“Could you just help me out with, you know, what to do with my life?”
As a penultimate year university student, this was a genuine question my friend asked me over lunch last week. In fact, with most of my social circle nearing graduation, the theme of how to even begin choosing a career came up numerous times throughout the Christmas break.
For one, I get it. Job hunting is scary. Careers decisions are scary. As university students, we are under huge amounts of pressure to decide where to take our first step on the employment ladder, and the options are near endless. With the amount of choice in the careers market, it can be difficult to know where to even begin. Advice from parents is often outdated for the current recruitment mill, and friends can seem either like they’ve known their working destiny since birth, or just as confused!
This reminded me of an unconventional but valuable piece of advice that a senior colleague once gave me when I was working my first full-time job. I expressed to her that I had no real idea where to begin and no idea how to narrow down my options.
That advice was:
“Think about the kind of lifestyle that you want to have, then work backwards from there.”
At first, I was confused. But as we talked it through, it began to make more sense. When she said “lifestyle”, she said, she referred to your day-to-day working experience. In the grand scheme of things, we spend 1/3 of our life at work. Although you may not have huge amounts of working experience at this stage in your life, one thing you do know is yourself. So, in the future, what would you like that part of your life to look like?
Think about some of the basic categories of working life, such as location, hours and the kind of work. Then, from there, ask yourself what you know about yourself and your working style.
- What kind of people do you know that you like to work with?
- What would your ideal working space look like?
- Do you enjoy travelling, or would you prefer to be based in one location?
- What are your key priorities when looking for a role?
- What kind of work are you good at and makes you happy?
When we start asking ourselves these questions, they start to help narrow down potential avenues for research. For example, if you work best in a collaborative environment, you can begin to consider organisations which encourage that kind of work. Breaking down a big problem into smaller, manageable chunks is invaluable in the problem solving process, and can make the entire thing much less daunting.
This style of approach also works both ways – if you’re not sure exactly what you do want, start thinking about what you definitely don’t based off of your experiences at university and at work. If you love being active and hands-on, you may not want a traditional office-based role.
Thinking about your future career in this upside-down way helps to avoid surprises in the workplace. Some roles can look great on paper, only to find that the day-to-day reality is a complete mismatch for the person.
Once you’ve started thinking about these key questions, the next step I would recommend would be getting some small pieces of experience to see if what you think works for you does in reality. This is one of the best ways of helping you confirm or reconsider your options, and consolidate your ideas further. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to send out 84,394 internship applications – try out different things, keep a growth mindset and see what new experiences bring you!