Feeling Aimless After Graduation? How to Pick the Right Career


Preface

This is not your typical 5 step checklist to deciding what you’re passionate about and how to find a job that fits that passion. I’m not going to suggest any personality type tests, aptitude, or skills tests (they don’t work for me), or ask you to “visualize” and “manifest” your perfect day or identify lost childhood interests. You’re going to want to read this very closely, learn from the stories and examples mentioned here, and then take strategic action in the direction that’s right for you. No quiz and no person can tell you how to find a career you love. This is a journey of discovery you have to take for yourself.

Also, this is more of a mini book than a blog post so grab a cup of tea (or whatever you like to drink, get comfy, take your time, or feel free to come back to this whenever you have the time.

Part 1: The Problem with Following Your Passions

I’ve written before on my tumultuous journey in and out of (and back in) higher education and I recently read So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport. While I don’t think the book would have stopped me from dropping out and perhaps my younger self would have brushed off its lessons, I probably should have read it prior to dropping out. Anyway, the book eventually came at the right moment for me.

The part that really hit home for me was the story of Jane in Chapter 9:

Jane understands the importance of control. She was a talented student who earned top-one-percent scores on her standardized tests and attended a competitive university, but she was also unhappy with following a traditional path from college and into a steady, well paying job. Her vision for her life was more exotic. As an amateur athlete who once rode a bike across the country for charity and competed in an Ironman triathlon, she envisioned a more adventurous future. A copy of the life plan she sent me includes the goal of circumnavigating the world’s oceans and traveling without motor power across every continent: “Australia (by unicycle?)… Antarctica (by dog sled?).” The list also includes more eccentric goals, such as surviving in the wilderness “with no tools or equipment” for one month, and learning how to become a fire breather.

To finance this adventurous life, her plan calls, vaguely, for her to “build a set of low-maintenance websites that recurrently earn enough to support the pursuits on this list.” Her goal was to get this revenue up to $3,000 a month, which she calculated to be enough to handle her basic expenses. Eventually, she planned to leverage these experiences to “develop a non-profit to develop my vision of health, human potential, and a life well-lived.”

At first glance, Jane might remind you of Ryan and Sarah from Red Fire Farm. She recognized that gaining control over her life trumps simply gaining more income or prestige. Like Ryan trading in his diploma for farmland, this realization gave her the courage to step off a safe career path and instead pursue a more compelling existence. But unlike Ryan and Sarah, Jane’s plans faltered. Soon after we met, she revealed that her embrace of control had led her to an extreme decision: dropping out of college. It didn’t take her long to realize that just because you’re committed to a certain lifestyle doesn’t mean you’ll find people who are committed to supporting you.

“The current problem is financial independence,” she told me. “After quitting college, I started various businesses, and launched freelance and blog projects, but lost motivation to continue before substantial results came.” One of these experiments, a blog that she hoped to become the foundation of her empire of recurrent revenue generation, featured only three posts in nine months.

Jane had discovered a hard truth of the real world: It’s really hard to convince people to give you money. “I agree that it would be ideal to continue to develop my vision,” she admitted. “However, I also need money in order to eat.” Without even a college degree to her name, finding this money was proving difficult. A commitment to dogsledding across Antarctica, it turns out, doesn’t read well on a résumé.”

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, Chapter 9

Jane was the only person interviewed in the book who was a student and who wasn’t a “full grown up” with an already developed career, family, etc. Unfortunately Newport failed to include any practical advice for Jane to follow to get herself out of this situation and instead just used her as an example of what not to do.

Save for a few details, Jane is just like me. While dropping out of Northeastern was absolutely the right choice for me, my expectations and plans afterward were much like Jane’s.

Gifs are love. Gifs are life. — ♪Yes, I am a girl like you♪ By: thejennire  ✦Send...
“Yes I am a girl like you!”

As a young person, it’s easy to read books on lifestyle design like The 4-Hour Workweek or to see YouTubers, bloggers, influencers, and drop-shipping entrepreneurs and to get gassed up on the idea that you can go from nothing to a full-time income in a matter of weeks or a few months with zero prior experience.

Part of what makes these ideas so attractive to recent high school grads and 20-somethings like myself is what Cal Newport describes as “the passion ethos.” When it comes to work and our careers, we have very high expectations, much higher than our grandparents ever had.

My grandparents worked at an automotive plant in Niagara County, Western New York. It was a good job that allowed my paternal grandfather to support a family of seven and it allowed my maternal grandmother to support her kids and own her own home as a single mom. Both of them still get a pension to this day so the job also provided good benefits. Neither of my grandparents were very concerned about being “passionate” about automotive assembly – I’ve never even heard my grandfather talk about cars. My grandmother does know how to fix a lot of things and do car maintenance but her real hobbies include fishing and crochet, not anything car-related.

Nowadays, we expect our careers to bring us self-actualization, freedom, and of course money. The idea of being a “wage slave” in a cubicle or a “worker drone” has been vilified and demonized. Save for a few “sexy careers” like being a software developer, being a finance bro (or “finance ho” for the ladies, which I was on track to become at NEU), or a hotshot lawyer, it seems as though no one really wants to have an office job. And it’s slightly shameful to admit to being ok with one unless you work for some world-changing non-profit. People sort of hate on 9-5 jobs and there is no shortage of books on how to “quit your 9-5 and get out of the rat race!”

Everybody wants to (or feels like they should) be an entrepreneur, own their own business, or do anything other than a standard 9-5 corporate job. As young adults, we see how tired and miserable our parents are with their work (or we see it on TV and in movies) and we feel scared of falling into the trap of a dead-end job or being confined to a cubicle. We vow not to make the same mistakes and to be the ones to break the mold.

