What Career Is Right for Me? Find Out in 12 Helpful Steps
By Luke Redd
| Last Updated March 24, 2020
Almost everyone has struggled to answer the question, "What career is right for me?" Quiz any working adult about this issue and chances are good that he or she has grappled with the question before, maybe several times. After all, figuring out how to earn a living is one of the biggest parts of deciding what to do with your life.
Making a decision of this magnitude is rarely easy. The potential options frequently aren't obvious. And trying to explore every possible alternative is impractical. (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks more than 570 different occupations, yet its list is still incomplete.) Plus, it's hard to know whose advice to follow. Well-meaning people are often unable to separate their own biases, interests, and abilities from the suggestions that they offer. And they usually don't have to deal with the consequences of any poor advice that they've given.
At the same time, answering a question as big as "What should my career be?" requires a lot more than just basic self-reflection. It takes time and patience and a commitment to taking actions that might, at first, feel uncomfortable. It requires immersing yourself in an active process of discovery rather than worrying and waiting passively for the right answer to reveal itself.
It's true: "I don't know what career I want" is a common and normal refrain. But you don't have to be chained by that uncertainty. You can find a path that offers fulfillment and unexpected rewards. You just have to be willing to take steps that a lot of other people choose to ignore.
What Is a Career, Anyway?
People often say that they want careers, not just jobs. But how are those things different? What does career mean? Here's a simple definition:
A career is any occupation that offers chances for progression and is undertaken by someone over an extended period of his or her life. A person might have several different jobs (i.e., different employers) over the course of the same career.
For example, nursing is an occupational choice that offers opportunities for career advancement. With additional training and certification, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) can become a registered nurse (RN). And an RN can advance into a management or specialty role. That progression happens within the same occupational area (nursing). But throughout a single career, the same nurse might go from a job in a hospital to a job in a nursing home to a job in a college or university.
Or consider another example. Somebody with a graphic design career might enter the field by working for an advertising agency, change jobs and work for a magazine, and change jobs again to work as part of an in-house marketing department for a large corporation. He or she might even advance to become an art director and keep changing jobs as better opportunities arise. But all of those jobs are part of the same career.
That's why a lot of people only have jobs, not careers. They might change jobs, but they bounce around different occupations and don't advance within just one. To have a career, you generally need to stay committed to a single occupational area for a significant amount of time.
How to Know What Career Is Right for You
You've probably already come to the conclusion that a good answer to "What career should I have?" is not going to show up without putting in some effort. Relying only on your assumptions and other people's suggestions isn't going to cut it. So you need an effective process to follow. Taking a systematic approach makes it more likely that you'll discover a suitable path forward.
At the same time, it's helpful to keep in mind that no career-planning process is going to be perfect. That's because, for most people, perfect occupations don't exist. Regardless of what vocation you choose, you'll probably find that some aspects of it won't necessarily align with your ideal set of attributes. So it's often important to temper your expectations a little. You might not find "the one right career" that is perfect in every way.
After all, what is career development if not a journey? It's an evolving process that usually results in multiple outcomes over the course of a person's life. It requires that you keep learning and transitioning to new opportunities as your preferences and circumstances change.
That's why choosing and developing a career that offers fulfillment will require focusing on your inner human qualities, not just on outside factors. You'll need to be honest with yourself throughout the whole process. Acknowledge your weaknesses as well as your strengths and use them to sharpen your focus and refine your options.
Are you ready to take the first steps?
1. Try to Relax
It's normal to feel confused, anxious, and afraid when you're faced with choosing a career to pursue. But allowing yourself to feel stressed or pressured to make a decision will probably hinder your ability to get the most out of this process. You may become resistant to good ideas, too blinded by fear to see the opportunities.
Think about it: There's no reason to panic just because you're currently saying, "I don't know what to do for a career." It's simply the beginning of the process. It only feels scary because it means that change is in your future. If you give into that fear, you'll probably choose the path of least resistance, which might not lead to a place you like.
Strive to embrace the unknown. Channel your curiosity and turn the process into an adventure. You get to be an explorer. So don't try to arrive at a destination right away. Building a career is about making a lot of smaller decisions as part of a larger journey. Instead of starting with "What career is best for me?" begin with "I wonder what amazing things I'm about to discover."
