I recently visited with a 27 year old who asked me for help in figuring out what to do with his life. He is about to start at a prestigious graduate school and is feeling pressure to make some big career decisions quickly. Here’s the letter I wrote him, inspired by Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic.
Before you can figure out what career path to take, you have to decide what’s important to you in life. What are your values? What is your mission? Without the answers, you may be driving very hard and fast, but without a road-map, end up lost.
If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favourable to him.
Seneca. Epistolae, LXXI., 3.
And how do you figure out your mission? Consider a common one: ‘happiness’. What is happiness for you? It wasn’t always about self-gratification. The “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence originally meant “…that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.” (Source.)
Social scientists and economists have explored the needs that should be met in order for people to report “subjective well-being”. They found a list of requirements that was virtually universal including:
- Social network and love
- Respect and pride
- Autonomy and self-direction
- That others’ basic needs were met
As a starting point, you should test potential career paths against these criteria. (For extra credit, rank them by U-statistic!)
Perhaps, there’s more to life than mere personal happiness. Consult a gamut of religious traditions and three of my favorite philosophers: Aristotle (especially, virtues); Epictetus and Seneca: (in particular, his letters).
Also, consider the empirical facts. How do you spend your spare time? Why do you volunteer? When do you experience flow, that state when you are so completely absorbed in a task that time flies? Ask people who know you well what gets you passionate and excited. Gather more evidence with random experiences: meet-ups, books, museums and classes on subjects that are new to you.
Finally, visualize your future self, ten years hence. Imagine you’re being interviewed by your favorite TV personality. What story do you want to tell them about those ten years?2
When you have done all of this, you will still be unsure. There is no objective, single answer for you to discover, like some previously hidden subatomic particle. Even if there were a certain answer, our values are constantly changing as we experience life. When you decide, make sure you maximize your options for your future self.
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1Strongest in “Anglo” countries
2 Kim Stephenson’s brilliant notion.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey. One of the most important books I’ve ever read.
Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger. Don’t spend too much time on the Myers Briggs framework, which has some scientific weaknesses.
“The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love” by Robert H. Frank in the New York Times.