While going through a transition last year, I thought a lot about the word “career”. In particular, I thought about if the concept of a career, the long-term pursuit of professional goals, actually makes any sense to me.
And over the course of last year I came up with a pretty radical simplification that only four types of career make sense and that everything else is a distraction and not worthwhile pursuing. Behind those four types of careers is really just one big assumption: that knowing what I really want to do in my life is a big, hard and moving question, but that the ultimate purpose of “career” is to answer that question and to enjoy the ride while doing so.
I like the simplicity of the model, because it has helped me tremendously at making decisions. But I can’t shake off the feeling that I’m missing some important pieces and perspectives. So the main purpose of me posting this is to stress-test the idea. What am I not seeing? I am incredibly grateful for your thoughts and critical feedback!
The only 4 types of career that make sense to me
- 1) I choose a career for a specific short-term goal connected to my livelihood and to feel safe.
- 2) I choose a career to find out what my passions could be.
- 3) I choose a career to test if that gut feeling about my passions is actually true or not.
- 4) I choose a career to live my dream and do what I am passionate about.
Reflections, assumptions and criticism
- The types of careers build on top of each other and they are stacked into somewhat consecutive phases. And ultimately there is only one goal: to find out what I’m truly passionate about and eventually start doing that.
- This model doesn’t apply to large parts of humanity as it is based on massive privilege. Everything beyond step 1 only applies to people who have the luxury of not worrying about sheer survival and it therefore doesn’t reflect the reality of a huge percentage of the world’s population. I get that. But in my privileged corner of the world, survival needs are often covered and covered well.
- I find that despite the privilege so many people are stuck in number 1 out of comfort and fears. They are simply used to number 1 and even though it sucks, a journey to find number 4 feels like a huge rabbit hole and a massive risk. What if I don’t find anything? What if I loose my livelihood in the process of it? What if I had to compromise on my lifestyle in order to move from 1 to 2? What if I’m 35 years old and still have no clue what number 2 could be? What if I actually just want something that will look stupid to the outside world? Am I not too old to focus on such fundamental questions? Shouldn’t I just hunker down on number 1 and find my comfort within that? Deeper fears of failure, mortality, not feeling enough as a human being and worrying about what other people think combined with a lack of self-reflection on those topics keep people stuck in number 1. I found this TEDx talk by Khe Hy to be a beautiful description on realizing and slowly overcoming those fears and taking the journey from 1 to 4.
- There are people who know what they want in life. They walk confidently in the direction of their dreams and go straight to number 4. My sister is a great example for that, since young age she has known that she wants to work in the world of opera. And so she has walked that path ever since. Number 2 and 3 were not that important for her, because she simply knew. I envy those people, because I’m not one of them. And I assume most people aren’t like that, either.
- There are people who think they are doing number 4, but it’s an unreflected, unsatisfying dream. They might be living someone else’s dream, not necessarily their own and over time they might realize they need to go back to number 2. This is connected to definitions of success: if society defines success as making a ton of money and rising on a corporate ladder to gain a important sounding title, how can we make sure that the commonly accepted dream is truly ours? I have been there. I thought I was doing number 4, but realized it wasn’t necessarily my own dream I was pursuing, but a dream that sounded good to the outside world.
- I have found some very good reasons to focus on number 1. For example: staying in a job, because you need the visa that it is attached to, otherwise you would have to leave a place and people you love in it. Paying off student debt. Making enough money so you can take care of your kids. Financial responsibilities that come from divorce.
- Number 2 and 3 seem at first to be the same thing, but I think there is a small, yet important distinction. I assume that most of us don’t naturally know what we’re actually passionate about and that at the beginning of a career we first need to go out and explore a variety of options. So number 2 is all about breath of experiences and discovery. You just gotta try a couple of things and see what feels good. Number 3 on the other hand is to circle in on some specific areas and test if these are truly areas of passion. Going deep on a topic and industry. How does it feel to do this every day for the next 10 years?
