Most of us know people who have always known what they wanted to be when they grew up. “I was 5 years old when I had to have a cast put on my leg—the doctor was so nice and the whole experience was so interesting. I knew then that I wanted to be a doctor.” But, for some of us, the path isn’t so clear or straightforward. We didn’t have an enlightening experience that showed us the way forward, and many high schools still don’t have a dedicated or robust career discovery course.
In my 20-plus years as a career counselor, I have heard a myriad of reasons why people ended up in the job they have:
- “My advisor said I had enough credits to graduate with a degree in psychology, so that’s what I did.”
- “My roommate went to a presentation put on by the law school. I didn’t have any other ideas and lawyers make a lot of money, so I signed up.”
- “I loved my high school chemistry class, mixing chemicals together to see what would happen, and the teacher was great, so I went with chemistry as a major.”
- “I liked kids and I always liked school, so I decided to major in elementary education.”
While there’s nothing “wrong” with any of these thoughts (and they aren’t very different than the person who decided to be a doctor), these people showed up in my office because something hadn’t worked with their career decision-making process. But what? And how do people decide on a career that matches their skills and interests?
Most students graduating high school know the subjects they liked and were good at, and what extra-curriculars they enjoyed and perhaps starred in. Without any objective instruction for what to do with that information going forward, many then enroll in college—a very expensive and time-consuming endeavor. Finally, they make decisions like the ones presented above. It’s the best most 18-year-olds can do! And for students who never liked school, jumping into the job market with no real plan, skills, or specialized training can derail their lifetime earnings.
Here’s the thing: we need to know what work we want to do before we choose the training or education required to reach that goal.
Said another way: Step one, figure out what career you want. Step two, choose your education for that job.
The same steps are undertaken for jobs requiring a college education or any other short-term training or certification. We really need to focus high school graduates (or anyone who never got the opportunity to consider this career decision-making process) on what they want to do for a living—not what college they want to go to.
The question remains: how do we know what we want to do with our lives?
The Importance of Self-Assessment
You need to know your interests, skills, and personal style to make an informed career decision. Knowing these “big three” pieces of information enable us to make a better decision on the education and training we will need to prepare for that career. These assessments not only give you job titles to consider, but also a language for evaluating various options.
Let me give you a personal example of how a missing piece of information led me off-course. I liked kids and school, so the conclusion to be a teacher seemed logical. It made sense to me, especially when my first idea seemed too out of reach. I really wanted to get a Ph.D. in Psychology so I could be a therapist in private practice. But for many reasons—mostly financial—that was out of the question.
I had spent my adolescence babysitting and teaching swimming lessons. I found the process of childhood development fascinating, although I didn’t know that was what I was observing at the time. I loved observing my younger cousins transition from helpless babies to toddlers beginning to walk and talk to children riding bikes and playing kickball. As an elementary school student, I loved helping my teachers with bulletin boards and cleaning the blackboards after school. All of these “signs” seemed to point to teaching.
So, I graduated with my degree in elementary education and got my first job. Within one month, I was driving home in tears on a regular basis, not knowing why I wasn’t enjoying this job one bit! The professors had warned us pre-teachers about how hard the first year would be with no lesson plans, special activities, or bulletin boards that had to be created from scratch. That wasn’t it. I racked my brain, but I just couldn’t put my finger on why I was so unhappy with this job—and it turned out that it was because I didn’t have a language to evaluate this career and its “fit” with who I perceived myself to be.
After only one semester, I left the profession. Sometime later, someone recommended the book, "Please Understand Me," by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates. Inside the book was an assessment very closely related to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator©, which I use frequently now with my clients.
My ‘ah ha!’ moment happened when I read the description of my type and realized that my preference for Introversion might be the reason for my dissatisfaction with teaching. I was gobsmacked! A flood of examples came pouring in. I was frustrated and exhausted with having to focus on my students as a group, rather than as individuals. Every time I said, “Class, turn to page 49”—something inside me recoiled—thinking of this collection of 25 individuals as a group. In "Please Understand Me," I had just learned that Introverts prefer working with people individually. “That’s why!” And then there was the constant rushing from one thing to the next, with no “downtime” to just think. Introverts recharge their batteries with quiet, internal time. It’s like breathing—an absolute requirement for introverts to be healthy.
This one piece of information about myself was missing from my decision to be an elementary school teacher. If I had only known.
If you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up, are an undecided high school or college student, or a high school graduate entering into an unskilled, low-paying job, give yourself the gift of deciphering the mystery of how to decide. Give yourself the language to evaluate career options with confidence. Stop banking on luck and get yourself to a career counselor who can help you know.
Glenda holds monthly career exploration workshops in person in her office in St. Louis, MO. Individual and/or virtual counseling is available if you are out of the area. You can reach her at InspiredLifeWork.com or 314-401-3612.