Part 4: How to find the right career for you

Everyone knows it’s important to find a job you’re good at, but how do you do that?

The standard advice is to think about it for weeks and weeks until you “discover your talent”. To help, career advisers give you quizzes about your interests and preferences. Others recommend you go on a gap yah, reflect deeply, imagine different options, and try to figure out what truly motivates you…then chunder everywah.

But as we saw in the previous article, becoming really good at most things takes decades of practice. So to a large degree your abilities are built rather than “discovered”. Darwin, Lincoln, JK Rowling and Oprah all failed early in their career, then went on to completely dominate their fields.

That aside, plenty of research shows that it’s really hard to predict what you’ll be good at ahead of time, especially just by “going with your gut”, and it turns out career tests don’t work either.

Instead, the best way to find the right career for you is to go investigate – learn about and try out your options, looking outwards rather than inwards. Here we’ll explain why and how.

Watch this video or read the full article (10 minutes).

The bottom line

  • Research shows that it’s really hard to work out what you’re going to be good at ahead of time, especially through self-reflection.
  • Instead, go investigate. After an initial cut down of your options, go learn more and then try them out.
  • Minimize the costs of trying out your options by taking advantage of your best opportunities to explore (e.g. the years between undergrad and grad study), trying things in the best order (e.g. corporate sector before non-profit sector), and finding cheap ways to test your options (e.g. doing a freelance project before you go full time).
  • When you need to make a final decision, use a systematic process.
  • Keep adapting your plan over time. Think like a scientist investigating a hypothesis.

Being good at your job is more important than you think

Everyone agrees that it’s important to find a job you’re good at. But we think it’s even more important than most people think.

As we’ve seen earlier in this guide, the most successful people in a field account for a large fraction of the impact, so you’ll have much more impact if you find a job you can really excel at. You’re also likely to be happier, and you’ll build up more impressive achievements, and so gain better career capital.

That’s why personal fit is one of the key factors to look for in a job. You can think of it as a multiplier of everything else, so this is how our formula for a perfect job would look:

The personal fit multiplier

We think of “personal fit” as:

your chances of excelling at a job, if you work at it

We say “if you work at it” because what most matters is how you do in the longer-term, not how good you already are. You can improve your skills to become a great deal better, so sticking to what you’re already good at limits your options. It’s best to ask “what could I become really good at?”

So personal fit is important. But how can you figure out what will fit you best?

Hopefully you have some ideas for long-term options. Now we’ll explain how to narrow them down, and find the right career for you. (If you want more ideas for long-term options, go back to the part 2c in this guide.)

Why self-reflection won’t work

Performance is unpredictable

Advice like “go with your gut” or “follow your heart” assumes you can work out what you’re going to be good at ahead of time. But in fact, you can’t.

Here’s the best study we’ve been able to find on how to predict performance in different jobs. It’s a meta-analysis of selection tests used by employers, drawing on hundreds of studies performed over 85 years.1 Here are some of the results:

Type of selection testCorrelation with job performance (r)
Work sample tests0.54
IQ tests0.51
Interviews (structured)0.51
Peer ratings0.49
Job knowledge tests0.48
Job tryout procedure0.44
Integrity tests0.41
Interviews (unstructured)0.38
Job experience0.18
Years of education0.1
Holland-type match0.1
Graphology0.02
Age-0.01

First, note that none of the tests are very good. A correlation of 0.5 is pretty weak, so even if you try to predict using the best available techniques, you’re going to be “wrong” much of the time: candidates that look bad will often turn out good, and vice versa. Anyone who’s hired people before will tell you that’s exactly what happens.

Oprah at first failed in TV

Oprah worked as a TV news anchor early in her career, eventually getting fired and being told she was “unfit for TV”. Now she’s probably the most successful TV presenter of all time.

Because hiring is so expensive, employers really want to pick the best candidates and they know exactly what the job requires. If even they, using the best available tests, can’t figure out who’s going to perform best in advance, you probably don’t have much chance.

Don’t go with your gut

If you were to try to predict performance in advance, “going with your gut” isn’t the best way to do it. Research collected over several decades shows that intuitive decision making only works in certain circumstances.