- There are great reasons why the ultimate goal of life isn’t career at all and therefore the model doesn’t apply in the first place. I totally get that. When looking around in my friend’s circle, kids seem to be the obvious example. They decided to have kids and therefore they don’t give a shit about career, they have found a bigger purpose in life than work. And they’re happy to focus on number 1 career wise, as long as it enables them to focus on what truly matters to them in life, which is outside of work. I relate to that thinking a lot and I can imagine how at different stages in my life things beyond work will take bigger priority. But I don’t assume for now that work will never be an interesting pursuit for me, it’s too backed into self understanding of purpose, my desire to contribute in the world and my ambition.
- I struggle most with the underlying question: is it worthwhile and realistic to expect for myself a life with work that I’m passionate about? Or is all of this just a millennial luxury problem? When I talk to people about this model, people react very differently depending on what generation they are from. And the difference in reaction has to do with the underlying bias: that it is a worthwhile and even necessary pursuit to find something that I love doing in life. Many in the millennial generation tend to agree with it (but their opinions also change as they grow older, become less idealistic and more disillusioned by the realities of the job market). But older generations react to it very strongly, often in a repulsive way. For them, the passion bias comes from a generation that has been spoiled by too good a life, too much comfort, and that ultimately the younger generation has created an artificial problem for itself that does not need to be there. It’s a problem of having too much choice, or in other words, a luxury problem. Here is how I would describe their reactions: “just grow up and do something, don’t overthink it. Work might suck, but don’t fight it, just learn to accept it and work hard, you’re wasting your time searching for the perfect job and perfect opportunity, they don’t exist. You can find happiness or something similar to it in other ways”. This perspective is the one I struggle the most with. Because it exposes my huge privilege to focus on something I am truly passionate about. But it also surfaces the underlying question how much the pursuit of sustained happiness is worthwhile to be number one priority and if it’s an achievable goal or just a goose chase. I do believe there is truth in the older generation’s criticism. It is true that the passion bias comes from a place of privilege. And it is true that in a certain way, struggling with having too many good choices is a funny problem to have. Yet, the opposite conclusion seems strange to me as well: that one simply should accept what life has served up. Maybe someone more mature will see a balanced path between the two approaches?
- Personally I have gone over the course of last year from 1 to 2 and I am entering phase 3. I have identified three areas I’m passionate about and I’m testing them and see how it would feel if I dedicated my next 10 years in pursuing them. In my case, the passions I’m testing are community building, writing and my interest in the intersection of innovation, politics and public service. While I’m not doing anything about the political interests at the moment, I’m building a new company focused purely on building meaningful communities and I’m creating a regular writing practice. I think I really enjoy doing these things, but only actually doing them will tell me if I want to dedicate my life to it and what such a life actually will look like.
- This is a moving target and it’s crucial to make this about the journey, not the final destination. I assume that once I find something that hits home for me in number 4, it might not stay my main priority for the rest of my life. My dream in my thirties might not be my dream in my forties. It might, it might not. Some could argue that this would be a good reason not to even try, that this is a lost cause. But for now, I feel that this pursuit of happiness is worthwhile, as long as I keep in mind that I’m not looking for the one absolute goal in the future, but that hopefully this way the journey from 1 to 2 and 3 to 4 will be enjoyable and full of learnings in itself. That ultimately, life will be about making up the journey from 1 to 4, maybe several times and enjoy the process of doing so.
- I will probably have to go back into number 1 mode throughout my life, as external circumstances come up that will require a stronger focus on financials and other forms of stability.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and perspectives!
This is part of my attempt to capture what I have learned during my last year of transition and to become better at “transitioning”: leaving a job/career/gig with no idea what will come next. You’ll find more stories and insights at www.transitionnotes.com. If you want to be notified of new transition related posts, sign up above. If you’re in transition or interested in learning more about transitioning, join our Facebook group where we share ideas and best practice.