Let surprises happen.
2. Learn What Makes People Truly Happy in Their Careers
A survey from March 2016 revealed that about 66 percent of American workers feel unhappy or disengaged in their jobs. Have they all been chasing the wrong priorities? Not necessarily. Many of them just got stuck with bad employers. But it is likely that a lot of them have made errors in choosing what to focus on during their career and job searches.
Trying to predict what will make you happy in the future is often a fool's errand. A lot of psychological research proves that people are frequently wrong about the factors that will lead to their happiness. And career-related factors like salary, prestige, and following your passion are not necessarily the big generators of happiness that we think they are.
So focusing too much on something like what career makes the most money might not be the wisest move if your goal is to have a fulfilling professional life. (Although it is usually a basic necessity for a comfortable lifestyle, a good salary is often just the icing, not the cake.)
What are career goals good for if you've overlooked the factors that are more likely to result in jobs that make you happy? According to various studies, some of the most common contributors to real job and career satisfaction include:
- Having a sense of independence and control
- Helping other people fix or solve their problems
- Doing work that creates feelings of being "in the flow"
- Working with people you like
- Performing work that feels challenging yet meaningful
- Using skills that you're good at
- Getting to work on a variety of different projects and tasks
- Receiving clear expectations and constructive feedback
- Doing work that produces clear results and provides a sense of accomplishment
- Working during hours that fit your preferred lifestyle
- Getting to use your own core strengths (such as creativity, compassion, or leadership)
The bottom line is that happiness is often derived more from what you contribute to the world—as well as from your day-to-day working conditions—than from your salary, job title, or connection to your strongest interests.
For example, imagine that you are super-passionate about Hollywood movies and got a high-paying job at a major film studio. Sounds terrific, right? But what if you ended up hating the people you work with, had no control over your work, and had to help produce boring or meaningless movies that nobody wanted to watch? Chances are, you wouldn't be very happy. How long would you be willing to stick it out while hoping for something better?
Think deeply about where you place your focus. It matters.
3. Rank Your Priorities and Motivations
Your priorities play a significant role in determining your destiny. So, based on what you've learned from the previous step, start making a list of factors that might contribute to your career happiness. Write down as many as you can think of. Then spend some time ranking them from most important to least important—based on your honest feelings, not the opinions of your parents, friends, or anyone else. This list is only for you. And you don't have to share it.
Remember that the day-to-day aspects and overall purpose of a career might have the most impact on your level of satisfaction. But if you are very driven by money, prestige, or your biggest interests, then it's still perfectly fine to give those high rankings. Just ensure that you've given fair and adequate consideration to all of the other factors before you do. (People often spend so much time researching what careers make the most money that they completely ignore other aspects that might be even more important to them.)
One way to avoid getting tunnel vision on shiny aspects like money or prestige is to write your own obituary. Stop asking, "What should I do for a career?" and start asking, "What will people be saying about me at my funeral?"
Write about yourself as if you've lived well into old age. How have you contributed to the lives of other people? What have you accomplished? What will you be remembered for? What have you valued the most about life? What do you regret doing? What do you regret not doing?
From this perspective, what is a career objective if not an opportunity to state who you truly want to become? It might just change the way you rank your biggest priorities.
4. List All of Your Skills and Interests
Here's another step that requires plenty of honest self-reflection. Think about all of the other stuff that you already know about yourself. And, for now, don't worry about trying to answer, "What career should I choose?" Put that question away.
Start by writing down of all your existing talents and abilities, regardless of how mundane some of them seem. Even your smallest aptitudes can provide useful clues about what might be worth pursuing. And don't ignore your personality traits; they can often be transformed into valuable transferrable skills. Here are just a few examples of the many potential skills and traits that people often include on their lists:
- Reading and writing
- Active curiosity and learning
- Problem solving
- Analytical thinking
- Social perceptiveness
- Compassion and empathy
- Teaching others
- Coordinating actions
- Troubleshooting computer issues
- Fixing mechanical objects
- Researching information
- Public speaking
- Managing time
- Organizing details
- Caring for children
- Embracing risk
- Thinking creatively
This list of examples is far from complete, and you might only possess a few of the skills and traits on it. The point is to think about everything that you can already do. And ask yourself this: Are you more extroverted or introverted? Your answer could play a big role in determining whatever path you eventually choose.