For instance, your gut instinct can tell you very rapidly if someone is angry with you. This is because our brain is biologically wired to rapidly warn us when in danger.

Your gut instinct can also be amazingly accurate when trained. Chess masters have an astonishingly good intuition for the best moves, and this is because they’ve trained their intuitive by playing lots of similar games, and built up a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

However, gut decision making is poor when it comes to working out things like how fast a business will grow, who will win a football match, and what grades a student will receive. In an earlier article, we also saw our intuition is poor at working out what will make us happy. This is all because our untrained gut instinct makes lots of mistakes, and in these situations it’s hard to train it to do better.

Career decision making is more like these examples than being a chess grandmaster. It’s hard to train our gut instinct when: (i) the results of our decisions take a long time to arrive (ii) we have few opportunities to practice, or (iii) the situation keeps changing. This is exactly the situation with career choices: we only make a couple of major career decisions in our life, it takes years to see the results, and the job market keeps changing.

This all means your gut can give you clues about the best career. It can tell you things like “I don’t trust this person” or “I’m not excited by this project”. But you can’t simply “go with your gut”.

Moneyball

In field after field, gut judgement is being replaced by approaches to predicting success that actually work. Moneyball tells the story of how data hungry analysts overturned traditional baseball talent scouting, which was based on gut feeling and untested metrics.

(See our evidence review for more detail. We also recommend the fantastic book, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.)

Why career tests also don’t work

Many career tests are built on “Holland types” or something similar. These tests classify you as one of six “Holland-types”, like “artistic” or “enterprising”. Then they recommend careers that match that type. However, we can see from the table that “Holland-type match” is very weakly correlated with performance. It’s also barely correlated with job satisfaction. So that’s why we don’t recommend traditional career tests.

What does work in predicting performance?

In the table, the tests that best predict performance are those that are closest to actually doing the work (with the interesting exception of IQ). This is probably what we should have expected.

A work sample test is simply doing some of the work, and having the results evaluated by someone experienced. Peer ratings measure what your peers think of your performance (and so can only be used for internal promotions). Job tryout procedures and job knowledge tests are pretty self-explanatory.

So the key to figuring out what you’re good at is actually trying things. That’s the first reason why our motto for working out personal fit is: go investigate.

To find the right career for you, go investigate

To really work out what you’ll be good at, you need to speak to people, do research and try things out. The closer you can get to actually doing the work, the better.

So, when deciding between your options, first take some time to really research them. With some decisions the stakes aren’t high enough to warrant much research. But a career decision will influence years of your life, so could easily be worth weeks of work.

Second, eventually you need to go out and try things. Especially if you’re early in your career, or just very uncertain, consider trying out your top 2-4 long-term options over the next 2-5 years. For instance, if long-term you’re considering being an engineer or being a writer, maybe you could study engineering and spend one afternoon per week writing a blog. Don’t get stuck endlessly analysing without actually trying anything.

Also consider trying one or two wildcards to further broaden your experience. These are unusual options out of the normal path, like living in a new country, pursuing an unusual side project, trying a sector you would have not normally worked in (e.g. government, non-profits, social enterprise).

Why “go investigate”?

First, as we’ve seen, it’s the best way to learn what you’re good at.

Moreover, as a strategy, it makes sense to spend the first part of your career learning more. Early on you know relatively little about your strengths and options. Once you’ve spent a few years learning more, you’ll be able to make better decisions over the coming decades.

Many successful people did exactly that. Tony Blair worked as a rock promoter before going into politics. As we saw, Condoleezza Rice was a classical musician before she entered politics; while Steve Jobs even spent a year in India on acid, and considered moving to Japan to become a zen monk. That’s some serious exploration.

Today, it’s widely accepted that many people will work in several sectors and roles across their lifetime. The typical 25-34 year old changes jobs every three years.2

The final reason is to avoid one of the biggest career mistakes: considering too few options. We’ve met lots of people who stumbled into paths like PhDs, medicine or law because they felt like the default at the time, but who, if they had considered more options, could easily have found something that fit them better. Pushing yourself to try out several areas will help you to avoid this mistake. Try to settle on a single goal too early, however, and you could miss a great option.

