How do you approach career uncertainty? What if you’re not sure what you want?
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that question—or asked it myself.
It’s not a simple one. But it doesn’t have to paralyze you, either.
Listen, I’ve been there before. Career uncertainty can be nerve-racking, if not downright uncomfortable.
But here’s a secret: there’s no silver bullet for this stuff. You’re not going to find the answer hanging out online. You have to go out into the world for yourself and try stuff. That’s the key.
That said, there are some things that can make your career uncertainty a little bit easier to manage.
So, I put together a short list of things to help you brace yourself for the days when you find yourself wondering, “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”
No, this list is not comprehensive. But it’s a starting point.
I hear a lot of people talk about their career choices as if they’re locked in for good. Newsflash: that’s not the case.
Sure, switching careers later in life is not without its challenges. But you’re not beholden to one path. If you’re unsatisfied with a path you’ve taken—change your mind. View each job or career move as an experiment with a goal of discovering work that makes you come alive. It might change over time. And when that happens, allow yourself to conduct a new experiment.
For those just starting out, here’s some good news: you’re in a great spot. Being young comes with some serious advantages—like a lower cost of living, fewer serious obligations, and of course, if you haven’t started a family, that relieves some pressure. With youth comes ample opportunity to move around, try new stuff, take risks, work long hours, and the list goes on…
But you don’t have to do all those things aimlessly.
View your career as an experiment. Then rapidly test things until you find what really lights your fire. And when something no longer does, move on to the next one.
The further along you move in your career, the more valuable your reputation. Use this to your advantage. If you cultivate a reputation as someone who is reliable, delivers quality work, takes initiative, and can learn—you’re going to be in a great spot.
People will want to create opportunities for you. I’m not saying this to be cliche, either. If you work hard and earn people’s trust, then opportunities will never be hard to find. The goal here isn’t to set out to worry about your reputation, either. It’s about committing to a certain standard of quality for yourself and sticking to that. When people recognize you do good work because it’s who you are, doors just open for you.
If you live in the middle of nowhere (like where I’m from), I can promise you your opportunity set is dramatically limited compared to moving away to a bigger city. No knocks against Small-town USA, either. But let’s be real. If you want to work at a tech company, living in a rural farm town makes it harder on yourself—especially if you don’t have any experience yet. People are wary of hiring remote workers who have zero real-world work experience.
Not to mention—if you don’t yet know what you want to do, then get out into the world and expose yourself to new things. Take an entry-level job where you can learn the skills you want. Maybe the job that’s really a great fit doesn’t exist in your hometown. But if you never change your scenery, you’re effectively limiting the options you have.
You don’t have to have money to get started. But whether you’re making peanuts or fat stacks, the less you can live on, the easier it is to keep your options open. Even if you’re not making serious money, though, you can still make smart decisions financially. Don’t spend more than you make. Try to avoid debt if you can. And if you can manage it, try to save at least some portion of your income.
This isn’t financial advice. It’s life advice. Fact of the matter is, if you’re always strapped for cash or handcuffed by debt, it can make it a lot harder to jump on opportunities. What happens when your dream job needs you to relocate, but you don’t have any money? Or if a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity presents itself, but you’re already in debt up to your eyeballs?
Regardless of how much money you have in your bank account, or how big your 401(k) is, staying on top of your personal financial situation is an easy win for your career. It’s just easier when you’re not dragging around a huge weight of poor decisions from the past. Don’t do it to yourself.
Another key to working through career uncertainty is the ability to learn on the fly. You’ll drastically increase your opportunities in life if you’re always learning—and better yet, if your learning doesn’t require a lot of hand-holding.
The ability to master new things fast and independently will allow you to pivot quickly. This is a superpower when it comes to preserving your optionality.
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