Fight Club Office GIFs | Tenor
“Everything’s a copy of a copy.”

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting more freedom in your career, Newport argues that you can’t have the benefits of autonomy without what he calls career capital.

What is Career Capital?

Career capital is a collection of rare and valuable skills that a potential employer, client, or customer would be willing to pay you for. Anyone who has a job that requires education or training beyond what an average 16-year-old could do after school has career capital to some degree. Doctors and lawyers obviously have career capital. Hairstylists and barbers, despite earning less than doctors and lawyers, have career capital too – not everyone has the skill to cut hair and on top of that you need a state license to do it.

But here’s where spotting career capital gets tricky.

At first glance, influencers or YouTubers, especially the teenagers, don’t have any career capital so it seems like a job anyone could do. However, once a content creator has a solid portfolio of videos or posts and has amassed a following, that following and that content is their career capital. Not everyone has thousands or millions of followers and the average number of Instagram followers per account is between 100 and 300. A large following of tens of thousands of followers who are regularly engaging with the content can be leveraged for brand deals, selling merch, or for Patreon subscribers. So, having a large following that is highly engaged is, by definition, rare and valuable and it counts as career capital even if it’s much more fragile than most career capital.

It also doesn’t seem like a 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg had any career capital when he dropped out of college and was starting Facebook but he actually had quite a bit in the field of software development, a complex and difficult field. He started writing software in middle school making games for his friends. Then, he created a program that allowed the computers in his family’s home and his father’s dental practice to communicate, he had a private software development tutor, and in high school, he created music software that used what we would now call AI to learn the music preferences of the listeners. So by the time Mark Zuckerberg was creating Facebook and dropping out of college, he already had an enormous amount of career capital in the field of software development and a portfolio of work to show for it.

The same is true for Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week. When Ferriss started his first company in 2001, he had recently earned a degree from Princeton and was working in sales at a data storage company. Solid sales skills are definitely a form of career capital necessary for starting your own business. I would also argue that there is probably more career capital that Ferris had before founding his first company that I just don’t know about. No one gets into Princeton or any other top tier school without an amount of career capital in some area or another that is higher than the average high school graduate. Tim Ferriss has also strategically used his career capital like compound interest in other areas to create books, a TV show, a podcast, and high-paid speaking engagements from the foundation of that first business.

This is where Jane and I differ from these two very wealthy people. They had a solid base of career capital on which to build their empires. As far as career capital, Jane had nothing more than 3 blog posts in 9 months and while I have more blog posts than that, I don’t have much else aside from the Associate’s Degree I’ll be earning this spring.

The thing about career capital is that it’s not easy to come by. The passion ethos and lifestyle design make it easy to think that if something is the right fit, it will come naturally and be easy for you and you’ll enjoy (almost) every second of it. But as Newport writes in his book, that is simply not the case. Earning career capital requires patience, focus, and a willingness to stretch yourself beyond the comfort zone of your current abilities.

This is not an easy thing to do, especially for people like Jane and myself who have always been top students and who are afraid of looking stupid or not knowing the right answer. This is the often-overlooked downside of being a top student who never got a B or C in a class and never struggled to learn anything. The truth is that there is no job that is the “right fit” for you, especially if you’re looking for something that fits the parameters of your comfort zone and current skills.

The truth is that there is no job that is the “right fit” for you, especially if you’re looking for something that fits the parameters of your comfort zone

Why Career Capital is Essential for a Solid Career

In Newport’s book, he uses the example of a woman with a solid career in advertising who quit her job to become a yoga instructor. While there are skills that can transfer from advertising to being a freelance yoga teacher, Newport argues that the quick 2-month program she took to become a yoga teacher would place her at the bottom of the skills hierarchy and was not enough time to generate the amount of career capital necessary to become a truly great yoga teacher. After all, Master Yogis practice and study for years. Indeed, this woman ended up on food stamps when the recession hit in 2008 and the gym where she taught closed, the school program she taught was dropped, and the demand for private lessons decreased. The entire yoga industry didn’t shut down completely during the recession and perhaps she would have been laid off from her job in advertising anyway. But given her history and experience in marketing, it is likely that she would be able to find a new job in advertising more quickly than finding new positions as a yoga teacher with little experience.

By contrast, Newport writes about another person who had a passion and skill for illustrating and used his career capital in marketing to move from a corporate job in marketing to another position that combined his love for illustrating with his career capital in marketing and used it for designing brand logos. From there, he started his own agency and because he leveraged his existing experience and industry contacts, he had a line of high-quality clients waiting for him before he ever quit his job to go out on his own. This person had built up career capital in an area that matched his artistic interest.

Now, that’s all well and good for those people. Having pre-existing career capital makes it easy to decide what direction to take in your career. But career capital is industry specific so if you don’t already have career capital and you don’t pick something to focus on long enough for that career capital to build up, you won’t get very far with anything.

The Fallacy of Career Tests and Virtual Job Shadowing

Earning career capital is crucial for having a solid career but it also requires that you step outside your comfort zone and this is where skills tests and career quizzes fall short. The idea behind these tests and quizzes is that there is some ideal career out there that combines your personality, passions, and skills, and if you can find a career that combines those things, then you won’t end up miserable like so many other people are in their careers.

However, as teenagers or 20-somethings with very little work experience outside of an after school job or a summer internship, we don’t have enough skills necessary to determine what career path we should take. All we have are the subjects we did well in at school, which we may or may not have enjoyed. Most people tend to do well in subjects they like and they like the subjects that they do well. This creates a feedback loop that has been in play as early as elementary school and it keeps us relegated to one type of skill set or career.

