It’s the end of a life of studies and exams for millions of university graduates. You’re marching to get a diploma and embarking on the beginning of “real life” as an adult, where you are now the CEO of your own life. It’s a huge promotion from doing what your parents or professors told you to do day in and day out.
You’re in charge. So, what happens next?
You’ve got to pick something you really care about.
Picking an industry where there’s a greater upside can lead to greater success, for certain. But how many of us would bristle at the thought of choosing a career path in an industry that is growing when you have absolutely no interest in the field? Exactly. Work is so important to our lives — just think of how many hours we spend (or will spend) at work versus everything else we do — that inevitably you’ve got to choose something you really care about.
The industry you choose to build your career in will have a huge impact on your success. And while many can excel in that profession, the path you take to get there will have as much to do with your success as anything else. But does that mean you should pick a career path in something that doesn’t appeal to you, just because it’s a hot growth spot?
Choosing the right path
Keep in mind that success boils down to a simple truth: Some industries are growing at such a quick clip that opportunities abound. Just think of the job opportunities today for people who work in such cutting-edge industries as robotics, biotech, artificial intelligence, or renewable energy compared to manufacturing, brick-and-mortar retail, or even hedge funds.
Once you understand where your talent is, the job search becomes very straightforward.
A growing industry attracts people with the opportunities being created in it. Over time, more players enter that market, elevating competition and reducing the best opportunities for any one person. That’s why hedge funds are on my list of declining industries (too many people going after the same opportunity inevitably reduces the number of winners). Second, macro trends like globalisation and technological change make some segments of industries less attractive (storefront retail) and others more appealing (online retail).
So if you’re not sure where the intersection of opportunity and your interests lie, what can you do?
It is a fundamental truth that most people really like to do things that they’re good at. I really like coming up with new ideas and telling people about them. In my case, that led down a path to an academic career and every day I count my lucky stars I found my way there.
So, what are you good at? What skills do you have; what work do you enjoy doing? Make a list, and then ask: In what type of job or career track is this skillset really valued? In contrast, if you end up in a job where your particular talents aren’t highly valued, you’ll not only be unhappy, but you’ll also be wasting valuable time. If you’re great working with people, why sit in front of a computer all day doing social media?
Sounds simple, but it’s really very powerful. Once you understand where your talent sits, the job search becomes very straightforward, and you’ll be much happier when you land that job.
The reverse can work to. If you are passionate about animals, or sustainability, or drilling for oil for that matter, focus on learning the key skills you’ll need to stand out in these industries. This isn’t as straightforward as just starting with what you’re good at, because the truth is that no matter how exciting an industry or type of job might sound to you, it’s not automatic that you’ll be able to build the capabilities that will get you there, keep you there, and ideally, help you stand out there.
What if you aren’t really sure what you like, what you’re good at or what you want to do? That may well describe most people when they graduate and just haven’t yet done that many different things. There’s nothing wrong with that but you need to be smart about your next steps.
Your career isn’t something beyond your control.
I suggest a strategy of maximising your options and experiences. That means engaging in as many different types of projects, extracurricular activities like joining a club or even creating one and internships while at school. The greater the variety, the more you’ll learn about yourself. For every year you are in university, you should have at least one new type of internship. And if you’re still not sure after you graduate, keep seeking new opportunities to test out.
If you’re lucky enough to discover that magical track that turns you on, start focusing there, but until that point, you’ll increase your odds of success by experimenting. Whatever you do, don’t sit on the sidelines waiting for lightening to strike. Invest the time in yourself — don’t forget you’re the CEO of your own life — to find the work you love to do.
There’s one more thing to keep in mind if you want to give yourself more career options. Focus on the most important skills that apply to the world we’re in and where it’s going. These are skills that can be applied to all sorts of jobs and are least likely to be replicated by machines, making them especially valuable since they’ll put you in high demand for whatever direction you end up going in. According to the World Economic Forum’s report on The Future of Jobs (January 2016), these top skills are: Complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management and emotional intelligence.
The key message I want you to take from all this: Your career isn’t something beyond your control. It is in fact one of the absolute most important things you need to actively manage as CEO of your own life. If you can make Sunday night feel no different than Friday night, you’ll know you did it.
Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Director of The Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His new book is Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016). You can learn more at www.superbosses.com.
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