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5 tips on navigating your early career path

By Amanda Clinton

When I left school, I chose to be a forensic scientist. Upon reflection, this choice was more a result of watching CSI and playing eeny meeny miny mo with a university prospectus than the result of reasoned thinking. So I was shocked and dismayed when, a year into my study, I realised that:

  1. Forensic scientists work in a lab, mostly alone, all day, everyday; and
  2. I didn’t like working in a lab, or being alone (though I must say, I still have a soft spot for lab coats).

Through a series of twists and turns, I have now found something I love. It includes lots of people and zero labs. But it’s been a twisty road.

Perhaps a few twists and turns are necessary in a career path – after all, this kind of story is common for a lot of people. But here are five tips to keep the road headed in the right (overall) direction:

1. Take Your Eye Off the Job

In generations past, your ‘career’ was essentially one job you did for life and there was a limited number of options. You would be a butcher, baker or candlestick maker, a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher. Now there are so many jobs that you couldn’t begin to know about all of them.

The world we live in is now changing so rapidly that current university students are preparing for jobs that do not even exist yet. The year I finished high school was the year Mark Zuckerman founded Facebook. So when I started university, there is no way anyone could have planned to become a Social Media Strategist. The job had not even been thought of yet and no one could have predicted that it would ever exist. If you focus your future towards a job, you cut off a whole lot of possibilities.

Okay, you might be thinking, so then how am I supposed to navigate this thing?

2. Find Your Element

In his book ‘The Element’, education expert Ken Robinson persuasively argues that to prepare for this rapidly changing career landscape you need to find your element: the place where what you are good at overlaps with what you love. If you find this place – this thing that you do well and love doing – you will find a way to be successful at it.

What do you enjoy?

At one point on my own path, a good friend asked me “what jobs have you done that you enjoyed doing?” To my own surprise, I named a part-time job when I worked in a café. My friend asked me what it was I enjoyed about that job – because it wasn’t the job of being a café assistant. I realised that I enjoyed the fast-paced and varied days, working in a team, and providing customer service that made a difference in someone else’s day. When I thought about other roles and activities I love, similar themes started appearing. I like variety. I like people. I like helping.

If you love to play sport, what is it exactly that you love? It could be working with a team, the challenge of pushing yourself in an individual pursuit, the travel involved in competing, or the excuse to get outdoors.

Try to think about everything you enjoy in this way, and find some common themes.

What you are good at?

When I ask secondary school students this question, they invariably answer with a subject. “I’m good at chemistry” they say, or “english,” or “not physics.” To a certain extent it is useful to think in these terms. But as people in the workforce well know, your most important skills are the transferable ones. A student who is good at english might actually be good at close analysis, or creative writing, or editing. A student who is good at physics might thrive on figuring out how things work and problem solving to find solutions.

Think about the tasks you do well at work but in other areas too. Are you naturally able to explain complicated things in a way that people can understand? Can you see ways to fix problems that other people can’t? Do you spot tiny mistakes that other people miss?

These are all valuable skills that can be used in many different roles.

Think about your values

Day to day you can be doing the things you love, and that you’re good at, but this won’t fulfill you unless all your efforts are in line with your values. Think about what drives you. Is it stability? Income? Status? Or is it about having work-life balance? Making a difference to people’s lives? Sometimes it is difficult to be honest with yourself about these values, particularly when they are different to those around you. When you accept a new position, or make a new career move, ask yourself ‘why am I doing this? Is it in line with my values?’ It can be easy to internalise and act on other people’s values but this will not serve you well in the long term.

Find out other people’s stories

Everyone, from the dairy owner to the CEO, has a story. And often those stories will surprise you. Most career paths have unexpected twists and turns, ditches and bridges, and sometimes branch off into completely different roads. Talk to everyone about how they got to where they are. Ask them about the choices they made along the way: which choices they would change, and which choices – or chances – made the biggest and most unexpected changes. If you’re intimidated by the idea of talking to a CEO, remember, they weren’t always a CEO. They have, however, always been a person. Just like you.

3. Connect the Dots 

Steve Jobs dropped out of university. He didn’t love the courses he was taking so he stopped taking them. After dropping out he started, as he puts it, ‘dropping in’ on classes that he thought were interesting. He came across a calligraphy course and loved it. So he pursued it despite the fact that it had no practical purpose. Ten years later, his passion for calligraphy and typefaces led him to develop the world’s first computer fonts.

But no one ever could have predicted this path looking forward.

Steve Jobs said:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future … Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.

So when you’re thinking about where your career path is headed, take your eye off the job and think about the things you love, the things you’re good at, and what your values are, then follow those. If you work hard and take the opportunities that come your way, the rest will fall into place.

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