Exploring Career Choices

There are so many choices today that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the vast array of career possibilities.  Paradoxically the more choices people have, the more they paralyze themselves trying to find the right choice, and the less satisfied they are with their eventual decision.

Too often people approach career decisions with a mindset that doesn’t serve them.  This is the mindset that says, “I should invest the up-front effort to make the correct career choice now.  Maybe my career won’t be the same forever, but if I make the right choice, I can at least enjoy a great career for the next 10 years or so.  If I make a bad decision, it could screw me up for a long time.”

The problem with this mindset is that it places too much of a barrier between decision and action, as if they’re two distinct phases in the career development process.  In reality these phases are rarely distinct.  Career decisions are ongoing, and you’re free to change directions at any moment.

Go outside

Yesterday Erin and the kids and I went to see Bee Movie.  (This paragraph may contain a spoiler or two, so skip it if you don’t want to know the details of the film.)  In the movie the main character, voiced by Jerry Seinfeld, has to choose a job for himself, one he’ll keep for the rest of his life.  He’s overwhelmed by the decision, so he procrastinates.  Eventually he goes on a ride-along with the “pollen jockeys” to fly outside the hive for the first time, which leads to a winding exploration of the outside world.  This exposes him to new ideas, and he does what no bee has done before.  At the end of the movie, his final career choice seems to be ”animal attorney,” but he also appears to have the freedom to continue flying with the pollen jockeys.

I thought Bee Movie’s cheesy humor needed some work, but I liked the message:  If you don’t like the career choices in front of you, don’t decide.  Go outside and explore, and let your intuition guide you. 

What many people don’t realize, however, is that this exploration never ends.  Exploring is an integral part of any fulfilling career, not merely something you do before making the choice.  No career choice is final.

If you’re feeling stuck in your career choices, maybe none of them are right for you.  Go outside your comfy hive.  Do some of the things you’ve always wanted to try, even if they don’t seem relevant to your career.  This exploration will serve you well.

Exploring vs. deciding

A career is just a hobby you’ve committed to exploring more deeply.  You don’t need to make the perfect choice, since the enjoyment comes from the exploration, not the outcome.  If you don’t enjoy the hobby, dump it and try something else.  If you like the hobby, stick with it for a while.

When I started learning to program in BASIC at age 10, I wasn’t thinking about making a lifelong career choice.  I didn’t care about job titles, salary, or benefits.  I did it because I enjoyed it.  By age 12 I was spending hours working through books like Dr. C. Wacko’s Guide to Designing and Programming Your Own Atari Computer Arcade Games (undoubtedly the most fun and original programming book I’ve ever read). 

Further down the road, a career in game development became a natural extension of my hobby.  As I made additional career decisions, I asked myself, “What would be fun and interesting to do next?” as opposed to “What permanent career choice should I make?”  Even when I started working in game development, I never expected it to be permanent.

Joy outward

If you focus on exploring what you enjoy, even if it’s just as a hobby, you may discover the following progression:

  1. Enjoyment – If you do what you enjoy, you’ll tend to keep doing it.  A fun hobby becomes a habit.
  2. Skill – If you do it long enough, you’ll get good at it.  A long-term habit becomes a skill.
  3. Service – If you share your skill with others, you’ll provide value to them.  A skill becomes a service.
  4. Income – If you provide enough value to enough people, you’ll be able to generate income from it.  A service becomes a career.

This process works whether you’re self-employed or traditionally employed, and the steps may overlap as well.

Here are a couple specific examples of how this worked in my own life:

Example 1: Game programming

  1. Enjoyment – I spent years exploring computer programming as a hobby during my pre-teen and teen years.  I kept it up for so long because it was fun.
  2. Skill – By putting in the time, going through dozens of books, and writing lots of small programs, I developed proficiency as a programmer.  This took years, but again I did it because I enjoyed it.
  3. Service – During high school I started sharing programs I’d written to help students with their math homework.  One even got published in the school newspaper.  I invested hundreds of hours writing, refining, and sharing these programs.  I never charged for them, but I provided value by using my skill to help others.  The limitation was that I only shared my work within my own school.
  4. Income – During college I started working on my first commercial game for a local studio and finally started generating income from my hobby.  After that I started my own games business and ran it for more than 10 years.

Notice that these phases overlapped quite a bit, but all four were present.

Example 2: Blogging

In this example the 4 steps of enjoyment, skill-building, service, and income are more jumbled, but once again all are still present.

  1. Skill – In school I never liked writing and tried to avoid it whenever possible.  However, I had a very demanding high school English teacher who pushed me to improve my writing skills.  He didn’t get me to enjoy writing, but I did learn a great deal from him.  With a lot of hard work, I improved from a C+ on my first high school paper to eventually earn As in his classes.  Writing college papers was a breeze compared to his assignments, which included writing an essay without using the letter E.
  2. Enjoyment – It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that I began to enjoy writing.  When I started programming my first web pages in HTML in 1995, I would code the HTML and write the page content as I went along.  My enjoyment of programming began to infect my writing.
  3. Service – In 1999 I became active in the Association of Shareware Professionals and began writing articles for their newsletter.  I didn’t get paid, nor did I write those articles for PR purposes, but I received positive feedback on them.  I added the articles to my web site, so non-ASP members could read them too, and then I wrote and posted a few more.  During the early 2000s, those articles grew in popularity and spread outside the programming community.  They were still completely free as well as ad-free.  Finally in 2004 I launched StevePavlina.com as a place to share even more articles with a broader audience.  For the first 5 months, the site didn’t generate any income, but I just kept writing for free.  By this time I was really enjoying the creative act of writing as well as hearing feedback from people as they applied the ideas.
  4. Income – In February 2005, I put the first Adsense ads on StevePavlina.com.  At the time I honestly thought it was a borderline lame idea, but I agreed to try it as an experiment after several readers suggested it.  It made $53 the first month, enough that I could sense its long-term potential.  By the end of the year, the income had grown by a factor of 20, and it kept going up from there as I optimized the site and added new income sources.

Notice that in this case, I took advantage of a skill I started developing earlier, but the enjoyment of writing still came before the income.  At the time I started developing my writing skills, the career of blogging didn’t even exist.

From hobby to career

While you can experience these steps in any order, I think enjoyment is the best place to begin, since clarity there will help you with the other three parts.  Rarely do I see people achieve happy and fulfilling careers by going after what they think will earn them the most money if it isn’t something they’d already enjoy doing for free.

What do you already enjoy doing for free?  What do you pay money for the privilege of doing?  For every money-draining hobby, someone is already making good money by using their skill to provide a valuable service.

For example, many people love playing computer games.  Some found a way to turn their hobby into a public service by launching game review sites, game download sites, game discussion forums, and similar businesses.  Now publishers send them all the games they could want for free.  When they don’t want to write the reviews themselves, they recruit other gamers to write for them.

Sure it takes a bit of work to turn a hobby into a career, but if you’re doing it for free anyway, why not find it way to share your skill with others, provide a useful service, and get paid for it?

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© 2007 by Steve Pavlina. If you find these ideas helpful, please leave a donation for Steve so you can enjoy the spirit of giving too.