All this said, exploring can still be costly. Trying out a job can take several years, and changing job too often makes you look flaky. How can you explore, while keeping the costs low?

Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice was an accomplished classical musician before she transferred into politics. And even she can’t beat Steve Jobs for exploration – he seriously considered becoming a zen monk before going into technology.

How to narrow down your options

You can’t try everything, so before you explore, we need to cut your long-term options down to a shortlist. Hopefully you have some ideas for long-term options from the end of part 2c.

How best to narrow down? Since gut decision making is unreliable, it helps to be a little systematic.

Many people turn to pro and con lists, but these have some weaknesses. First, there’s no guarantee the pros and cons that come to mind will be the most important aspects of the decision. Second, pro and con lists don’t force you to look for disconfirming evidence or generate more options, and these are some of the most powerful ways to make better decisions. It’s easy to use lists of pros and cons to rationalize what you already believe.

Here’s the process for narrowing down that we recommend. It’s based on a literature review of decision making science and what has worked well in one-on-one advising:

  1. Make a big list of options. Make your initial list, then force yourself to come up with more. If you couldn’t take any of the options on your first list, what would you do? If money were no object, what would you do? What do your friends advise? Then, consider how you might be able to combine your options to make better ones. Can you get the best of both worlds?

  2. Score your options from one to five, based on (i) impact (ii) personal fit (iii) other elements of job satisfaction (iv) any other factors that are important to you. Here are some questions you can use to do the assessment, and a worksheet. Doing this ensures you’re focusing on the most important factors.

  3. Make a shortlist of 2-5 options. Eliminate the options that are worse on all factors than another (“dominated options”), and those that are very poor on one factor. You can add up all your scores to get a very rough ranking of options. If one of your results seems odd, try to understand why. For each option, ask “why might I be wrong?” and adjust your ranking. This is a very useful way to reduce bias.

  4. Key uncertainties. What information could most easily change your ranking? If you could get the answer to one question, which question would be most useful? Write these out. E.g. “Can I get a place on Teach for America?”, “Would I enjoy programming?”, “How pressing is global poverty compared to open science?”.

  5. Initial research. Can you quickly work out any of these key uncertainties? E.g. if you’re unsure whether you’d enjoy being a data scientist, can you go and talk to someone about what it’s like? Or is there something you could read, like one of our career reviews?

At this point, you might have a clear winner, in which case you can skip the next part. Most people, however, end up with a couple of alternatives that look pretty good. At that point, it’s time to explore.

Apply this to your own career: narrow down your options

Take the list of options you made at the end of part 2c and apply the process above to it. You should end up with a shortlist of 2-5 options.

If you want a more detailed version of the process, go here.

How to try out lots of career options

Here’s how to try out the options in your shortlist without setting back your career.

1. Use your natural opportunities to explore

There are times when, money permitting, society gives you a free pass to do something random when young:

  • In the years between school and university.
  • In your high school and university summer holidays.
  • In university courses that aren’t your major.
  • In the years right after you graduate – people don’t expect you to have figured out your career at age 21, so it won’t usually hurt your long-term prospects to try some unusual options at this point.

Take advantage of these opportunities as far as possible to try out different promising medium-term options.

2. Use the “graduate school reset”

Trying an unusual option for a few years after you graduate is already normally fine. If you then go to graduate school, what you did in the few years between undergraduate and graduate school matters even less. 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 then 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 become options.

3. Look for cheap ways to test your options

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, with an online course, or through a freelance project rather than fully switching job.

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 people in the career with questions — many people are happy to talk with someone who’s considering entering their field. Often you can learn a huge amount just by talking to people in the area.

Being offered a trial position with an organization for a couple of months can actually be an advantage, because it means both parties will make an effort to quickly assess your fit.

Start with the cheapest, easiest tests, then take more and more involved steps as your confidence grows. We often see people jump directly into expensive tests, like doing a Masters program, before doing the easier steps first.