On top of that, if you were a high-achieving student like I was, you may have excelled in many subjects at school but you didn’t truly enjoy them. Or perhaps you only enjoy a subject when it relates directly to something you’re passionate about. I for one do not like chemistry at all but, if you start talking to me about the chemistry of hair products, skin care products, or makeup, then I’m all ears. The thing is though, most chemistry courses in high school and college are taught in a vacuum and focus on general knowledge rather than a specific application. It wouldn’t be possible for a teacher to cater to every single student’s personal interests but without that specific connection to something I care about, I have no interest in chemistry and no desire to learn about it. This is one of the greatest shortcomings of our educational system.

As I said before, building career capital requires going beyond the comfort zone of your current skills. So, the important question is not “What are your current skills?” These career tests should be asking is “What skills are you interested in gaining, regardless of your current abilities?”

Furthermore, I don’t believe it’s possible for anyone to honestly answer career tests, no matter how self-aware you may be. Career tests that ask you to rate how much you would enjoy doing certain tasks are fundamentally flawed. They are really asking how much you think you would enjoy doing those certain tasks and what you think you may enjoy and what you would actually enjoy are not always in alignment.

This is especially true for people like me who are by nature very contrarian. I’m the type of person who will dislike things because they are popular. Case in point, when Hamilton first came out and everyone was talking about it, I rolled my eyes and wrote it off. But it wasn’t because I don’t like performances that are 100% in song form with no talking (some people can’t stand this but I don’t mind it at all). And it wasn’t because I’m not interested in the historical subject matter (I love historically themed movies like National Treasure). The reason I ignored it was because everyone was so hyped for it that I dismissed it as “basic” and didn’t even bother to watch it. But lo and behold, when Hamilton came out on Disney+ and I watched it by myself during the Great Summer Quarantine of 2020, I loved it!

The moral of the story is that you can’t truly know what you want or what you’ll like until you actually try it. This goes for plays, movies, art, new foods, and careers. However, it’s much easier to just switch shows on TV or leave a movie theater if you don’t like what you’re seeing after 30 minutes versus changing your job after you’ve already sunk time and money into gaining the education and skills necessary for that job. This is where a virtual job shadowing tool like virtualjobshadow.com or watching YouTube videos of people who are in that career can be of use but it doesn’t give a full and accurate picture of what really goes on behind the scenes in a career.

I took a look on virtualjobshadow.com at the Veterinary Technician career and I could already tell it wasn’t giving a complete picture of the job. The video has a bunch of technicians holding puppies and kittens and smiling. There’s even a giant tortoise in the clinic. My mom is a small animal emergency veterinarian and what those virtual job shadowing videos won’t show you about working as a vet tech is that (at least in an emergency setting) you see pets hit by a car, pets that got in a dog fight, broken limbs with the bone sticking out and tons of blood, canine and feline C-sections where the puppies and kittens don’t make it, a dog comes in and ate something it shouldn’t so now it’s vomiting everywhere and it needs surgery, blocked cats that can’t urinate and need catheters, the irate pet owners who don’t understand that they’re going to have to wait just as long at the animal ER as the human ER and that the animal ER is not free, it’s just as expensive as the human ER, etc. The virtual job shadow has a video on how to handle euthanasia cases and yes, there are times when the pets don’t survive and it’s always sad and my mom still cries- euthanasia never gets easier.

But the videos leave out all those yucky things that happen in the middle that you may not think about or mentally sweep under the rug unless you have seen it first hand or know someone who has seen it all first hand. On top of all that, those gory details don’t even include the reality of how difficult it is to find work as a vet tech and how underpaid vet techs are compared to all of the schooling required and the amount of student loan debt that so many vet techs and veterinarians struggle with. These are the things that I am privy to know solely because my mom has worked in the industry for nearly 30 years and because she speaks about these things to me candidly.

These aren’t the kind of things that people will say when there is a camera in their face. Of course they aren’t going to post the videos from people who are full of regret and are looking to make a change. And this is only for one industry that I happen to know about! So I wonder what goes on behind the scenes in all the other industries and jobs that I don’t know anything about.

The most important part of learning about potential careers is not what skills you need and if you have those skills because skills can be taught and learned. The important part is discovering whether or not you enjoy that kind of work which is something that can only be learned from your own direct experience. With the pandemic, a virtual job shadow might be the only option available but it won’t give a complete picture of the job and will never be a good substitute for actual in-person shadowing or hands-on learning.

Part 2: How to gain career capital

The obvious way to build career capital is to “begin with the end in mind” and figure out what you want to do with your life and then gain the education and/or job experience that fits with your goals. For most people, this means going to college. This is an easy decision for people like my mom who wanted to be a veterinarian since she was 4 years old. To be a vet, the steps are obvious: bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, entry-level position in a clinic. The path is clear and the steps are well-worn.

I however am not like that at all. I have many interests and none of them are linked to a single, obvious career. I’ve read a few books geared toward people who can’t decide on one area of study or who have many varied interests. Barbara Sher’s Refuse to Choose! is probably the most popular. People like me or like Jane are called Scanners, Generalists, Multipotentialite, Renaissance people in a world full of specialists, Polymaths, a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none. But I didn’t find any of those books very helpful.

In those books, many of the examples were for older people who already had a career or an “adult job” and a certain amount of career capital in some area. But, when you’re young and just starting out, how do you gain career capital when you don’t know what area to choose? Do you really need a 4-year college degree to get started in the working world?

