We think that the term “career choice” is misleading. It implies that your career hinges on one single decision: what you should do with the rest of your life. It’s no wonder that choosing a career can seem daunting!
In reality, you needn’t choose one career path and stick with it blindly for the rest of your life. Career choice is less a single decision, and more a sequence of smaller decisions. You make a best guess of what to do next, try things out, test and learn, and then reassess. Thinking of each individual decision like this takes a huge amount of pressure off: you don’t need to choose perfectly first time.
Drawing on similarities between an individual planning their career and a startup business, we’ve realised the importance of focusing on learning and adapting to change early on in your career. We’ve come to the conclusion that rigid career plans probably aren’t that helpful, and could even be harmful – but you do still need some means of direction and motivation for the future.
One promising solution to all this is the idea of having a “career model”: identifying your aims and values, and making a best guess of how you might achieve them. What’s key is that the model is designed to be tested and adapted as you learn. In this post I’ll outline the career model we use at 80,000 Hours, explain how we’ve come to this model, and then go into the various parts of the model in more detail.
Overview of our career model
Have a vision
- Values: what do you ultimately care about?
- Cause: what problem in the world do you want to work towards solving?
- Mission: what’s your best guess of what you could do long term to solve it?
Using this vision to guide your next steps
- Route mapping: what are some possible routes to your mission?
- Ways to assess your next steps: what skills, experience and networks do these routes require?
- Best guess next step: what could you do next that would help you to progress towards your mission?
- What are your greatest key uncertainties?
- Which of these can most easily be resolved?
- Learning goals: What are you going to do, or what information are you going to seek, to improve your career plan?
How have we come up with this career model?
We started off initially thinking about the best strategies for choosing between different career options. However, we soon realised that this approach was far too one-dimensional: in order to choose between the options immediately in front of you, you need to have some idea of where you’re hoping they’ll take you. This got us started thinking about the importance of identifying your ultimate aims and values, and planning for the future.
As I wrote about previously, the problem with planning is that the world is constantly changing, and the job market will look very different in 10 years’ time. We started looking into business strategy literature and research, finding good reason to believe this could help inform career planning strategy. These insights provided the basis for the concept of a “career model.”
The specific kind of career model we’re recommending builds on this basic concept given our ideas about what factors are important, and how they fit together in an easy to use framework.
We then started explicitly testing these ideas out in careers advising sessions and workshops, by presenting people with our career model idea and helping them to work through it for their own decisions. This allowed us to get feedback on how useful people found this structure, how easy it was to adapt to different situations, and how we might improve it. We spent several days discussing the feedback we’d received in different settings with one another and what changes this might suggest. As a result, the basic structure of the “career model” has gone through several iterations.
There may not be a “one size fits all”, and we almost certainly need to test and adapt this further, but we’ve found that the following is a useful structure for thinking about your career.
In more depth: further explanation of the career model
Have a vision
If you want to make a difference, you need to think not only about your next steps, but also where your career might be headed in the future. Having a vision for the future can be incredibly motivating, as well as helping you to identify opportunities and ensure you’re headed in the right direction.1 We’ve got good reason to think that some causes and careers are many times more effective than others, so having some way to assess where your steps in the present are taking you is incredibly important.
The problem, of course, is that the future is highly uncertain. It’s very difficult to predict what the world will need, and what the job market will look like, in ten or twenty years’ time. This means that rigid plans for the future aren’t that useful and are more likely to hinder than help, by narrowing your focus too soon.2, 3 At the same time, you can’t ignore the future entirely. So what should you do?
Having some kind of long-term “vision” can be a good way to guide your progress and keep you focused, as long as you’re open to changing it.
We think a good vision has three components:
1) Your values
What does a flourishing world look like to you? What do you ultimately care about?
If you want to make the world a better place, you need some idea of what a “better” world would actually look like! An understanding of your values provides you with the standards you need to evaluate everything else.