After listing your current skills and traits, do the same thing for your current interests. Think about everything that fascinates you about the world and write it down. Include the areas that contain your biggest hobbies or passions (e.g., music, sports, art, science, social justice, animal welfare, gardening, etc.). Also, include the people you most admire, along with why you admire them. What do you daydream about? What makes you feel most alive? What do you enjoy talking about? What do you enjoy learning about?
Once you have both lists, spend some time highlighting the items that are currently the most prominent in your life. Which skills are you best at? Which personality traits most define you? Which interests are you most passionate about? These items represent a big part of who you are right now, but not necessarily who you will be in the future.
So create an additional list that includes all of the skills that you think you'd like to acquire or get better at. And include potential new interests as well. Think back to your obituary. What are the missing ingredients that will help take you from who you are today to who you want to leave this world as?
5. Enlist Some Outside Help
Other people who know you well may be able to point out skills, personality traits, and interests that you missed. After all, it's easy to get so caught up in this process that you overlook even the most basic or obvious things about yourself. Your most trusted friends, family members, teachers, and coworkers might also perceive some of your abilities in a more positive way than you do.
So don't be afraid to ask them to share their thoughts. Just try to keep the focus more about your skills and traits and less about answers to "What career should I pursue?" They might offer suggestions—which is fine—but you will be the one who ultimately gets to decide on a direction. In this step, you're just trying to gather information about who you are and how other people see you.
Other outside resources can also be helpful, such as personality and aptitude tests. They are plentiful online. But you might get the most out of tests that are recommended by an experienced and qualified career advisor or school counselor. A lot of quizzes and tests are designed more for entertainment purposes, whereas others have been developed more scientifically and may provide more accurate and useful results.
6. Brainstorm and Research Several Career Options
This step is where you finally get to start exploring potential answers to "What is the best career for me?" Using everything you've learned and gathered up to this point, you can now begin identifying occupations that are good matches for certain skills, interests, personality traits, and happiness factors.
It helps to give yourself a basic framework based on general job types. That way, you can more easily visualize where you might fit in. For example, consider breaking potential careers into the following categories:
- Hands-on—These vocations involve doing work that is very practical and tangible, often outside of an office setting. Think of the skilled trades (like carpentry, electrical work, and HVAC repair). Or consider culinary occupations, outdoor occupations (like landscaping) or animal-related occupations (like veterinary technology and dog training).
- Social—Helping and working directly with other people is often the main feature of occupations in this category. Think of careers in healthcare (like respiratory therapy and radiography), social services (like addictions counseling), or education (like teaching and child development).
- Artistic—Creativity is a major driver of these occupations. All kinds of career options exist in art and design and digital media, such as animation, fashion design, interior design, photography, music production, acting, video game design, and web design.
- Investigative—In this category, occupations tend to mostly involve finding answers, examining ideas, and researching problems. Many career options are available in areas related to science, journalism, information technology (like computer security), and the legal and criminal justice field (like criminal investigations and private detective work).
- Routine—These occupations are often good for people who prefer information-based work that comes with clear rules, defined procedures, and consistent details to look after. Possibilities include vocational areas like accounting, administrative assisting, medical coding, and medical office administration.
- Enterprising—Making decisions, taking risks, or leading or persuading people are what many occupations in this category have in common. You can find an abundance of career options in fields such as advertising, business management, entrepreneurship, event management, fashion merchandising, health care management, hospitality management, marketing, law enforcement, public relations, and real estate.
You'll probably find that a lot of occupations overlap between two or more categories. But using this framework is a good way to keep all of your options organized and to more easily target areas worth exploring further. If you want to, you can even create your own categories and classify potential career options a little differently.
Try to brainstorm several career possibilities, and include some of the best suggestions that you've received from other people. Then start researching each one.
Online government resources such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook and O*NET OnLine provide reliable information about many different aspects of each vocation, including average salaries, job-growth projections, typical job duties, work settings, educational requirements, and necessary traits and skills. The website you're on right now also offers a lot of in-depth career information, so it's worth exploring the many articles and program pages.
As you explore, try to identify occupations that include some of the aspects you've listed or prioritized. See if you can visualize what a typical day might be like in each occupation.
