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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

Help! I'm Struggling to Find My Career Path

Dear Fran,

To start, I love your advice column, and particularly found your piece “Help I'm Stuck at a Job I Hate” useful in my own life. I also appreciate that you devote your time to helping others.

Fran, I'm a 21-year-old man struggling to find the right career path. I have 47 college credit hours so far, but am feeling disappointed: It seems I take these classes, only to find out they’re not the right fit for me. Also I would like to start investing, diversifying my portfolio in the stock market, and to be honest, start making more money. I have $400 dollars to my name, I speak Spanish, greatly enjoy leadership, hands-on tasks, problem-solving activities, and am currently in an internship at an insurance agency "at the bottom of the totem pole,” but don't exactly enjoy it here.

Please help me!

Thanks Fran,


Dear Lost,

Thanks for your letter. It sounds like there are quite a few things going on in your life, but I’m going to focus on the question of your career path.

First things first: You say you don’t exactly enjoy your internship and your position at the bottom of the totem pole. That’s understandable—though, generally speaking, 21-year-olds don’t start out at the top, unless they’ve built a company from the beginning (think Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg).

Instead of dreading each day at your internship, I would encourage you to focus on the opportunity it could provide you with. If you’re bored with repetitive or menial work, ask your supervisor to give you a project you might find more interesting, and then really tackle it. Look around and see if there is anything that needs doing that no one else has the time to take on. People rise in organizations by asking for, taking on, and succeeding at new tasks. No, this internship might not be the perfect or the most exciting opportunity, but, if you try to make the most of it, it could be a stepping stone to where you want to go.

Next, you say that you keep taking college classes that seem to be the wrong fit for you. What sort of classes have you taken? Many people take college classes in diverse subjects—for example, literature, psychology, business, astronomy, nursing, or teaching—before choosing a major. Others major in liberal arts, and therefore don’t choose a focus until they get out into the working world. Are you taking classes in the same related subject matter—say, all in business, with classes in accounting, management, finance, and marketing—and finding the overarching subject matter boring? If so, then I’d say business isn’t your field, and maybe you just haven’t found your thing yet. Start thinking outside of the box and try some different areas, like technology, nursing, or engineering.

On the other hand, if you’ve taken a variety of classes in different subjects and found them all dull, maybe you should explore opportunities outside of college to find fulfillment. You say you like “hands-on” tasks. Maybe you’d be more interested in a more hands-on career, like architecture, web development, landscaping, or construction. Perhaps you could tag along for a few days with people who do different kinds of work to see what interests you. You could also consider starting your own business someday, where you’ll be able to express your leadership skills.

Before you can begin to choose a career, though, you need to start answering some important questions, such as:

  • What kind of life do you want?
  • What work will create and support that life?
  • What purpose do you want your life and your work to serve?
  • What values do you want to live by and what sort of work can help you express those values?
  • In order to begin to answer questions like these, look for clues in your life about what you actually like to do, what activities interest you, what you lose track of time doing, and what activities make you feel good. Do you like animals? Film? Plants? Computers? Do you have an elderly neighbor you sometimes help? These interests might suggest a possible career for you to explore. Let’s say you love helping people. How about going into social work? Teaching? Nursing? You mentioned that you speak Spanish. Being bilingual is certainly a plus in any field, but there are entire careers in which being bilingual is an integral part—say, marketing a product to the Spanish-American community, or translating documents.

    Get a book on choosing a career, which will not only likely help you identify your skill set, aptitude, and interests, but can also highlight careers you may have never even heard about. A few books that could fit the bill: Now What? The Young Person’s Guide to Choosing the Perfect Career, by Nicholas Lore, and What Color is Your Parachute, by Carol Christen and Richard M. Bolles.

    You also mentioned an interest in leadership. But, remember that you need to have knowledge about something in order to lead others in doing it. I’d encourage you to figure out what you’re naturally good at and what you want to do, and become an expert in it. Do that, and you’ll become a leader without much effort.

    Finally, remember that people judge success in many different ways. Some view money and prestige as success, but if your career doesn’t fit your personality, interests, and values, no amount of money will make you happy or successful. Right now you have $400 to your name, so money may look very important, but think less about getting immediate gratification in your job, and think more about planning for your future. You’re at a point in your life where you can be exploring, learning, and expanding your possibilities in both your career and your life.

    I wish you the best of luck.


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