The topic of this post is was inspired by a question that my 11-year-old son posed to me: “Baba (as he calls me), how can I know what career to choose?” As I know other parents would feel, the question in and of itself made me feel proud :-). After that moment of pride, I had to devise an answer worthy of the question. I dedicate this post not just to my two boys, but also to my wonderful nieces and nephews in the US and Egypt.
While I admire the Utopian guidance frequently heard these days, “you can and should be whatever you want to be,” I’m afraid I’m a bit too pragmatic to pass that on to my son. I truly believe that there are choices we must make, many of them rather difficult, that shape our opportunities. If one chooses and seeks a less-than-ideal (for him or her) career, he’ll be fighting an uphill, career-long battle for success. Instead, pragmatism tells me there are four considerations that could make that path a bit more paved and less steep.
Not surprisingly, I advised him to consider careers where his natural talents would be beneficial. While talent alone isn’t enough to ensure success, it certainly facilitates it. The hardest aspect of this consideration, frankly, is ascertaining where one’s talents lie. I must admit, it’s taken me years to realize and acknowledge my strengths and weaknesses. My advice here is to seek a trusted, objective adviser (i.e., don’t ask your mom or dad as they think you’re perfect :-)) who can provide you constructive input on your strengths and weaknesses.
Would it not be miserable to pursue a career one isn’t interested in? Interest must play a role in success as an interested person is an engaged person. Talent combined with interest is a formula for great success. Interest is quite a bit easier to self-diagnose than is talent: most young people can imagine a career choice (e.g., doctor, programmer, accountant, ballet dancer) and have an accurate gut instinct as to the career’s appeal to them.
This third consideration is frequently ignored: if there isn’t demand for one’s chosen career, it’s once again a bit of an uphill battle to establish oneself. After all, we aren’t talking about choosing a hobby (in which case demand isn’t a factor) but, rather, a career with earning potential and long-term implications on one’s prospects and the prospects of their families. To assess demand, one must try, with the help of a mentor, to project the future of industries. In another post, I’d like to address this topic as I think it’s an interesting one: what skills will be in high demand in 10, 20, or 30 years from now?
4. Quality of Life
Finally, one must not forget that the first three considerations are offset by arguably the most important of factors: the quality of life implied by the choice of profession or career. Here, I don’t mean the financial remuneration of the choice but, rather, the work-related aspects of a decision. Many professions require near full-time travel (or even having to reside in specific geographies where specialized work is centralized), others demand serious physical risks be taken, others yet imply very little human interaction. This is a very personal decision as many of my colleagues are much more fond of travel than me; others love the exhilaration they derive from a job that requires constant danger and risk. I’m simply too boring for any of that :-).
Putting It All Together
So, how could a young person evaluate their choices? The tried-and-true approach of a decision matrix isn’t a bad idea. Something like this, perhaps:
Talent Interest Demand Quality of Life TOTAL
C. Software Salesperson
D. Ballet Dancer
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