Why A Bachelor’s Degree Won’t Give You Career Capital

As we have seen from the example of the advertiser-turned-yoga-teacher, career capital is specific to each field and won’t transfer over into a new career in a totally different field. Imagine Mark Zuckerberg trying to use the career capital he has earned in the field of software and computers to try and become a historian, museum curator, or anthropologist. Yes, solid computer skills are useful in every career but he’d be starting over in a whole new unrelated area with his career capital at next to zero.

There is no standard path for gaining career capital beyond earning a bachelor’s degree for most fields (doctors, lawyers, and researchers obviously need graduate school and then some). Personally, I don’t believe that a bachelor’s degree is necessary for many fields. If I did, I’d be applying as a transfer student to universities. With that said, a college degree does seem to be the most obvious and straightforward way to gain career capital because it is a well-trodden path and so many employers seem to require one. But the truth is, the vast majority of 4-year college degrees do not provide sufficient career capital to justify the cost.

This is a big reason why I’m not currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree and I won’t be until I decide just what area I’d like to gain career capital in. And even then, there are other pathways to obtain career capital aside from attending university.

As stated in this study conducted by the Harvard Business School, many employers have been using a bachelor’s degree as a proxy for filtering candidates for hard and soft skills. Hard skills (aka career capital) are the kinds of things you either know or you don’t and will often dictate what career you end up in, and they are easier to filter for based on a candidate’s major and skill set. Soft skills are the skills that are easily transferable between different fields but are trickier to flesh out from a resume or brief interview.

Real Major-Job Matches from NC State grads

So when most university grads end up with jobs that are unrelated to their major (a religion major working at MTV?!), that tells me that most employers aren’t using a bachelor’s degree as a solid verification of hard skills nearly as much as they are relying on the 4-year degree as a proxy for those difficult to quantify soft skills. My conclusion is confirmed by the same Harvard Business School study which went on to state that the majority of employers found both recent graduates and non-degree workers with some work experience as equally likely to require more upfront training to reach full productivity.

As someone who has worked in retail and customer service jobs for 4 years (that’s 4 years of career capital in customer service), I definitely have an abundance of soft skills and I’m not about to pay thousands of dollars for a 4-year degree just to certify that I have them. I am of the opinion, like most people, that the purpose of getting a bachelor’s degree is (or should be) to get an “adult job” and the main value of that degree, given how much it costs these days, should be industry-specific hard skills which are difficult to come by elsewhere.

However, if most students were honest with themselves, their main reasons for going to college are likely parties, unlimited alcohol (among other substances), no parent supervision, or the eternally vague benefit of “networking” and “connections.”

I never cared much for alcohol and other drugs but I’ll be the first to admit that my desire to attend Northeastern had more to do with getting away from my conservative Southern Baptist parents, the school’s ranking, and the fact that I just love Boston and the New England countryside in the fall than with obtaining a good education and gaining hard skills that would land me a “big girl job.”

In my opinion, the only way going to university provides students with career capital is through internships and co-ops. Most internships are posted as only open to students currently enrolled in a 4-year degree program or recent graduates with a bachelor’s degree. Needless to say, I think these are ridiculous requirements and that most internships should be open to high school graduates or students with an associate’s degree or who are enrolled in a 2-year degree program. When the majority of employers found both recent graduates and non-degree workers equally likely to require more upfront training to reach full productivity, then it would make much more sense and be much more efficient for the employers to have students in internship programs receiving necessary job training sooner rather than later.

Some 4- year degrees like computer science, accounting, engineering, etc. do verify hard skills. But a 4- year degree is not the only way to gain those hard skills and many of the popular majors like business administration, political science, economics, or communications are very soft skills focused. I think that’s why they are so popular among students. Most 17-18 year-olds don’t know what they want to do with their life, so they pick a more general degree that will let them decide later (such as the example in the photo of an economics major who became a veterinarian). In fact, many students with totally unrelated undergraduate degrees end up in law, medical, or graduate school once they decide that’s what they want to do after they complete undergrad.

I know that’s what I did at Northeastern. I was majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance and my second choice for a major was political science. The only reason I picked finance was I had to pick something in order to apply and finance seemed like it would pay well and sounded like an impressive career choice. Not a great reason to sink yourself into tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt that can never be discharged.

While I was job hunting, the amount of listings that say a master’s degree is preferred but the tasks in the job description require a bachelor’s degree and/or a few years of experience at the most is insane. With degree inflation on the rise, I think I would be much better off getting a graduate degree in whatever area I decide to pursue than wasting time and money on a bachelor’s degree.

So what if you’re like me or like Jane? What do you do when you don’t know exactly what you want to do? How do you gain career capital when you can’t pick an area to start gaining career capital in?

Get (or keep) a day job

"Get a Job!" quote from the princess and the frog

For people like me and Jane, the first step is to get (or keep) a full-time day job. I know, I know, I wouldn’t want to hear it either but it’s the obvious truth. And although part of me wishes I had read Newport’s book before I dropped out of Northeastern, another part of me knows that I wasn’t ready to accept this truth at the time anyway.

So don’t quit your day job. And if you’re close to completing your degree then, by all means, complete it. That’s the main reason I’m pursuing an associate’s degree after dropping out of Northeastern – I had so many credits from AP classes in high school, plus my 1 semester at Northeastern that it’s taken me less than a year to finish my associate’s degree and like most people, I wasn’t doing much or going anywhere in 2020 so I figured why not. I had no idea what else to do with myself in the meantime and an associate’s degree along with my past work experience should at least act as verification of my soft skills to employers.

