Depending on how devoted you are to your job, work is going to take up either a pretty large chunk of your time or almost all of it. As the years go by, moreover, it tends to become a cornerstone of your identity as a person. It’ll impact what you think about, what opportunities you have, who your friends are and, in many cases, who you ultimately end up marrying.
For this reason, it’s extremely important to think about what kind of work you like doing and what’s required to do it well. In this piece we discuss some of what goes into finding work you love, and finish by offering some unconventional advice.
What Are Your Interests?
The most obvious place to start looking for leads is your personal interests. In many cases there is a stable pattern in the things you find fascinating that is visible all the way back in childhood. People change over time, sure, but in my experience the changes aren’t so great that you’re unable to see how the adult grew out of the child.
Unfortunately you can’t always make a career out of your hobbies, but they’re often thematic in an instructive way. If you’ve always loved playing with Legos and Erector sets, the chances are good that you’ll find engineering worthwhile, and many world-class programmers got their start tinkering with the source code for their favorite games.
So you should begin by thinking back to your earliest memories. Is there a set of activities that absorbed your attention for hours at a time? What subjects did you like in middle school, high school, and college?
It’s not always the subject matter that’s important, we can also gain information from their structure. Say your most cherished way to relax is reading those big multi-volume fantasy sagas. I’m not aware of any way to get paid to do this, but you’d likely be well-suited to research-intensive roles requiring a heavy dose of creativity, like writing.
What Is Your Background?
Another really obvious question to ask yourself is, ‘what have I successfully done before?’ The answer can inform your search for your dream job in two ways. First, it’s always possible that your dream job is an extension of something you’re currently doing or have done in the past. If you’re happy working for a startup, maybe the best move for you is to climb to the rank of head of the division you’re in now.
Second, as with the hobbies example discussed above, sometimes there’s a leitmotif running through your life that points the way to an optimal role. Perhaps you’ve always done digital marketing but, upon reflection, you realize that the thing you really like about the job is designing attractive logos. Start focusing more on that, and see what’s required in a career built on that.
Remember: Competence Can Breed Passion
I want to conclude by noting that, while I’ve recommended pursuing a long-standing interest as one way to building a successful career, there are other strategies which are overlooked in almost every discussion on the topic.
Advice givers like Steve Jobs speak of ‘finding’ a passion as if it’s an inherent trait about you which needs to be discovered. As I discussed above, this can be true, but you can also fall in love with a field in the process of becoming an expert in it.
The computer scientist and philosopher of work Cal Newport has made a career out of studying this phenomenon. He goes as far as to say that ‘follow your passion’ is terrible advice, and instead we should just focus on getting good at whatever it is that we’re doing.
While I wouldn’t go as far as he does, it’s nevertheless worth keeping in mind. If you aren’t currently burning with desire for any one thing, then focus on being excellent at the job you do have. I’ve consistently found that there is a far greater degree of richness and nuance in a task than is apparent on the surface. Getting better and better at something, even when it’s relatively mundane, can still be a great source of personal fulfillment.