The Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile soars at 550 miles per hour and can hit a target up to 1,500 miles away. The smart missile’s onboard guidance system uses satellites and global positioning system (GPS) calculations to make course corrections to ensure accuracy within 15 feet of a target. Imagine a missile 20 feet long, almost 2 feet wide, and weighing more than 3,500 pounds flying through the air toward its target. Two coordinates are required to make course corrections—the missile’s location at the moment and the target destination. Course corrections are impossible if either coordinate is missing.
You launched years ago following a trajectory shaped by your birthplace, parents, and education. Do you have a clear target now? Where are you in relation to your desired destination? If you don’t know the answers to both questions, you can’t make needed course corrections. And you will probably not end up where you want to go.
What do you hope to achieve in your life, and what kind of person do you want to be? Unfortunately, most people don’t invest enough time contemplating these questions, even though you are always moving toward something. Be aware of where you are headed and what you are aiming at.
Career decisions are bets on your future
Your career choices are the most crucial coordinates under your control as you move toward your goals. Your direction matters more than your speed, so what you decide to work on is far more important than how hard you work. You can be a fantastic engineer, marketer, or salesperson, but if you work on the wrong problem, take the wrong role, or work at the wrong company, you’re not going to get where you want to go.
Job and career choices impact a lot more than your finances—they have an outsized impact on your happiness and quality of life. The jobs you choose impact where you live, how much free time you have, the quality of your relationships with friends and family, your health, what type of house you buy, and who you marry.
You are likely going to spend 80,000 hours working during your life, so think hard about where you want to wind up in your career and create a plan of action to start moving in the right direction. Crafting a career path that provides fulfillment, financial independence, and supports your desired lifestyle requires thoughtful planning at the outset and course corrections along the way.
Think long term. Imagine the future and work backward. What does success look like? What are you aiming at? Clearly defining a target ensures that the next job you choose leads you in the right direction. I’ve included a planning exercise and questions below to help you think through and clarify your goals.
You don’t want to have regrets. For most people, their biggest regrets stem from the things they chose not to pursue. The people, places, or ideas left unexplored. Don’t fall into the trap of choosing a career simply to please your parents or your friends. Don’t get a job only so you can make a lot of money to buy a fancy house and car and expect to feel fulfilled.
Imagine your funeral. Who will attend? What will they say about you? How do you want to be remembered? The jobs you choose determine how much time you spend with family and friends and how much energy you will have to pursue your interests or mission. Don’t waste time and energy working in a job that’s not guiding you toward your desired destination.
Identify where you find purpose
For some people, work provides a sense of purpose and allows them to be useful by contributing value to something bigger than themselves. Others are more likely to find purpose and value outside of their workplace.
Understanding where you are most likely to find meaning in your life will help you make wise job choices. For example, if you know that raising kids will be your primary path to purpose, you should select a job that will maximize quality time spent with your children.
People crave meaning and purpose. We create meaning through our beliefs, thoughts, and actions. And we use stories to extract meaning from our experiences and to understand who we are.
You find meaning by voluntarily shouldering responsibility. This is not intuitive, especially because our culture tells us to seek pleasure, accumulate material wealth, and shed responsibility to live “the good life.”
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and professor of neurology and psychiatry, founded logotherapy, a type of psychotherapy based on the premise that an individual’s primary motivational force is to find meaning in life. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes three paths to a meaningful life. Notice how taking responsibility underlies each of his recommended paths:
- Through meaningful work;
- Through nurturing and caring for another person (e.g., raising children); and
- Through overcoming adversity and suffering.
What path are you on? Will it lead to a meaningful life? Do you want to change direction?
Are you seeking a job, career, or mission?
Get clear on what you’re seeking. Most of us need a job—a way to earn money to support ourselves and our family. A job pays the bills. You don’t need to love it, and it does not need to be your primary source of life fulfillment.
A career is a job you’re good at and one you are willing to make sacrifices for because it provides fulfillment.
A mission is your calling and the highest possible pursuit. No one can give it or take it from you. Your mission may be the same as your career, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes you get a job to provide you with the time and energy to pursue your mission outside of work.
