Quick Guide: How to Find Your Perfect Career (And Why So Many Are Doing it Wrong)
“If you live for the weekends and vacations, your sh*t is broken.”
– Gary Vaynerchuk
When you don’t know what you want to do, your search can take you an inch in a million directions instead of a mile in the one that matters. What you call “searching” is not progress; you’re treading water. You are exerting a lot of energy to keep your head above water, but you’re not getting any closer to shore.
If you’ve read the last couple blog posts (Why you need a purpose and How to find it), you’re already thinking about the first step: Your purpose. For those of you who are just joining us, let me get you up to speed. Your purpose is not what you do, it is why you do it. Too often, people confuse what they do with why they do it, and when they finish a project or lose interest in what they are working on, they lose the motivation to continue. When you know why you are working, you will always have one ear close to the ground, so you can find your next “what” as you complete the one you’re currently on.
You may only know the large brushstrokes of your purpose right now, and that’s ok! Because you have what’s important: a direction. With this knowledge, you can start exploring the two other sides of the Perfect Career Pyramid.
To fulfill your purpose and find your Perfect Career, you need skills to carry out what you want to do, and you need an income to support your desired lifestyle. That’s what we’re looking at in this post: why you need all three, and how they interact with each other.
If it still sounds intimidating, rest assured; everyone goes through some troubleshooting as they learn where those boundaries are. The goal shouldn’t be to pin down an exact color-by-number purpose, career, and livable wage—your goal is to narrow your search until you hear all the pieces click in place.
Three Sides of the Pyramid
Let’s dig a little deeper into what each side of the pyramid represents.
Purpose: This is your why. Why do you do what you do? The answer should be what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning or stay up late working on a project. When you are fulfilling your purpose, you feel connected to something bigger than yourself.
Skills: This is your how. How do you do what you do? Do you do it by… Programming? Accounting? Welding? Knowing what medication to prescribe someone that will save their life? Whatever your skills are, this is how you get the job done. Skills can be learned and grown like muscles. My book, Age of Agility, is all about the skills someone needs to transition from school to work or their next step, whatever that may be. Every one of those skills—whether it’s a foundational skill, hard skill, or soft skill—can be grown with practice. Meaning, if you don’t have a skill yet (e.g. how to create a business plan) and want to learn how to do it, there are resources that will teach you how to grow that skill.
Money: This is NOT your what, but it is the result of your what. Your end-product or service ultimately uses or produces money. You need money to enjoy the lifestyle of your choosing, which is, at a minimum, the basics, like food, water, clothes, and shelter. Most of us want other things like a bed, a microwave oven, cheese puffs, and running shoes. But anything above the basics is give or take based on your Basic Survivable Income (more on this next week). Most people want to live a lifestyle where they don’t constantly feel the stress of money and bills. A famous 2010 Princeton University study pegged this number at $75,000/year (now, $83,000 to account for inflation) but income and spending is all subjective because even fancy sports cars parked in front of million-dollar houses get repossessed.
I’ll leave this number up to you.
Too often, people get two sides of the pyramid and think, “Good enough.” But this isn’t horseshoes or hand grenades—it’s your life and overall happiness. Close doesn’t cut it. In fact, it could be a recipe for disaster. Here’s what happens when two sides intersect, but you’re still missing the third.
Golden Handcuffs: No, not those handcuffs. “Golden handcuffs” refers to a job that pays well and utilizes your skills, but you come home every night drained of energy and wake up every morning with a panic attack. In a sentence: You hate your job. And yet, you continue to follow the routine month after month or year after year, because you make a comfortable living and don’t want to risk losing what you have for something you could enjoy more but pays less. Can you feel them on your wrists? If this sounds like you, you are stuck in golden handcuffs.
When you’re stuck in golden handcuffs, you can still get the job done. In fact, you’re good at it. People like the work you do. And you get paid handsomely for it. The problem is, you’re melting away inside, shriveling up like the old person at the gas station who has worked there for 50 years and has permanent dirt in their wrinkles. At work, you spend most of your time thinking about other things you could be doing besides SELLING YOUR SOUL. Your purpose (top of the pyramid) is missing.
On Friday nights when you’re at the pub with your friends, you listen to them talk about their start-ups and hear them excitingly chatter on about how fun and risky and new it is. You don’t want to admit it, but there’s a part of you that wants to join them, that wants to give it all up. After all, having money isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You know, as you have the golden handcuffs to prove it. Sure, you can buy fancy toys (things your start-up, angel-funded friends can’t buy) and go on international vacations, but… you can’t really ever enjoy them because you know that your desk, with your handcuffs and your task list, is waiting for you back at the office.
One day, your friend’s start-up idea gets under your skin and you can’t shake it off. They’re doing something you used to do: Laugh. They’re having fun. How long has it been? Two years? The idea starts rolling around in your head: The pay is… well… not consistent. Sometimes, your friend gets a big project from a well-known client. And then sometimes they don’t get paid, because some clients (also start-ups) close up shop and can’t pay all their bills. BUT, you think to yourself (maybe after one too many fizz drinks with a hint of lime), I could do it. I have enough money in my savings account to take a gamble. I can use my skills AND do something I care about—something that serves my purpose.
You order one more fizz drink and begin typing your letter of resignation. Suddenly, your wrists feel lighter.