For instance, if you’re interested in policy advising, here are the steps you might take:

  1. Read our relevant career reviews and do some Google searches to learn the basics (1-2h).
  2. Speak to your friend who works at a think tank to get a sense of whether this might be for you (2h).
  3. Speak to three more people who work in the area and read one or two books (20h). During this, also find out the most effective way for you to enter the area, given your background.
  4. Now look for a project that might take 1-4 weeks of work, like volunteering on a political campaign, or starting a blog on the policy area you want to focus on. If you’ve done the previous step, you’ll know what’s best.
  5. Only now consider taking on a 2-12 month commitment, like a short work placement, internship or graduate study.

At each point, you’d re-evaluate whether policy was one of your most promising options, and only continue to the next step if it is.

4. Choose options that let you experiment

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.

5. Look for tactical opportunities to 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, try out the corporate sector first.
  • After finishing a PhD, you more or less have to continue directly into academia if you want to become an academic. So if you’re unsure about becoming an academic, try out alternatives before your PhD, rather than after.

Trying out paths in the right order can give you more time to explore.

6. Keep building flexible career capital

Finally, prioritize paths that give you valuable, flexible career capital – skills, connections and credentials that will be useful in many future jobs. So long as you keep building flexible career capital, it’s fine not to have a plan, because you’ll still be in a better position in the future.

Jess – a case study in exploring

“80,000 Hours has nothing short of revolutionised the way I think about my career.”

Read Jess's story

Jess portrait photo

Jess graduated from math and philosophy a couple of years ago. She was interested in academia and leaned towards studying philosophy of mind, but was concerned that it would have little impact, and that academia wouldn’t be a good fit for her.

So the year after she graduated, she spent several months working in finance. She didn’t think she’d enjoy it, and she turned out to be right, so she felt confident eliminating that option. She also spent several months working in non-profits, and reading about different research areas.

Most importantly, she spoke to loads of people, especially in the areas of academia she was most interested in. This eventually led to her being offered to study a PhD in psychology, focused on how to improve decision-making by policy makers.

During her PhD, she did an internship at a leading evidence-based policy think tank, and started writing about psychology for an online newspaper. This meant that she was exploring the ‘public intellectual’ side of being an academic, and the option of going into policy.

At the end of her PhD, she can either continue in academia, or switch into policy or writing. She could also probably go back to finance or the non-profit sector. Most importantly, she’ll have a far better idea of which options are best.

Apply this to your own career: how to explore

  1. For each option in your shortlist, write out one way you could test it out.
  2. If you wanted to try out everything, what’s the best order to do the trials in?
  3. If you’d like to find out more about how to make good decisions and predictions, we recommend Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath, and Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock.

Conclusion

We like to imagine we can work out what we’re good at through reflection, in a flash of insight. But that’s not how it works.

Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize both in Physics and in Chemistry
Think like a scientist when it comes to choosing a career: create and rule out hypotheses, rather than trying to figure out your “calling” in advance.

Rather, it’s more like a scientist testing a hypothesis. You have ideas about what you can become good at (hypotheses), which you can test out (experiments). Think you could be good at writing? Then start blogging. Think you’d hate consulting? At least speak to a consultant.

If you don’t already know your “calling” or your “passion”, that’s normal. It’s too hard to predict which career is right for you when you’re starting out.

Instead, go and try things. You’ll learn as you go, heading step-by-step towards a fulfilling career.

Now let’s tie together everything we’ve covered so far, and make sure you avoid the most common career planning mistakes.

Part 5:How to make your career plan

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Notes and references

  1. Schmidt, Frank L., and John E. Hunter. "The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings." Psychological bulletin 124.2 (1998): 262PDF
  2. Median employee tenure was generally higher among older workers than younger ones. For example, the median tenure of workers ages 55 to 64 (10.4 years) was more than three times that of workers ages 25 to 34 years (3.0 years). A larger proportion of older workers than younger workers had 10 years or more of tenure. Among workers ages 60 to 64, 58 percent were employed for at least 10 years with their current employer in January 2014, compared with only 12 percent of those ages 30 to 34.
    Archived link, retrieved 4-Mar-2016.