What do you want to do with your life? What is your major? What are you going to do with that major? These are three questions haunting students across the United States, and the pressure to choose a viable career path overwhelms them as early as high school. A Pew Research Center study of US teens ages 13-17 indicates that academics, along with the desire to attend college and secure a career they enjoy, is their biggest source of stress. With hundreds of available majors across thousands of colleges, many feel the weight of making the right choice. Parents, peers, teachers and social media all impact career choice. Many of my students are so paralyzed, they ask me to look at their resumes and tell them what positions fit them best.
If you are a student worried that you haven't picked the right major or career yet or that the major you picked is not required for any jobs, rest assured, you are not alone. And that's okay. You don't have to make a choice right now, you don't have to be 100 percent certain about your choice, and you don't have to stick with that choice if you discover it's not what you imagined. In fact, the stress of having to pick the one right major and career can result in making choices that may not align with your interests, values or abilities. Instead of freaking out, therefore, spend time exploring opportunities by paying attention to what inspires you and catches your curiosity.
The Old Ways No Longer Work
Farouk Dey, vice provost for integrative learning and life design at the Johns Hopkins University, posits that what used to work in terms of career planning no longer does. Traditional career planning involves figuring out what you want to do prior to college and then pursuing a degree and experiences that guide you along that path. An issue with this approach is that you don't know what all the options are. Some careers are more visible than others (doctors, lawyers and teachers) and even within these professions, the context in which you practice and how you practice them can differ. You want to experiment and discover what appeals to you, and you can't do that by following a rigid plan.
"There are two types of people," Dey says, "the box checkers, who obsess about predicting their future, and the inspiration seekers, who know they can't predict their future, but they can influence it by having the right mentors and making audacious moves." To become the latter, you may want to consider the philosophy of life design. It doesn't matter what stage of your life you are in because "it's never too late to design a life you love," emphasize Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of Designing Your Life: How to Build A Well-Lived, Joyful Life.
In the book, they share their experience with guiding thousands of students through applying the principles of design thinking to the problem of designing a life they love. Design thinking allows students to build their way forward and keep figuring it out as new interests arise. As Burnett and Evans point out, "your life can't be perfectly planned, there isn't just one solution to your life, and that's a good thing."
Check These Five Mindsets
The authors propose five mindsets to embrace so that you can design a life you love:
Before you evaluate the options you have, you want to find out what those options are. Being curious is an excellent way to achieve that, and exposure to a variety of topics will help you identify what inspires and interests you. Curiosity can lead you to opportunities you didn't even know existed, many of which belong to the hidden job market -- positions that are either not advertised or not created yet.
Bias to Action
As you explore what's out there, you want to show commitment to actually engaging in different activities that seem intriguing. Thinking and acting as a designer, you want to test out what seems interesting. An internship is the most obvious way of experimenting with a particular field, but you could also volunteer, take a gap year, shadow professionals, or consider an alternative spring break. "To those who are looking for their life purpose, stop looking," says Dey. "You will need to create it, so get out there, follow your curiosity, and try something new."
In order to effectively move forward with exploration, you need to get rid of assumptions that are keeping you stuck, afraid or hesitant to change. The dysfunctional beliefs Burnett and Evans want you to reframe include:
- There's a time limit to making the right choice
- There's only one right choice
- Your degree and college determine your success
- You should know what you want to do and where you are going
- You're not supposed to enjoy work.
Be aware that design thinking is a process, and as you go through it, options will be thrown out and new ones introduced. More often than not, prototypes will not work until you get to the one that does. Even if you absolutely love mathematics, for example, you may want to prototype different opportunities before committing to one that engages you fully. Seek feedback from trusted mentors as you evaluate each prototype.
"Design is a collaborative process, and many of the best ideas are going to come from other people," Burnett and Evans write. Finding mentors to brainstorm ideas with and learn about options is essential to life design. Mentors are not people telling you what to major in or what career to pick; they are the people encouraging you to experiment with options you are curious about, to evaluate your experience, and to course adjust as needed. "Every time you feel the urge to have a plan, remember this: Life purpose cannot be planned or predicted," Dey says. "It is lured out of hiding with the help of mentors and the right mindset."
Committing to a lifelong career path in a world of work that's constantly evolving is neither realistic nor practical. "So stop contemplating the useless question 'What should I do with my life?'," says Dey. "Seek inspiration, instead, and engage in an experience that aligns with your curiosity." When you follow your inspiration, you are engaging in activities that are of interest to you. "In a world too full of information, interests usefully narrow our choices: They lead us to pay attention to this and not to that." Following your inspiration also connects you with individuals with backgrounds and networks different enough that they could open up completely new possibilities.
As you consider applying design thinking in your approach to life and career, remember that the goal is not to find the one right option. It's about being able to follow your inspiration throughout your life and adapt to a dynamic world of work. With life design, we know that there is no one final destination but many base camps on the expedition of career and life. "You never finish designing your life," Burnett and Evans emphasize. "Life is a joyous and never-ending design project of building your way forward."
Happy life and career designing!