If you’re like me and you want to drop out after only the first semester of freshman year at a big, expensive university, I won’t tell you to stay in school but don’t underestimate how long it will take to build up career capital without a degree. Expect it to take just as long as it would to finish a degree and then some. Especially as a content creator or business owner, going viral is not a strategy you should ever count on. In fact, going viral is not a strategy. Period. So, don’t expect things to move quickly.

As I stated before, it seems like no one wants to have a job, everyone has a side hustle, everyone wants to be their own boss, and the idea of being a “worker bee” has been vilified in our society. The idea of getting any old job hits home for me, especially because my mom has always said that “J.O.B.” is an acronym for “just over broke.” Of course, I don’t want to be broke and naturally, I want my mom to be proud of me.

Getting a job can be riddled with shame and embarrassment, especially when your family questions your choices and asks what happened to that last business idea you were working on or when you see friends the same age as you reaching milestones in their relationships and careers. It feels like you’re stagnating in life while everyone else is moving forward, on to bigger and seemingly better things.

And it’s essential not to underestimate how difficult it is to not care what other people think when you think you don’t measure up. Everyone tries to act like they don’t give a fuck but it’s natural and to a degree, unavoidable, to care about what other people think. The only people who genuinely do not care what anyone else thinks are literal, clinical sociopaths. So if you feel the need to avoid certain groups of people or situations then do what you need to do. You’re not obligated to attend your class reunion, family reunion, or to stay in certain social circles. There’s a reason why I’m no longer in contact with anyone I knew or made friends with at Northeastern and I have zero organic desire to attend any high school class reunions. But at the same time, don’t let fear hold you back from going somewhere you truly want to go. It’s up to you to make that call.

Unless you want to live with your parents until you decide what field to be in or until you can build up enough career capital to make your side hustle/YouTube channel/business idea/acting or singing career/books you’re writing/whatever your main source of income, you have to get a job (or two). Even if it’s not a particularly glamorous or well-paying job. If you want to live with your parents until you accumulate sufficient career capital, then so be it but not everyone wants to do this or has this option available to them.

Furthermore, I think that forcing yourself to be financially self-sufficient, even if you don’t really have to, will prevent you from becoming too complacent. It’s easy to get complacent when you don’t have to pay rent or rent is severely under market rate because your parents love you, they’re not going to try and squeeze all the rent money they can from you, and your meals are paid for.

In my personal experience, becoming financially self-sufficient is crucial for people like myself and Jane because independence and autonomy are at the core of why we can’t pick one defined path and want to have a career outside of a 9-5 job in the first place.

It seems ironic that the best way to help your side hustle succeed is to get a full-time day job, rather than having a part-time job and living with your parents. But, getting away from my parents was the main reason I went to Northeastern, and moving out is all I can think about now that I’m back to living with them. I want to move out and I want to move yesterday so as long as I am living with my parents, I will never have the patience required to perform Deep Work (another great book by Cal Newport you should read) and build the necessary career capital for any side hustle to take off.

When you need your side hustle or your passion to pay the bills but you don’t have the necessary career capital in that arena built up yet, it only adds stress and impatience to what you’re trying to accomplish. Unnecessary stress and impatience are only going to trip you up in the long term by making you think and act desperately instead of making moves strategically.

So use whatever career capital you may have built up already (even if it’s customer service or retail) to get the best job you can that will pay the bills. And when I say “best” I mean best in terms of pay, work-life balance, location (remote work was essential for me), and expanding on your previous career capital to gain new skills. Using myself as an example, rather than getting a job at Target that pays a healthy $15/hour but any 16-year-old could do, I applied to jobs that would still pay a healthy amount but could also make use of my prior experience in retail, customer service, and as a receptionist at a spa. The jobs I looked at were remote customer support jobs within the healthcare industry because they were similar enough to my previous jobs but also provided opportunities to learn new skills such as managing sensitive patient information and some IT skills. Also, knowing that I want to move to Boston and that Boston has many excellent hospitals, experience handling patient information, and experience dealing with high call volume from patients would be excellent to have if I need to seek out other job opportunities in the city. This is the kind of strategic planning that needs to happen in order to leverage whatever career capital you may have to earn more money from your day job so it can support your side hustle.

Don’t expect your passion to pay the bills at first- the stress & impatience will trip you up in the long term by making you think & act desperately instead of making moves strategically

First Things First

The very last scene in Pirates of The Caribbean: At World’s End made me realize the importance of financial self-sufficiency and getting out of my parents’ house. Jack Sparrow- excuse me, Captain Jack Sparrow- is in a dingy with a treasure map and he pulls out his magic compass which points to whatever the person holding it wants most at the moment (rather than pointing North). Instead of pointing ahead to Florida where the treasure is, however, the magic compass points behind him. Captain Sparrow reaches behind him, pulls out a large bottle of rum, and only then does the magic compass reorient itself to point towards the treasure.

This is how I feel about moving out of my parents’ house and living in Boston- I’m never going to be able to know which direction I should take in life until I can first take care of myself and move out. Financial self-sufficiency is my version of a bottle of rum; I need it before I can know which direction to take so the journey can truly begin.

That’s why it’s critical to ensure that first things happen first. Your metaphorical bottle of rum may not be moving out of your parents’ house like mine is. But whatever your “first thing” is- be it a certain relationship or your social life, a certain experience, a trip, etc.- focus on that before you try to divine your life’s purpose or what major or career you should pick.