And don’t confuse your hobby with your job or your mission. Hobbies are activities you are interested in—something you do for your pleasure without a specific goal.
You may be surprised to learn that earning more money or following your passion is not the main factor in finding a job that’s enjoyable and meaningful. According to two decades of research into the predictors of a satisfying life and career—drawing on over 60 studies compiled by 80000hours.org—to have a fulfilling career, you should do something you are good at that allows you to contribute value to something bigger than yourself.
The research shows the following predictors of job satisfaction.
- You’re good at what you’re doing.
- You’re engaged, challenged, and have some degree of control over your tasks.
- You contribute value and help others.
- You work with people you like in a supportive work environment.
- You get paid fairly.
- Your work hours and commute match your desired lifestyle.
Ask important questions
The specific questions you ask yourself matter. For example, rather than asking, “What’s my passion?” ask, “How can I be useful?”
Your answers will help you identify potential job paths aligned with your interests, abilities, and desired lifestyle. The questions below will get you started; based on your answers, keep asking questions specific to your situation that will help you determine your desired direction.
- How can I be useful?
- What problems am I most interested in working on?
- What am I unusually good at?
- What am I most interested in learning?
- What are my constraints?
- How much money do I want to earn?
- Where do I want to live?
- What fulfills me?
- How do I want to spend my time?
You become what you do
Be extra careful when accepting a job offer. A job shapes how you act and becomes part of your identity. Don’t underestimate the power of your co-workers to influence your behavior. Humans are herd animals, and the social norms of your group shape your behavior. Therefore, make sure the job you choose and the people you work with support who you want to become.
Your identity changes through various stages of life. At different times in my life, I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer, pro rock climber, mountaineering guide, karate teacher, organic farmer, solar contractor, fireman, detective, stockbroker, inventor, entrepreneur, and many other things. The jobs I wanted to pursue were fueled by my interests and who I wanted to become.
Envision your future
To ensure you are aiming at the right target, engage in mental time travel.Invest the time to clarify where you want to go and to imagine the future you want to avoid. Research shows that anticipating the ways things might go wrong helps you get things right. For example, in a work setting, teams can produce 30% more reasons why something might fail when they imagine the project did fail and then work backward to identify obstacles. This process then helps them avoid those obstacles—and failure.
Spend time defining the life you want to avoid at all costs. Fearing this pessimistic vision and associated potential threats will help motivate you to make better decisions. You know your weaknesses and bad habits better than anyone, so you can imagine what would happen if you allow your worst impulses to guide your actions. Imagine falling prey to indecision, vices, a lack of self-discipline, and bad decision-making. Describe this future state in as much detail as possible, considering all aspects of your life, such as work, health, relationships, and finances. Force yourself to write for at least 20 minutes to clarify the future you want to avoid.
After picturing the life you don’t want, envision the future you do want to build. Close your eyes and spend a few minutes daydreaming about your ideal future. Consider all aspects of your life, including career, relationships, health, family, home, location, finances, and lifestyle. Spend some time imagining what your typical day looks like in your imagined ideal life.
Concentrate on the end state, not the process of getting there. This exercise does not require you to identify a specific job. If you know your dream job, that’s great, but if you don’t, simply describe the type of work environment, team, and tasks you enjoy.
For example, do you like working in an office, or do you prefer working from home or in the field? Do you want to travel for work? How many hours per week do you want to work? Do you enjoy working independently or do you want to manage a team? How many years into the future are you looking?
Be ambitious and don’t hold back on your vision. After a few minutes, start writing, but keep daydreaming. Write about your imagined, ideal future, and describe it in great detail. Even if you feel blocked, force yourself to let your imagination go and keep writing for at least 20 minutes.
After you envision your future and reflect on important questions, start sketching out your best hypotheses. Making career decisions involves much uncertainty, and it’s easy to feel stuck or not know where to start. Make some best-guess hypotheses and begin generating ideas. But be sure to make decisions and weigh tradeoffs focused on your long-term goals.
Your strategy will depend on your career stage. Early on, when you’re very uncertain, you should focus on career exploration and experiment. Don’t focus too narrowly on a single option.
