Choosing a career and choosing a spouse are two of the biggest decisions we make in our life and thus share many common traits. In this post, we will discuss how to choose a career.
Most of us have one career throughout our lives, while flirting occasionally with other careers. Being a superlearner makes the cost of career choice much lower. For example, I have been an engineer and a programmer, university professor and entrepreneur, worked with finances and patent law, developed medical equipment and now appear to be also working in educational writing and cognitive psychology. The core of all of these activities is the same: I know how to construct great algorithms, and I know how to apply these algorithms to various aspects of life.
If you ask me, the first rule for career choice would probably be defining your core competence. My personal vision of core competence is something that:
- you are good at, hopefully a competitive advantage
- you can learn for your entire life without getting bored
- people will pay for you using it
- you do not get tired doing it 70 hours per week
Some examples of core competence: Anna teaches people, Jonathan pitches/sells, my thesis advisor solving equations, some of my colleagues programming. It is preferable if the core competence is pretty basic, since it is the fundament for other skills. If you build your core competence badly, you may need many years to correct it.
The second rule for career choice would probably be determining the amount of risk you can live with:
- do you need a constant income, or you can wait 20 years for your chance to come?
- are you good with constant stream of small successes, or you need a huge challenge to motivate you?
- if 99% of the people in your profession make minimal wage, would you still take it?
- can you handle a full-time job with 70 hours per week?
- can you handle emotional and physical pressure?
- can you sleep at night without knowing that 5 years from now you will still have a decent job?
There are different forms of stress, and we are all more resilient to some forms on pressure rather than others. Some examples:
- If you choose legal or medical practice, there is a lot of emotional and physical pressure and the cost of failure is very high, but you may earn a lot of money in US.
- If you become a college professor, you will earn very little money for many years, but you will get minimum stress.
- And if you become an engineer/a programmer, you will probably work for many hours per week most of your life.
- If you open your own business, the future may take an ugly turn with very little prior notice.
No job is perfect, but some job may be perfect for you.
This brings us to the third rule of career choice as I see it. The third rule for choosing a career would be to visualize a career path. I suggest that you read this article and try to visualize yourself through all stages of a typical [statistic median] career path. This will probably include learning, internship, years of work till you prove yourself, handling difficult people at your workplace, building a family, getting to expert/manager status, working at the same job for years, being surpassed by more talented/lucky friends, and finally retiring, maybe imaging your tombstone and its inscription. Imagine yourself handling all these situations, there is a good chance something similar will happen to you one way or another. Will you still choose the career path? Not choosing any career path is probably the worst scenario, so you will probably choose something.
If you are serious, try also to “dry run” the career path, like you would drive a car before buying it. Now that you know what you want to do with your life, try learning how to do it. I love this article because it describes a holistic approach to learning. For many positions, you do not need a degree to see what it’s like. You can get basic credentials and then you can simply volunteer or take a para-something job and simply absorb the environment. Do it for months, maybe a year, and see how you like it. The more things you try, the better you will be when you finally choose a career. Now you can start building a full – fledged career with a fancy college degree, you will be motivated to work twice as hard as students around you and you will get nearly-perfect scores for a very simple reason: everything you learn will not be just for exam, but you will understand how and why it is important for your professional future.
You can follow this post at any stage of your career: before college, after college before internship/advanced degree, when having second thoughts about your day job, when retiring from your first career path and choosing what to do next. At each stage your maturity and needs will be different, but the steps to the dream job may be the same.