Starting at a young age, most of us are questioned about what we want to be “when we grow up,” as if we should all have some singular career goal that we work towards our entire life. Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that. And unlike previous generations, many people don’t take a job right out of high school and college and then stick with it until retirement. We’re encouraged to find our “career path”—whatever that means—and follow it, but where do you even start? Here are some ideas.
Think about what energizes you
This one’s the first obvious step—we all want to enjoy and actually like our careers. (Perhaps the biggest sign you’re on the wrong path is if you dread talking about your job.) While passion isn’t the only requirement for being content in your career, many would say it’s still essential, if only because passion is what keeps you going even through the tough times. You also may want to ask yourself whether there is a job you would for free.
Keep in mind what you’re good at
Maybe you don’t feel that passionate about any specific career—or you love multiple areas and can’t decide on just one. Then it’s time to think about your personality and focus on the skills you have. When in doubt, you can apply the “Don’t do what you love. Do what you are” advice.
Take a test
Well, you say, what if you don’t know what you’re good at or even what you’re interested in? Career assessment tests in college or even high school help narrow down a field (perhaps with the Myers-Briggs personality index…but take that with a grain of salt), but if it’s been a while since you took those tests, there are other kinds of assessment tests you can take.
This one from Rasmussen College matches your self-reported skills and interests with potential jobs. (And they also have a salary and job growth interactive chart.) For potential programmers, SwitchUp recommends a coding career based on your preferences. There’s also collections of other career tests.
Try an internship
If you have flexibility when it comes to salary, an internship could be a great way to test out an industry or type of career—and eventually get a full-time job (especially if you have no prior experience). Even if it doesn’t turn into a job or you find out it’s the wrong career for you, an internship can help build your network—from which you can get career and job advice. (Not all internships are just about picking up coffee. For example, Google internships, while hard to come by, put you to real work.)
Find a mentor
A mentor could help you take your career to the next level and give you the insider insight to help you make sure you’re on the right path. Here’s how to ask someone to be your mentor. Once you’ve secured a good one, take advantage of everything they’re willing to offer, including advice, connections, and answering questions about the industry they work in.
If there’s a career you’re already interested in, you might also check to see if any companies or people in that line of work would let you shadow them for a few days to see what it’s really like.
Explore unconventional careers
We all know the popular careers available to us—doctor, lawyer, teacher, computer engineer, police officer, store owner, etc. If you feel uninspired by the typical choices, know that there are thousands of unusual jobs you might not have heard about—hidden, perhaps, in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Handbook.
Ask other people
Perhaps the best way to discover a new career is to ask other people about theirs—assuming you come into contact with people who don’t all work in the same field. Your LinkedIn network (or other social media sites, but especially LinkedIn) might be a good place to start mining for information. Also, don’t forget your local library’s reference librarian can point you to career resources.
Use the G+P+V formula
The perfect career for you would most likely fit the G+P+V formula, which stands for Gifts + Passions + Values. Consider your strengths and passions, as we’ve noted above, and your values—what’s nonnegotiable about the way you work?
Make a career plan
As with most things, your career will benefit if you have goals and a plan accordingly. Maybe you think you want to be a writer, but the next step after that is editing. (Do you really want to do that?) Or maybe you want to transition from being an editor to a restaurant owner. (How are you going to get there?) Map out where you want to go, with concrete milestones, as if it were a four-phase project.
See your career as a set of stepping stone, not a linear path
Of course, all these plans and ideas are never set in stone. Also, keep in mind that you may start out very excited about a certain career, only to fall out of love with it later on. If that happens, there are ways to get re-inspired at work.
More than anything, remember that your career is a marathon, not a sprint and it can turn out to be a very winding road, knitted together from all of your experiences into, hopefully, a career worth having.
This story was originally published in August 2014 and was updated on February 4, 2021 to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.