Obviously, don’t put your life on hold for some big milestone that you’ve built up in your head or life will pass you by. But I have found myself in the same pattern of moving out, moving back in, then moving back out again and now I’m back home- again- for 3 years now. I’ve thought up business idea after business idea in attempts to earn enough money to move out but to no avail. Life is already passing me by; I’m taking a step forward, two steps back, and going nowhere. So for me, financial self-sufficiency and moving out of my parent’s house is less about achieving a grand milestone than just getting a move on things already. If you’re truly honest with yourself, you should be able to tell whether or not your “bottle of rum” is a real prerequisite for beginning your life’s journey or if it is an artificial barrier you constructed in your head.

I have also learned that when I don’t put first things first, I’m more likely to become unfocused and unable to choose the correct path for myself, hence the multitude of ideas that never got turned into reality. Once that first thing is taken care of, it can be amazing how much clarity you gain. You may even realize that you’re not really a Scanner, Multipotentialite, or jack-of-all-trades- you simply were trying to do two opposing things at once.

This is what happened with me before I realized the importance of putting first things first. I had two opposing goals. On the one hand, I want to move out of my parents’ house as soon as possible but I also want to become a business owner someday. Building a thriving business takes a lot of patience- even for people who do have an abundance of career capital and money at their disposal, which I don’t. Instead of making consistent progress with one idea and seeing it through, I grew impatient way too easily and jumped on to the next idea as soon as progress slowed down on one thing. I know it’s not logical to start over from zero every time progress slows down but because I was so impatient, starting over gave me the illusion that I was moving.

When it really came down to it there were only two options. I could either move out as quickly as possible and then start working on gaining career capital and building a business or I could be patient and let go of the idea of moving out for many years until I had already gained career capital and built a thriving business. I knew I would never stop being impatient to move out so getting a job and moving out as soon as possible was the clear choice for me.

Now is not the time to stunt

To expedite that process of moving out, I have taken on a full-time job making the absolute bare minimum I need to live on my own. After all, Captain Sparrow only had a tiny dingy to sail on the Caribbean seas to his new treasure. So when I say bare minimum, that means no big fancy apartment (I’ll likely have multiple roommates), no new clothes (as much as I love fashion), no buying or leasing a new car, no running up the balance on my credit card, no designer shoes or handbags, no going out to clubs and blowing thousands of dollars on bottle service, no expensive trips to Bali or wherever- especially not flying first class.

Those are the kinds of things that many people in their 20s are doing because they have the money, be it from family or a higher paying job or even from their own business and venture-backed start-ups. And social media makes it easy to feel like shit because your peers are somehow “ahead” of you in life, so delete that shit! Or, at the very least, unfollow all the influencers and distant acquaintances who only make you feel worse about yourself anyway.

Even if someone is your age and they don’t have rich parents and yet they have a thriving business or YouTube channel or whatever, don’t look at them and think that you should be where they are right now just because you’re both the same age. You don’t know what kind of career capital they had in a certain area to get them where they are now. Even Mark Zuckerberg looks like an overnight success at 19 until you learn that he was writing software since he was in middle school, which is almost a decade’s worth of career capital in that area.

The people we envy on Instagram probably won’t have their own Wikipedia page for us to check where their career capital came from so don’t go looking for an explanation as to why the influencers or the people you know are “making it” so early on in life and you’re not. I can tell you right now that the reason is either hard work over a long period of time, their appearance, or luck, and only one of those variables is something you can control so focus on doing your own hard work.

The people who are making it early on in life may not be the people who are “making it” when they’re in their 30s, 40s, or 50s and the people who are “not making it” in their 20s could very well end up being incredibly wealthy. The wealthiest personal friend I have is a woman in her mid-40s who always tells me that she worked hard for 25 years and now that’s why she can easily afford a brand new luxury car and designer clothes. When she first came to America in her 20s, she lived in a tiny apartment with 5 guys as her roommates and worked as a hairdresser. Her husband, also an immigrant, had to eat from the table scraps left over from restaurants in Boston. Now they’re multi-millionaires.

Focus on gaining career capital in the area of your passion

Once have a day job and have gotten your “bottle of rum”, now you have to focus on gaining career capital in the area of your passion.

I know- the word “passion” is grossly overused. But you know what I mean. Now is the time to use your free time to work on your side hustle/passion project/blog/YouTube Channel (not to idly watch Netflix or go out and party every weekend) without the added stress of it having to pay the bills.

If this were Jane, she might be able to get a day job at a nonprofit and then work on her blog and businesses in her free time and if not, she could get a day job elsewhere and then blog and volunteer in her free time. Jane stated that she wanted to “develop a non-profit to develop my vision of health, human potential, and a life well-lived.” The very statement is somewhat circular. Nonprofits don’t develop visions. Nonprofits have visions and then they execute the vision to help people or society at large in some way.

Jane first needs to get a vision and she’s not going to be able to get down to a specific vision of “health, human potential, and a life well-lived” if she doesn’t first narrow down those three already very broad categories and then figure out how best to help people succeed in those areas. But she won’t be able to do that if she isn’t actively working with people, finding out what they need to improve their health and reach their potential (not what she may think they need).

Newport states that defining a clear mission and vision requires being in the “adjacent possible” of your field which can only come from having built up a significant amount of career capital in one area. Similarly, angel investor Naval Ravikant calls this “specific knowledge” which he says comes from being on “the bleeding edge” of your field of work. It is only from getting to the adjacent possible or the bleeding edge of a field that you can then innovate, create something new, and reap the rewards.

How to pick an area to get career capital in

Jane at least has a clear goal of starting a non-profit. That’s something that can be worked towards and can guide her choices in job hunting and how she spends her free time to build up the career capital and specific knowledge that she needs.