Go and gather information and test out lots of options. Speak with three or more people who work in a job area and read industry publications and books about the field. Look up the base rates for compensation in each job.
But realize that research and interviews can only get you so far. Try out different jobs. Take options that help you gain new skills and build valuable connections that can be useful in various fields. Consider taking on project work, internships, or jobs with trial periods or shorter commitments. Don’t be afraid to quit if the job is not what you thought it would be or if you realize it will not be useful in supporting your career path.
Later, when you have more responsibilities (e.g., mortgage, kids), you will need to use a different strategy because of your financial obligations and time restrictions. At this stage, you will need to make job decisions more methodically. Invest more time in research, create detailed scenario analysis, and talk through tradeoffs with your family.
After you get clear on your strategy, you are ready to make plans. Plans help you think through what you want and lay out the necessary steps to move forward.
Your plan should change as you learn more. You will need to adapt to changing job markets and personal circumstances. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and author of The Start-Up of You, recommends using the ABZ planning framework.
Plan A. Define your job hypothesis. What problem do you want to work on? Why do you think it’s an excellent opportunity? What role do you want to play? Why will you be good at it? What skills, credentials, and connections will you need to be successful? Where do you want to be in three to five years? Question your beliefs by rigorously challenging and inspecting your assumptions. Write down your answers to these questions and conduct a premortem and backcast to work backward from a point in the future to help identify required steps and obstacles.
- Premortem. Imagine worst-case outcomes, and work backward from that gloomy future to identify potential reasons for failure in the job. Imagine a point in the future the day after you failed. Work backward to identify all the reasons you failed due to decisions you made, as well as potential reasons out of your control.
- Backcast. Imagine best-case outcomes, and work backward from the positive future to identify reasons for success in the job. Imagine a point in the future the day after you succeeded and work backward to identify all the reasons you succeeded due to your decisions, as well as potential causes out of your control.
Plan B. Assume Plan A is not working, and you need to make a course correction. Plan B explores nearby options but is not a radical departure from Plan A. You don’t have a crystal ball, so you can’t blindly follow your plan like a blueprint. Plans are not static. You will learn and need to make course corrections. For example, let’s imagine you are pursuing a job in corporate law. What happens if you find corporate law unfulfilling or it’s not what you thought it was? What’s an alternative path based on your interests you can pursue that leverages your law degree? Maybe you pursue criminal law, estate planning law, or intellectual property law. Map out your desired alternate option and repeat the planning exercise you completed for Plan A.
Plan Z. What do you do in the scenario when your plans aren’t working and you need to change something? Imagine you’ve invested time learning and making course corrections to your Plan Bs, but now you have lost confidence you are on the right path. Don’t continue doing something that’s no longer beneficial simply because you’ve already invested a lot of time or money in it. These are sunk costs. It’s time to execute your temporary fallback plan. Make sure you still have enough money in the bank to navigate a radical job change. Don’t wait until you run out of money and you feel trapped. Ideally, your Plan Z becomes your new Plan A.
Get feedback on your plans
Ask two to three trusted friends who know you well to provide feedback on your ABZ plans. Also seek feedback from a coach or from two to three people in the field you want to enter. Be vulnerable and monitor your emotions so that you are not defensive. Listen more and speak less.
Feedback is a rare and valuable resource. Direct, honest feedback is hard to find because very few people are willing to tell you the truth. Most people want to avoid conflict, and they don’t want to jeopardize their relationship with you. A conflict of interest often influences feedback from family, friends, or work colleagues. This is why it’s also helpful to get feedback from a coach and other people in your desired field. Your challenge will be to recognize the bias of the people providing you feedback and then to synthesize their input to make the right decision.
Using these techniques and strategies can help you determine whether your job and career are carrying you toward your life goals or whether you need to make some course corrections on the fly. When your target and current location are clearer, you are ready to zero in on getting your desired job.
To learn more, sign-up for the “High-Performance Playbook” email series (it’s free), where I share the best evidence-based strategies, tactics, and frameworks to advance your career and make more money.
 Deborah Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, Nancy Pennington, “Back to the future: Temporal perspectives in the explanation of events,” Journal of Behavior Decision-making 2, no. 1 (January 1989): 25-38.