Did I Choose the Wrong Career?

Have you chosen the wrong career? Every day I get calls and emails from people who are convinced that they made a huge mistake in their career choice, and want help finding the way to the right one. Why do so many people wind up making poor career choices? And why do so many people, realizing their error, NOT make more of an effort to course correct?

Family – 

In most families parents send subtle hints about which careers they find valuable, meaningful, orpraiseworthy, as well as those which are not. Many children move past wanting to be professional athletes, rock stars or astronauts, but then their parents, peers and teachers begin to exert influence — maybe before young people even know where their inclinations lie*. Perhaps it’s a deprecating remark about a hedge fund manager characterized as “greedy”, or a lawyer as “slippery”, a social worker as a “goody-goody,” or a teacher “wasting her talents on little kids”. And of course there are more overt statements about which careers are worthwhile: “There are so many doctors in our family because we believe in helping those less fortunate,” or “Accountants are always in demand” or “actors don’t make a decent living”.

Culture – 

Our culture sends us messages all the time about desirable careers. TV, movies, books, magazines, and of course more recently social media, paint pictures of careers that change over time – just think about the difference in portrayal of the advertising industry represented by Darrin in “Bewitched” or by Don Draper in “Mad Men” – both set in the 1960s. In recent years, however, there has been a decided shift in media content to the superficial, and that is reflected in the attitudes of young Americans: eighty-one percent of 18- to 25-year-olds surveyed in a Pew Research Center poll released a few years back said getting rich is their generation’s most important or second-most-important life goal; 51% said the same about being famous. When respondents were asked to explain why these numbers were so high, they cited magazines like People and Us, reality TV shows, the Apprentice, Paris Hilton, and Kim Kardashian.

What’s particularly sad about these numbers is less the frivolous sources that inspired them and more the indisputable fact that being rich or famous contributes only temporarily to one’s happiness; the buzz soon fades.

Inertia –

If you’ve spent seven years and a quarter of a million dollars pursuing a B.A. and a J.D. it’s not a surprise that you’d be reluctant to walk away from the law as a career path. And how exactly do you explain to your friends and family that all that time and money was some kind of mistake? But just as in the world of investing, it makes no sense to look at your sunk costs; rather you should be focusing on the best decision you can make moving forward.

Purpose –

Having your career contribute to a sense of purpose in your life is a highly desirable goal. That’s why so many people (particularly in Washington DC) gravitate towards organizations that serve the public good or promote a cause that’s meaningful to them, whether in government or non-profit work. Yet people often find that working for an organization whose purpose they admire may not in fact contribute very much to their sense own sense of purpose. Someone concerned about the environment who takes a job at the EPA might find themselves frustrated with how little impact they were having in the real world. Someone committed to third world economic development might be dismayed by the bureaucracy at the IMF or the World Bank.

What to Do?

First, examine whether your disatisfaction is truly related to the field you’ve chosen, as opposed to the specific organization or people you’re working for. Many clients who have come to me looking to switch careers have found that changes can be made in their current work situations that dramatically improve job/career satisfaction. But let’s say you are unable to make enough meaningful change to warrant sticking with your career. By all means begin the process of exploring alternatives (a process I’ve blogged a lot about, and with which I’d enjoy helping). But keep in mind that “even if you do find a better career fit, don’t expect it to be a panacea. Your new job won’t always be fun-filled and satisfying. Much of work is spent performing tedious activities that would not be at the top of your list if you had a choice.”* It might well be worth considering looking outside of the work arena to fulfill unmet needs – parenting or volunteering, for example.

*From “The True Calling that Wasn’t,” article in the July 17, 2010 edition of the New York Times written by Phyllis Korkki.