In a nutshell
- To find the careers you’re a good fit for, you should take the attitude of a scientist testing a hypothesis. Just thinking about your “calling” isn’t especially helpful.
- Early in your career, aim to try several career options.
- You can cheaply explore your options by: (1) using natural opportunities such as university holidays and a gap year (2) taking several years to explore before graduate school (3) taking jobs that expose you to several areas (e.g. consulting, freelancing) (4) speaking to people in careers you’re interested in.
- When exploring, pay careful attention to the order you try different options e.g. it’s easier to move from the business sector to the nonprofit sector, so if you think you’ll want to try out both, it makes sense to go into business first.
It’s often said the key to finding a great career is “following your passion” or “finding your calling.”
Source: Google Ngram
But this isn’t very helpful advice. Most people don’t know what their passion is, and even if they do, following your passion could easily end in failure and little social impact.
University of Montreal and Canadian Census Data
So instead of trying to identify your “calling” or “perfect career”, our recommendation is to focus on exploring: try out different paths, learn more about yourself, and learn more about the world. Eventually you’ll figure out what you’re good at and how you can have a positive impact. Exploring is especially important early in your career, because that’s when you have the least information and the greatest flexibility. Why do we recommend this approach?
- You have limited information. You’re trying to work out how best to spend 80,000 hours of your life, so it makes sense to put some of those hours towards gathering more information before picking a path.
- It’s hard to predict what you’ll be good at in advance. Even the most rigorous recruitment processes often make mistakes. If corporations with millions of dollars can’t work out who will succeed in the job, then you probably can’t either. It’s better to try lots of paths, then focus on those where you perform best.
It’s hard to predict what you’ll enjoy in advance. Decades of research shows that people are bad at predicting what will make them happy. So again, it makes more sense to try things and see.
You’re probably considering too few options. We’re irrationally biased towards sticking with what we’re already doing, and as a result we consider an overly narrow range of options. Making yourself try new paths is a way to reduce this bias.
Are there any reasons not to explore? Well, if you’ve done a Zuckerberg and found something that fits you extremely well while you’re still young, then by all means, stick with that. But these people are famous precisely because their stories are so unusual. Many other famous people tried several paths before hitting on success.
How to explore?
It’s all very well saying “go explore”, but exploring has costs. It takes time and can get in the way of career progression. Here are some recommendations for making your exploration low-cost and high-value.
1. Use your natural exploration opportunities
There are times when, money permitting, society gives you a free pass to do something random:
- In a “gap year” between school and university, or just after you graduate.
- In your high school and university summer holidays.
- In university courses that aren’t your major.
Take advantage of these opportunities as much as you can.
2. Use the “graduate school reset”
After you graduate from university, you can do something unusual and risky for a few years, then go to graduate school, then begin a regular professional career as if not much happened. More specifically:
- You can take one to two years out before doing a PhD, and by the time you graduate, it probably won’t matter.
- Sometimes you can use a Masters degree to transition into a new field.
- You can do a law degree and become a lawyer or go into policy.
- Consulting, finance and many corporate jobs accept people directly out of MBAs, so if you can get into an MBA program, these are an option.
More generally, your twenties are a great time for exploration, since you probably don’t yet have a family, and you can get by without spending too much money.
3. Your first few jobs are an experiment, not a career
Rather than expecting to “get it right” first time, think like a scientist – imagine your first few jobs are experiments to test a hypothesis. If they work out, great; if not, move on. Changing jobs too frequently can look bad to future employers, but depending on the industry, changing after about 18 months is usually not a problem, especially if you performed well before leaving. The typical 25-34 year old changes jobs every three years. Moreover, it’s widely accepted that over time, careers are becoming less structured.
4. Look for ways to make “little bets”
If you’re considering doing something new, there’s probably a way to test it without much cost. For instance, you could try out a new area part-time, or do a 1-week trial. If you have friends in an interesting field, ask if they can show you what their day-to-day work is like. If not, try contacting professionals or HR departments with questions—most people are happy to talk with someone who’s considering entering their field.
5. When in doubt, choose based on flexibility
Look for jobs that:
- Let you work in a variety of industries. Freelance and consulting positions are especially good.
- Let you practice many different skills. Jobs in small companies are often especially good on this front.
- Give you the free time and energy to explore other things outside of work.
6. Keep building flexible career capital
Prioritise paths that give you valuable skills and keep your options open. For instance, it’s much harder to go from the nonprofit sector to the corporate sector than vice versa, so if you’re unsure between the two, do the corporate sector first. Read more on our career capital page.
What should I explore?
Make a list of the most promising medium-term options, then try to figure out a way to test all of them. For instance, suppose you’re interested in:
- Something in business
- Working at a nonprofit.
Then a good plan could be:
- Do an internship at the nonprofit while at university.
- Do consulting for two years after you graduate, letting you experience many parts of the corporate sector.
- Do a PhD (and explore the nonprofit sector more during the holidays).
- Then you can either continue in academia, go to a nonprofit, or go back to the corporate sector.
Focus in particular on exploring the paths that look promising but that you’re very uncertain about, and which are cheap to test. Internships and trial projects are your friends!
Finally, make sure you consider playing one or two “wildcards” – doing something totally outside of your shortlist. There are many unknown unknowns in career choice, and if you stick to the well-trodden paths, you’ll never discover them. Some examples to consider:
- Immerse yourself in a foreign culture. Especially consider China, Russia, Brazil and the Middle East, because these countries are likely to be very important to global coordination in the future, but are poorly understood in the West.
- If you’re mainly focused on science, try something artistic, and vice versa.
- Take some time out to reflect on your life.
- Spend time in developing parts of Africa to learn about global poverty.
- Pursue an unusual side project you find especially motivating (this is how many of today’s biggest companies began).