But what do you do when, like me, you don’t know what your passion is? What if you have too many things you like and you can never just stick with one project? What do you do when you don’t seem to have any big ambitions at all?

Once again, career capital is industry specific. You have to pick an area to start accumulating those hard skills and you have to be able to stick with it long enough for substantial results to show up but how you pick is the key.

Jane and I are both impatient when it comes to this sort of thing, but career capital isn’t accumulated overnight just like it takes decades’ worth of compound interest to build a fortune.

Some people say that to find your passion you should look back on what you loved doing as a child and then do that. While that is a good way to find a fresh perspective, it may not work for you.

I, for one, am not going to become a paleontologist, CIA agent, or an actual Princess even though I loved dinosaurs, Batman, and Disney princesses as a kid. I’m also not going to own a farm and raise horses, nor am I going to become a figure skating champion and I don’t like the idea of teaching skating lessons either even though I loved those childhood activities and would still love to ride and skate if I had all the time and money in the world.

But instead of asking yourself what you would do if money were no object (because let’s be real, money is always an object), or what you like or don’t like and what you’re passionate about or what you liked as a kid, you have to ask yourself what you’re curious about right now.

What are you curious about right now?

What are you curious about right now? You don’t even have to be passionate about it and it doesn’t have to be something that you liked in childhood or a preexisting curiosity. In fact, it’s better if it’s not. This curiosity could be literally anything and if it’s something that you don’t think you’ll like then that’s even better.

It could be your family’s genealogy, how computer transistors work, why do people behave worse online than in real life, why do slower songs tend to feel sadder, what is spandex, why does the sun appear to change color at the end of the day, how is paper made, gardening, how to build an extendable table, etc.

You could be curious about the most boring and stupid thing in the world and you never know where that might take you.

While writing the first draft of this, I just sent an email to the admissions office at NC State asking if I could earn 2-3 minors but no major and if I earned enough credits in addition to my associate’s degree, would I be able to get a bachelor’s degree? The yes or no doesn’t really matter and I won’t be too upset if I can’t. But at the end of my email, I asked why.

I asked why, if the answer is no, can I not only earn 2-3 minors? Why can’t the credits from 2-3 minors add up to my very own custom-designed major? Who is in charge of what constitutes a major anyway? Do schools just make up their own majors or is there some third party that has to give verification any time a school wants to add a new major? If so, who is this third party? Who made these rules anyway and why are they like that?

Perhaps nothing will come of this and learning how majors are created in universities is probably the most boring and stupid thing in the world. But I was curious so I asked. For all I know, I could go on to start a movement to allow students to earn multiple minors without a major and change the entire higher education system. I’m not planning on doing it, I probably won’t do it and I’m not passionate about reforming higher education but it’s a possibility. It sounds like a ridiculous thing for me to do but I’d say it’s more likely that I go on to change the higher education system and to grow to become passionate about it than it is for me to go viral on social media, marry rich, win the lottery, or any other quick-fix daydreams.

The Importance of Curiosity

If you think you aren’t curious, think again. Every human being on this planet is curious. It’s in our DNA; it’s in our nature. Children are naturally curious and children always ask why? But somewhere along the line, we get the curiosity in us beaten down because adults get annoyed when children ask why too much. Then we become afraid to ask and we repress our innate curiosity because the adult in charge when failing to produce a satisfactory answer to our question, gets mad, punishes us, accuses us of back-talking, or gives us the silent treatment as if by ignoring us for long enough our curiosity will disappear. While our curiosity may deflate, it never totally disappears.

My favorite part of The 4-Hour Workweek is when Tim Ferris describes his experience in kindergarten. The teacher said he had to learn the alphabet and when he asked why, the teacher didn’t explain why he should learn it, opting instead for “I’m the teacher- that’s why.” Wrong answer. Ferriss recalls telling the teacher that was stupid and to leave him alone so he could go back to drawing sharks.

What if, instead of hearing “because I said so” (which is just laziness or exasperation on the part of the adult), we had all gotten our questions as children answered in a satisfactory way that was easy for us to understand and appropriate for our age? What if, instead of the silent treatment, we had gotten a simple, “I don’t feel comfortable answering that,” a simple but direct assertion that teaches boundaries and tells us that we aren’t owed an explanation, nor do we owe an explanation to anyone else unless we want to share?

Then perhaps, we would feel allowed to be as curious as we want and to seek out our own answers.

Follow your threads of curiosity and see where they take you.

For me right now, (aside from learning how college majors work) I’m curious about sexual health and pelvic floor strength but no, I don’t want to become a gynecologist or pelvic floor physiotherapist. So, to follow my thread of curiosity, I requested copies of the original research papers from the NC State University library written by Dr. Kegel, the godfather of all things related to increasing the strength of the pelvic floor muscles. Reading old scientific research written in 1948 about urinary incontinence and pelvic floor strength doesn’t sound like most people’s ideas of a good time. It’s not the kind of answer I would give if I was put on the spot several months ago and someone asked me what I was passionate about. But it doesn’t have to be!

I was curious about how to perform kegel exercises correctly (turns out I was doing it wrong), and if kegel exercises and a stronger pelvic floor would lead to better sex. I started writing about my journey to increase my pelvic floor strength on my blog because as it turns out, a lot of information on pelvic floor strength on the internet is utterly confusing, misleading, and just low-quality information even when compared to dated 70-year-old research. I also offered to write an article for free about pelvic floor muscles for a menstrual cup brand using my newfound research.