Volunteer: Poof! Let’s swing clockwise on the pyramid and look at the intersection of purpose and skills. When you are working a job that fulfills your purpose, you will have a (nearly) bottomless supply of energy to put towards your skills. The result is completing tasks you never imagined you could do, exceeding your expectations. BUT (there is always a but) you will eventually run out of resources because you are not making money. Even if you work for a non-profit, you need donations and people to do the work to power your purpose. If you have a great idea and it fulfills your purpose and utilizes your skills, by all means, pursue it, but maybe only as a hobby until you know it can support your basic survivable lifestyle.
Back to the hypothetical story. You join your friend at their start-up and are beyond ecstatic because you have finally found a job that serves your purpose and uses your skills. Hurray! The only problem is, there’s no health insurance. And your office is in a shared space across town… on Mondays and Wednesdays… from 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. You get to work from home the other days, with the occasional meeting in a noisy café that may or may not have a free table for the five of you. Time goes by and the connection to your work grows deeper. Your co-workers are encouraging and creative and your clients are impressive and friendly. Since you are part of a small company, you get to have meetings with people you weren’t allowed to meet with at your previous employer: VPs of this, Directors of that, Global Heads of one thing or another. You feel fulfilled because the ideas you kept locked away for years are gaining traction, and in doing so, you are contributing to something bigger than yourself.
The only downside is, you’ve been watching your savings account shrink over the last six months. It used to be something you could brag about. Now, you’re wondering if it’s enough to cover next month’s rent if you don’t get paid (again). That’s when you realize, this isn’t the career you dreamed about. You can’t live. The stress of moving money around to pay your bills is nearly as bad as the stress of not liking the work you do. There are times when you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, cursing yourself for giving up your previous job. Sure, you didn’t like what you were doing, but at least you could buy groceries. You realize that what you’re doing isn’t really a job, because there’s no clear exchange of payment for goods and/or services delivered. And because money isn’t changing hands as it should, what you’re really doing is volunteering.
(Don’t get me wrong, volunteering isn’t bad. It’s a great hobby. You get into trouble when you expect to be paid for what was all along a volunteer gig.)
Fantasy: Let’s shift clockwise once more to the intersection of purpose and money. Fantasy is where people are overconfident with their skills to a fault. When it comes time to work, they can’t deliver. The Dunning-Kruger Effect explains why we aren’t great at judging our own skills. Over 100 studies have found that those with the least ability are often the most likely to overrate their skills, rating themselves as high as true experts rate themselves. The reason being, a novice doesn't know what they don't know. As someone learns more about a topic, they learn how much they don't know. Since skills can be learned, they may be able to do the job one day, but if they get the job before they have the skills, they will eventually be let go because they can’t do what’s required of the position.
In an act of desperation, you start applying for jobs that first fulfill your purpose AND pay well. It’s 3 a.m. and you’ve woken up in a cold sweat again and can’t fall back to sleep. Flipping through your news feed, you see job openings in healthcare. You’ve never worked in healthcare, but you like the idea because healthcare has a lot of jobs that fulfill your purpose. Good, good, you think. It’s revolutionary in a way that only exists at 3 a.m. after hours of tossing and turning in bed. In the film version, you are sitting on the edge of your bed, clicking ads on a job board. Your face is illuminated by the blue light of your phone, and you have an unsettled grin that is wobbling back and forth to the rhythm of your grinding teeth. Every job you read, you think: “I can do that!”. You swipe down, then up, then down: “Oh, yes, I definitely can do that,” you think to yourself.
By 5 a.m., you’ve convinced yourself you are fully capable of administering anesthesia, performing open-heart surgery, and participating in some multi-species neural-transplant experimental research program you skimmed through and hit the “apply” before reading all the terms and conditions, AND you feel absolutely comfortable overseeing clinical trials of a new cancer-fighting drug. Welcome to fantasy land. With sweaty fingers and your phone on power-saving battery mode, sleep overtakes your body and you fall into a dark, hard sleep without dreams.
Perfect Career Pyramid
Moving full-circle, let’s see what it looks like when all three sides are aligned. 1) When your job satisfies your purpose, 2) You are able to use your skills, and 3) Your payrate supports a comfortable standard of living, you achieve your Perfect Career. The best part is, when all three criteria are met, your job becomes a career. When you have a career, you are more productive because your stress is only related to the tasks you are working on. You realize that in your past jobs you couldn't completely focus because there was a small piece of your attention that was on the lookout for the missing side of your pyramid.
After five hours of uninterrupted rest, you wake up in the late morning and look at the jobs you frantically applied to. You quickly delete an excited email response from the neurosurgery department the local university sent you and reset your intentions. The insight you had last night was that the field of healthcare allowed many opportunities to fulfill your purpose and use the skills you have, because it is such a huge industry. You begin looking for positions doing similar things to what you are doing now. You find several companies in the area who are hiring, one of them being a newer company who has won an award as a top company to work for in your city. After an interview and tour of the building, you are ready to put your skills to work on projects that fulfill your purpose and provide a livable income.
The following Friday, you are at the pub with your friends, catching them up with details about your new career. As you finish, you can feel the sides of your face: they’re stinging. You’ve been smiling the whole time. You have finally closed the last side of your Perfect Career Pyramid.
Next week, I’ll dive into the money question by answering what it takes to hit your basic survivable income, and how to manage a J-O-B while pursuing your dream side-project.
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @andrewjwilt