2) Your cause
What problem in the world are you going to work towards solving? Why do you think this is a particularly promising cause?
Understanding your values is important, but these tend to be too abstract to help much in day to day career planning. Identifying a cause: some problem in the world you might work towards solving, starts to bridge this gap between what you care about and what you might actually do.
3) Your mission
What are you actually going to do in the long term to solve this problem?
It’s hard to be motivated to solve a problem without some idea of what you could actually do – both now and in the long term – to solve it. This means thinking about both (a) what the most effective ways to work on your cause might be and (b) which of these ways you might be best suited to.
These questions are complex, and you shouldn’t expect to settle them. Instead, thinking them through allows you to make a current best guess that you revisit and change as you learn more.
Use this vision to guide your next steps
1) What are the possible routes to achieving your mission?
Having a vision is all very well, but it’s useless unless you have some way of translating it into action. And sometimes it can be difficult to see how long term plans relate to next steps that you can take in the present. However, with a best guess long-term mission in hand, which should be a concrete idea of a job or position you’d like to be in, you can start thinking about the path you’d need to follow to get there.
One useful way to start is to try to find either a) existing jobs or roles that are close to your mission, or b) specific people who have achieved something similar. For existing roles or jobs, you can then start doing research into what qualifications and skills they need: by looking at job descriptions and application requirements, for example. For specific people, try to find out what their career paths looked like: by speaking to them if at all possible, or looking at their biographies or CVs.
2) What do these routes have in common?
Once you’ve identified different possible routes to your mission, you can start to recognise patterns and similarities. What kinds of skills, experience and networks come up as important or even essential to getting to where you want to be in the long term?
3) Using this to make a best guess next step
Having a better understanding of what kinds of skills and experience will be most useful for you to focus on building provides you with a set of criteria with which to evaluate your next steps.
Slowly, you can start to bridge the gap between where you are in the present, and what you’re aiming for in the long term.
However, once you’ve got an idea of your vision and some possible routes to getting there, it’s not quite as simple as just executing these steps. As we’ve highlighted before, the world around you is constantly changing and it’s important to be sensitive to and prepared to adapt to these changes. This means being prepared to adapt your model as you learn more.
1) What are your biggest key uncertainties?
Ask yourself which parts of your career model you’re currently most uncertain about. Where do you feel like you have the least information, and where is additional information most useful to help you?
2) Which of these can most easily be resolved?
Sometimes there won’t be anything you can do to resolve certain uncertainties right now, so you might have to leave them to come back to later when the situation is different, and focus on those where you can most easily make progress.
For each of your key uncertainties, ask yourself, “What information would help me to resolve this uncertainty? How might I get such information?” You can then start to prioritise getting new information where it’s easiest to find and most useful.
3) Set learning goals
You can then set yourself learning goals, for what you are going to do or what information you are going to seek to try and improve your career model.
You should be aiming to repeat this process of identifying key uncertainties, thinking about which can most easily resolved, and then setting learning goals, on a regular basis.
It’s hard to work all of this out on your own. For all our research so far on what missions, causes and career paths we think are promising, go to our findings page. We also have a limited number of places for an in-depth coaching process, in which we’ll help you research the questions most relevant to your situation. You can apply for career coaching here.
Notes and references:
- Gary P. Latham, “Motivate Employee Performance Through Goal Setting”, Handbook of Principles of Organisational Behaviour ↩
- Goals which motivate decision makers to seek a particular outcome may result in the failure to notice relevant information: see Bazerman and Chugh, (2006). Decisions without blinders. Harvard Business Review, 84(1), 88-97 ↩
- Goal setting prevents task revision: action to correct faulty procedures. In one experiment, students were asked to proofread a paragraph containing both blatant grammatical and content errors. Those told to “do their best” were much more likely to notice both types of error than those directed to look for grammatical errors alone. See Staw, B. M., & Boettger, R. D. (1990). Task revision: A neglected form of work performance. Academy of Management Journal, 33(3), 534-559. ↩