Careers: Did You Wind up in a Default Career? Prevention and Remedy

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As a career coach and former High Tech manager, I’ve noticed that most people wind up in careers that are completely out of line with their college degrees or interests. When you ask people how they “chose” their careers, many of them answer with something very much like a track through the jungle. They didn’t know where they were going but moving forward was the direction they took. When I ask many college students what career they were headed towards I get two categories of answers:

1- I don’t know but I’ll figure it out

2- Something in my major (read: I don’t know)

In other words, most of us end up in “default careers”. Meaning we had no intention of that career but due to various circumstances, that’s where we ended up – by default.

I recently wrote about the national statistic I heard on TV this spring that 60% of all workers are dissatisfied with their job. I think this is due, in a large part, to the fact that we give very little effort or thought to the career we would do best in. Collectively we simply don’t know how to identify a career we would love so we go with the time honored tradition of “finding something”. The “finding something” career strategy usually involves bouncing around applying for jobs until some lucky company hires us. Little wonder we’re not so happy at work.

Why am I bringing this up? I am talking about this because 60% of all workers being unhappy in their job make this problem a moral imperative. This has to change. There are too many unhappy people out there working right now and there is some prevention that can take place and a remedy for those in this unhappy group.

There is a reason for how we got this way and there is something we can do about it. I think the genesis of this has to do with how we go about finding our careers to begin with. We put more planning into a 2 week vacation than a lifelong career. The factors that go into the complex soup of job satisfaction are largely ignored. It’s easier to figure out how we want to spend our free time (what little there is of it) than how we spend of our work time (which is most of our life).

Figuring out what can constitute a rewarding and nourishing career is not rocket science but it does require some effort. You will not wake up one day and simply know, by magic, what will best suit you.

What needs to be done to prevent default careers in the first place?

At whatever point our young people are starting to ask the questions about their career, is the time to begin the work of self discovery toward a great career. Self discovery is more than a career assessment test, although it can be thought provoking and add to self discovery. Self discovery should become an ongoing, lifelong pursuit. Self discovery is being in a process of experimentation, exploration and research with the goal of unearthing something that will truly resonate within you. It’s as simple as trying something new a few times to see if you like it well enough to keep doing it. Most everything in existence can be turned into a career and with that much opportunity you need to start as early as possible in your life to understand what will ring your chimes.

How do you pursue self discovery?

You are essentially finding out what your values are, where your natural inclinations lie, where you build skills easiest and what draws you in to “want” to keep doing it. The best and easiest place to start is by making a list of all the things (not necessarily jobs) that interest you or did interest you earlier in your life. It’s not unlike planning for that 2 week vacation. You think through the things that sound interesting or fun, research them and put it on your itinerary to do. Systematically pursue each item on the list, trying each thing long enough to get beyond the roughness of trying something new. Eventually you will discover what kind of interest that item holds for you. If it doesn’t interest you, move on. But before you do, think through what aspects of it you liked and didn’t like. That learning is key to the direction you take on the following discoveries. While you are in that process, you will discover other related items I call “threads”. Let those threads go on the list and as you do that you will notice a natural expansion of new things to try. This experimentation can be trying different jobs, pastimes or education. I have seen examples of people who have made a great career and income out of building sand castles – the wisdom here is to not discount anything.

What do you do if you are already in a Default career that you don’t like?

No matter your age, changing careers to something you love will be one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. The discovery process is the same. Our culture really does nothing to promote the idea of self discovery, particularly as it relates to a career. In general, most of us have no clue about how to go about selecting a career much less a job. We see very few examples or discussion around us, so we have almost no one to use as a role model for this kind of behavior. We are also collectively impatient with ourselves and others thinking we should automatically know what we want to do when we grow up. That assumption is the farthest thing from the truth. There is nothing automatic about finding the career of your dreams. Making self discovery an ongoing behavior will ensure your personal and professional success. Doesn’t that make it worthwhile?


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  • Melissa Kennedy
    Melissa Kennedy
    This is a great discussion!@Gregory - I'm glad it was able to help you see a different side to things.@Elaine - You're right, there is a huge difference between having a career and having a job. I think more people are unhappy with their jobs than they are with a career. Still, there are times when you find yourself working in a career that you never really planned, instead it just sort of happened.
  • Carrie
    Great thinking!
  • Kourtney
    Wow! Why can't I think of things like that?
  • Coralee
    At last, someone comes up with the "right" answer!
  • Gregory Kinston
    Gregory Kinston
    Very helpful. Gave me a new perspective that I wasn't aware of
  • Elaine
    Well said! It's daunting to me to hear that 60% of people are unhappy with their jobs.  But I think because a job is a job and not a career.  A career is something that is you, your identity which reflects you and it takes time.

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