How Should I Pick My Career?

How you choose your career depends on your personality, not so much your abilities.

While this blog is about politics, I am still an educator. From time to time I will take a moment to talk about education, and career development, often in the spring and fall when, higher education is on the minds of a lot of people. This is both practical application of the global political world, and a moral responsibility to help people make better choices in light of the global political world we live in.

Many young people get bad advice about careers and education. The most common “bad advice” young people get is “do something you love as a career,” which seems pretty specific, but is actually too vague to be helpful. More importantly, there is a personal dimension to work and careers far beyong personal preference, and even inherent capability, people should take into account.

People have three different kinds of relationships with work, and how you feel about work matters greatly in determining the characteristics of work you should prioritize. Some people just love to work, not matter what the work is. Some people hate to work, no matter what the work is. Some people only enjoy certain kinds of work.

Some people simply dislike work or any kind, but disliking work is no the same as being lazy. People can derive no pleasure from work, and still work very hard and be successful at a job. People who do not derive pleasure from work usually enjoy something else, and just would prefer to do that. While there is a tradition within the Protestant Work Ethic that one should love work for its own sake, and people who do not are somehow morally inferior, but most people—even Cotton Mather— look kindly on someone who dislikes work because they view all time at work as time away from their family.

People who dislike all work should look for jobs that maximize utility. Utility maximization includes pay, benefits and time off. People whose most enjoy “notwork” should try to find a job that allows them the correct balance between time, money and access to things they truly enjoy. Someone whose greatest pleasure is sking in Gestaadt may want a job that pays a lot, with long vacations, but also long hours when not on vacation. Someone whose greatest pleasure is bass fishing may want to work just enough to afford a fishing boat and a home near good fishing.

Some people love work for its own sake. I fall into this category, and only realized it when my wife pointed out that no matter what job I had, my complaints were never about the work itself, even though the jobs were very different. Enjoying work for its own sake is not morally superior to other relationships to work, but it does make it easier to go to work. Furthermore, enjoying work does not imply someone is a “workaholic,” just like enjoying eating does not make someone obese.

If you love work for its own sake, you should look for a career that is self-actualizing (assuming that also pays the bills). Self actualizing work enables a person to be the best subjective version of themselves they can be. No matter what job they do, people who love work will love the work, so these workers can work at jobs that make them better, even when other people might not love the act of working. Loving work itself allows people to work in careers that fulfill self conception, even when the daily, weekly or even annual work may not be inherently interesting or fulfilling.

I suspect the most common group in society are people who like certain types of work, and dislike other types. Work type can include economic field, work function (e.g. manual labor, office work), work environment, or work cycle (e.g. many small tasks, long projects). People who like to be outdoors are unlikely to enjoy office work. People who need to see regular outputs are unlikely to enjoy working in fields that only develop over decades.

This is the type of person for whom specific career selection is very important, and often people will mistakenly focus on career field alone. Someone who sets out to study architecture because she likes working in graphic arts, or likes office work, will be sorely disappointed in the field if she is hired as an architect working with construction workers interpreting pre-planned designs on site. It is important to find what you like, what category of things matters, and find a job that fits that description, and not select based upon academic field, or the categories of jobs guidance counselors work from.

When people act on the wrong counsel, they will be less satisfied with their career choices. If you are only going to like working in a certain kind of job, picking the highest paid job, or the one with the most time off will make you miserable. If you don’t like work, then trying to find work you like is a fools errand. People who like work may end up working at jobs they feel fine about, but with less satisfaction in their life, overall, than they would otherwise have.

Inherent ability matters most in fields where only the young and inherently talented can succeed, and talent and other natural constraints can filter out options, but should only be a selection criteria to the extent it affects other personality driven considerations. In most jobs, people are better at that job ten years in than when they first start, making skill development more important than natural talent, and people are more likely to develop the talent they need in jobs they enjoy. Utter inability to perform the job because of intellectual or physical limitations can also remove jobs from contention. Being good at something, however, does not mean you will enjoy it.

Most people will spend more of their lives working than than doing anything else, except sleeping. Work is how almost everyone feeds themselves and their dependents. Work is the basis of all economies. Love or hate it, work is a central part of individual lives and social order. How you feel about work should influence how you think about your career, but strangely, that is rarely the advice people seem to get.