Also, it's always a smart idea to research career options that are outside of your comfort zone. Career development is about growth and change. It's normal to be afraid of new possibilities. Don't limit your options just because you don't yet have the skills or traits you'll need. Many of the happiest professionals are the ones who had the courage to try things that scared them.
7. Don't Avoid Unwanted Information
It's easy to become so enthusiastic about certain career possibilities that you ignore or minimize any information that might dampen your excitement. But it's always important to embrace the whole picture. Remaining willfully ignorant might feel blissful today, but it might also impact your future in ways you never wanted.
For example, think about all of the young amateur athletes who have their sights set on becoming professional athletes in the sports they love. Many of them believe that they can attain that dream, but the reality is that only a very small percentage of them ever will. It's an extremely competitive career sector—a fact that many choose to ignore. As a result, they often don't give themselves any other options.
Lofty aspirations and vibrant enthusiasm are great. Just make sure you know exactly what you might be getting into while also keeping multiple possibilities alive. Research everything with your eyes wide open.
By the same token, don't get discouraged just because a path that appeals to you might require a larger educational investment than you bargained for. Think more long-term. And remember that you might qualify for a variety of financial aid options, which could help you along that journey.
8. Narrow the Possibilities
At a certain point, information gathering stops being helpful. So if you feel pretty good about a relatively large list of options that you've researched, then it's probably time to start singling out just a few. (But don't worry; you can always come back to your full list if the options you've selected don't turn out to be as appealing as you initially thought.)
Try to pick between three to seven career options for further exploration. Choose the possibilities that resonate with you and most closely match your existing (or desired) skills, traits, interests, and priorities.
9. Gather Real-World Intelligence
Many career seekers completely overlook this step even though it might be the most powerful one of all. Nothing beats firsthand experience. And most working professionals would probably feel flattered if you asked them to share personal insights about the fields they work in. How else are you going to discover the truth about each career option on your list?
That's why, if you're trying to figure out what to do at a career fair, it's worth your time to see whether you can schedule a few informational interviews while you're there. Some of the attending company, organization, or school representatives might be able to put you in touch with people who already have careers in the occupations you're considering. Plus, who knows? You might even find a mentor.
That kind of networking can also lead to highly beneficial opportunities that let you experience what different occupations are really like. For example, you might get the chance to shadow working professionals or try things out as a freelancer, intern, or part-time employee over a summer holiday, during a gap year, or during other periods of free time.
Try as many things as you can.
10. Give Your Subconscious Time to Figure Things Out
For this step, it's essential that you stop consciously trying to answer "What is the right career for me?" After doing so much self-reflection, information gathering, and real-world investigative work, it's time to turn things over to the subconscious part of your mind. Give yourself a break and let things simmer—for at least two weeks, or even a whole month if you can.
Take long walks. Go for hikes. Travel someplace new. Delve into your hobbies. As individual thoughts bubble up about potential careers, pay attention to how each one makes you feel. Just don't overthink anything.
Eventually, you may experience an "a-ha" moment or a dream or something else that reveals the direction you should take (or at least narrows the possibilities further). Go with it. At this point, you can probably trust the gifts you receive from your intuition.
11. Make a Decision and Give It a Go
If you're still left with a few career options, then it's time to make an educated guess about what to move forward with. Try ranking each option again based on your intuition. But don't allow yourself to get paralyzed by additional analysis. This step is about having the courage to make the final call.
So make your decision and start supporting it with real action (such as by finding nearby schools where you can get the necessary training you might need).
12. Keep Refining Your Career Objectives
The world is always changing, so you might as well change along with it. What are your career aspirations going to look like in 10 or 20 years? It's impossible to predict. Maybe you'll find ways to incorporate more of your passions into the career you have. Or maybe you'll be training for a new career that doesn't even exist right now.
That's why it's important to stay adaptable while evaluating your career objectives every so often. It's OK to change directions. After all, you're an explorer.
The adventure never ends.
Make a Life-Changing Discovery
Going through the process of answering, "What career is right for me?" can revitalize your sense of purpose as well as your optimism about the future. And it can lead to the realization that you'll need an appropriate education to make your aspirations happen. Thankfully, it's easy to find career-oriented schools that offer programs online or near your home. Simply put your zip code into the following search tool to generate a customized list of training options!