Even if I don’t become a gynecologist, this could be a stepping stone on my way to becoming a paid writer, an online sexual wellness influencer, or something else entirely. I have no idea where this thread of curiosity will take me. It could take me back to university to earn a bachelor’s degree and that’s totally ok too. I’m not against getting a degree but I’ll get one if and when I’m ready for it, not because it’s what people my age are supposed to do or because it’s the next step in a well-traveled path.

And if this thread of curiosity doesn’t take me very far, I at least have a small “project” that I produced and had published by a brand to show for it at the end. Not all threads of curiosity are long. Not all of them will lead to a career. And that’s ok because not all of them have to. Eventually, one of them will. Or you’ll have a large collection of shorter threads and a very interesting, multi-faceted life.

Do Things For Free

I can’t know for certain if I would have been turned down had I asked to be paid for my writing but I do know that it is always much easier to get a “yes” when you offer to do something for someone else with no strings attached than it is to ask them for something right out of the gate, especially since I have no career capital or experience as a writer. Gary Vaynerchuck, a multi-millionaire marketing guru and internet personality, calls this tactic “jab, jab, jab- right hook” and the concept is to give, give, give – and then ask for something in return.

It may very well be true that I never would have gotten this opportunity to write for a brand if I wasn’t willing to work for free. And you won’t be willing to work for free to get your foot in the door if you’re relying on your passion or threads of curiosity to pay the bills. In a way, doing things for free is like an unpaid internship that gets you college credits but instead of credits to put towards a degree, you earn career capital to make use of in life.

Sometimes this approach doesn’t always work. I use a digital wellness and productivity software called Cold Turkey and I really like it. I noticed that the owner hadn’t posted to his blog in over 2 years so I emailed him with an offer to write a few posts about digital wellness for his blog for free because that happens to be another topic that I’m interested in. I also suggested that if he liked my work, we could then talk about “a more formal business relationship in the future” (i.e., I would get paid to continue writing for him and his company) and if not, then I would still be happy to have the experience.

I thought this would be an excellent fit for both of us- he would get free marketing content for his business and I would get to write about a topic that I’m interested in for a company that I’m already a customer of. I assumed he was busy creating a quality software product and writing prose just wasn’t his thing. However, he turned me down because he wasn’t looking to use his blog as a marketing tool but rather as more of a “how-to” guide for users of his software and he said he would do that on his own time.

It was a bit of a letdown but since I’m not impatient or in a rush for blogging or writing to become my main source of income, it was no problem, the pressure is off of both of us, and I can easily bounce back and go seek out opportunities elsewhere without feeling completely defeated when one seemingly perfect opportunity doesn’t work out.

Doing things for free also includes taking on unpaid internships or reaching out and asking for opportunities for in-person job shadowing. If you can’t get an opportunity for in-person shadowing, the next best thing is to find someone who is established in the career area you’re interested in and ask if you could talk to them about their job and the day to day realities of it. This could be someone you already know like a family member or friend’s parent or it could be someone that you’re introduced to through friends or family.

Try Everything

Disney Animation Dancing GIF by Disney - Find & Share on GIPHY

As I said before about career skills tests, the flaw with those tests is that they can’t substitute for direct experience. This is the part of your journey where it’s time to try things out.

I mentioned that I don’t care much for chemistry but I’m interested in chemistry when it relates to cosmetics so Cosmetic Chemist could be a career option for me, even though it didn’t show up on my Focus2Career test results. To explore this thread of curiosity could mean making my own cosmetics, taking a class on making cosmetics, or shadowing a cosmetic chemist for a week and offer to help them out for free, even if it is just bitch work.

There are many other things I’m interested in beyond what I’ve previously mentioned and chances are, if you can’t decide on one career path, you probably have many things you’re curious about too. This is the time to try out as many different things as your schedule and budget will allow (I know it’s a lot harder now with COVID and may not be possible for everyone). You could take up a kickboxing or dance class (or both!), try metalsmithing or pottery, shadow an accountant for a week, take a scuba-diving class, offer to be a classroom assistant for a week at an elementary school, etc. The possibilities are endless and the direct experience will be much more valuable than learning about potential careers through watching videos.

Document your journey

Documenting your journey and publishing it, even if you’re not trying to become a content creator or influencer, can be part of how you build your career capital. Think of it as a portfolio of all the projects you’ve completed and experiences you’ve had, showcasing your improvements over time. Some of these projects will have value to you as a job seeker, some will have immense personal value, or perhaps one day you can use them on a university application.

I like to write so my form of documenting my journey along the threads of curiosity is blogging.

If writing or blogging isn’t for you, you could make a video diary and post the videos on YouTube. You could keep a collection of photos of your projects and put them on Instagram or make a good old fashioned scrapbook if that’s what suits you. You could keep a Da Vinci style notebook instead of writing whole blog articles. If you don’t like cameras and you don’t like to write, you could record audio notes and publish them as a podcast or put them up on SoundCloud or run the audio through a transcription service and “write” a blog that way.

If you’ve documented your journey, you could find yourself with enough career capital in your portfolio to launch yourself in a new direction, if you choose to do so. You might not want to become an influencer or online personality right now but 20 years ago the job of “influencer” didn’t even exist. Who knows what other jobs will exist 10-20 years from now that we can’t even begin to conceptualize yet. And who knows how your personal portfolio might help you in the future.

However, you may find that having a decent enough day job that lets you chase down tons of different hobbies in your free time is much better than the stress of turning something you’re curious or passionate about into something that has to pay the bills anyway. Ultimately, it’s up to you.

Not every thread you pull on will turn out to be your one big passion or your calling but eventually, you’ll pull on a thread you’re curious about and you’ll strike passion where you least expect it.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s