second one. You can adapt to the changes in the world.
If you can sell, the world is your oyster. You can sell anything anywhere in any industry. I've known top-notch salespeople whose careers have leapfrogged to wildly different industries. They'll sell insurance, heavy machinery, financial services, industrial lighting, and computer software all in the span of 15 – 20 years. For them, the industry doesn't matter nearly as much as whether they can build relationships and work the phones.
Third, take a look at what you do for fun now. Maybe you're a writer, maybe you like going on hikes, going to concerts, or maybe you enjoy board games. Maybe you like riding horses, traveling, or cooking for friends. There are all kinds of things you can do that will tap into what you enjoy doing, even if you don't become a professional writer, hiker, or board gamer.
For example, if you like board games, there are board game publishers around the country. Depending on your "professional" skills, you could find work with a game publisher, or go to work for a marketing agency that specializes in board games. Or you could become a game designer for one of the big companies like Hasbro.
If you're a big fan of live music, you could work for a concert promoter, an AV production house (the people who do the sound and lights for big venues), or even work for a radio station or concert venue. Or if you really like living on the edge, you could go into band management. (Although I don't advise it.)
If you like hiking, there are all kinds of companies that could be a good fit: retail outdoor outfitters, hiking tour operators, sporting good manufacturers and representatives, travel book publishers, and even a team-building/coaching company that specializes in outdoor adventure experiences. Working in one of those places will keep you near the hiking world and give you a chance to hike and camp on a regular basis.
And if you like writing, even if you're a poet or short story writer, there are plenty of marketing agencies and large corporations that need someone with strong writing skills. Tech companies need people who can write technical manuals clearly and concisely. And of course, being a freelance business writer is one of the easiest jobs to have: you only need a laptop and a wifi connection and you can do it from literally anywhere in the world.
Take stock of your interests and passions, and then start talking to people who do this sort of thing professionally. Ask them for informational interviews and find out how they got into that field. (Seriously, go read that article. It will tell you everything you need to know.) If you can have face-to-face meetings with them, great. If not, see if they'll talk to you on the phone for a little while.
Start networking with people who are even tangentially related to that field. Find out who else they know, and meet with as many of those people as you can. If nothing else, you'll learn that you don't actually want to go into that work. But if you're fortunate, you may end up meeting someone who will have an opportunity that lets you do exactly what you love and make a living doing it.
If you're not sure about your career yet, don't worry (yet). Just look for a way to get paid for what you love to do, make sure you have adaptable skills that will let you progress into the future, and be prepared to change careers two or three times in your life. If you can do all these things, you'll wind up with a career you can enjoy and one that you'll hardly think of as work.
"I consider myself to be quite good at networking, and this course gave me quite a few new tools for my toolbox! I put Dave Delaney's approach to the test in selecting and attending a conference less than 2 weeks ago, and I landed a new client. Now that's an amazing ROI! Thanks Dave!" - Lesley Antoun.
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Erik Deckers is the president of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing agency with clients throughout the United States. He is also the co-author of Branding Yourself, No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine. Erik has been blogging since 1997, and a newspaper humor columnist since 1994. He has written several radio and stage plays, and numerous business articles. Erik was the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL, and now serves on their board of directors.