Three better ways to figure out the answer the question “what do you want to do?”

Asking someone “what do you want to do?” is a terrible question. Yet we ask this question over and over to young people.

If I were asked this question, my response would be complicated:

“Since the half-life of skills is rather short and I can’t predict what types of work will exist ten years from now, I am going to work on a wide range of challenging problems, focusing on work that enables me to learn on the job and exposing myself to risks such that I will be more comfortable with change when I get older so I can stay energized throughout my career.

Cue the eye roll. It’s easier if someone just says, “I want to be a lawyer” right?

I spend a lot of time talking to people trying to make sense of their careers. I talk with college students, young professionals and even people at the tail end of their career trying to figure out what’s next.

For many, career choices have never involved much thought. You pick a major and take a job in that field. You stay within a department at a company. You stay within a certain industry. You follow the default path.

However, default paths are mostly an illusion. Even people who may have a resume that looks linear will likely tell you about their many speed bumps, rejections and course corrections along the way.

Given how fast our economy is changing, more people are having to take a step back and take a different approach that just following the default path. In my experience working with people as a career coach and mentor, I have found three approaches that help people take a different approach to planning their career:

Lens #1: What skills do you have?

You have two choices in all career decisions:

  1. Strengthen current skills
  2. Build new skills

The first step is to understand what your current skills are. People often do not give themselves credit for some skills that they have. I like to break down skills into two categories. First is “fundamental” skills — these are the ones that would have been relevant 200 years ago and will be relevant 200 years into the future — and are things not traditionally thought of as skills. These are things like listening, problem solving, adaptability, compassion and energy. Second is “technical” skills — these are abilities that are more relevant in today’s world and can be things like coding, language skills, software skills, writing & synthesis skills and video production.

When you take an inventory of these two types of skills you can look back on previous jobs and often figure out why you were so frustrated (the environment did not help you strengthen those skills) and also look forward to figure out what environments will work best with your current skills and help you develop new ones.

What is your unique combination of skills?

I was recently speaking with someone who had written a book, had a masters in engineering and was good at coding and data analytics. There are not many people with that combination of skills. If you are able to identify an environment that helps you maximize a diverse range of skills, you will be well on your way to carving out a meaningful and energizing career.

Doing this inside a large organization can often be a challenge, especially at junior levels where employees are expected to specialize in one function or task. More and more people are realizing that achieving personal growth and challenging themselves in new areas is harder and harder to do within a big organization and instead are pursuing “side hustles,” creative projects and freelance careers with a portfolio of different projects and responsibilities.

If you assess your fundamental and technical skills and combine that with your curiosity, you can often identify areas to further push yourself to learn and develop new skills and unlock new opportunities. This doesn’t have to be a full-time job, but can be getting involved in a club, volunteer opportunity or side hustle. Since there often isn’t the pressure of keeping a job, I’ve seen many people’s passions explode into something bigger that eventually replaces their former “career” on the default path.

Lens #2: What is your definition of success?

In the corporate world, if you do not have a personal definition of success, you are accepting a default definition of success. Whether you like it or not, this means you are valuing making more money, getting promoted and attaining authority positions. When asked, people rarely say they value these things and research shows that these type of extrinsic rewards can be demotivating at worst.

Developing a definition of success is not easy and you may face backlash if you start making decisions based on it. Early in my career I decided that personal growth, learning and working with inspiring people were my guiding decision making principles and definition of success. This meant taking pay cuts, leaving jobs before I could have been promoted and quitting jobs where I was working with people who were not inspiring (brilliant jerks). Based on the defaults of the corporate world, I was insane. Based on my own definition of success, everything was according to plan.

Lens #3: Re-define risk — What is your worst case scenario in 10, 15 & 25 years?

It is useful to visualize your worst case scenario ten or more years ahead of time. For me, I pictured myself sitting in a cubicle, slightly overweight, staring at the off-white color of the office and so distraught that my boss had criticized my work and counting the hours until I was allowed to leave.

If you know what you fear most, you can avoid it. You don’t need to know what you want to do, but by knowing what you don’t want to do, you can use that to make decisions.

Jim Koch would have never started the Boston Beer Company if he wasn’t able to re-frame risk. He had been working at Boston Consulting Group for six years in what he described as “a great job.” However, he reflected:

“I asked myself do I want to do this for the rest of my life? The answer was no. If I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life, I don’t want to do it tomorrow.” — Jim Koch, Founder of Boston Beer Company

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.