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Three questions to ask yourself when you feel overwhelmed by career choices

woman on bench
AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
Our jobs are a big part of the story we tell about ourselves.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

“Do what you love” is career advice that’s easy to give, but notoriously hard to follow. For one thing, we can’t always accurately predict what kind of job we’ll love until we’re actually doing it. For another, we may love doing a lot of things: solving math problems, helping others, interior decorating, eating pie, playing with dogs. That doesn’t exactly help narrow down the field.

“Asking yourself what do you want is in many ways the wrong question,” Sheena Iyengar, a Columbia Business School professor and author of The Art of Choosing, said at the Indeed Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, this May. “You get a bazillion options.”

There are far better queries we can make when we’re trying to choose a career path, according to Iyengar’s research. Here are three questions to ponder in order to help select the profession that’s right for you, whether you’re preparing to enter the workforce for the first time or mulling a career change.

1. What can I do better than others?

This was a question that Iyengar asked herself as a young adult. Growing up, she said, “as a blind person, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, and no one else could tell me.” At first she tried to identify her passion, but realized that some possibilities were bound to be ruled out: “My passion is about being a pilot, but no one is going to give me a chance of being a pilot,” she joked.

And so Iyengar began thinking abut what she was really good at, and how she could use the skills where she had an edge in order to get results. As it turned out, the answer lay in the social sciences. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Iyengar explained how inspiration struck while she was an undergraduate at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania:

At the beginning of my third year, I did social psychology. I went to a professor and asked him if I could be his research assistant. I remember to this day the silence … then he pounded the desk and shouted, “You’re it!” He was doing studies that involved asking embarrassing questions and he had a notion: what if the person asking these questions couldn’t see you? That’s when I started to feel I could become an experimentalist.

2. What problems do I want to solve?

This question is productive because it helps you identify your values and the issues you care about, without confining you to a narrow role. For example, if you love planning trips abroad and organizing restaurant outings for your friends to sample different global cuisines, you might determine, “I want to help people better understand cultures outside their own.” From there you can consider different career options that appeal to you, whether it’s working in marketing or communications for an airline or for a company like Airbnb, leading group tours, teaching a foreign language, or starting your own travel website.

3. How do I want to be known?

For better or worse, what you do for a living often informs other people’s impressions of you—as well as your own self-image. “Ultimately, when you describe what you do, you want to be able to create that narrative of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and what makes you feel good about it,” Iyengar said. 

Iyengar usually asks people to think of five qualities they’d like to be known for, including anything from “compassionate” to “intelligent,” “ethical,” “creative,” or, in the case of her teenage son, “cool.” Then she has them draw what she calls a “qualities map”—a drawing that can help people get a visual understanding of the relationships between the different qualities they’ve listed.

If you want people to think you’re a helpful, trustworthy, caring person, for example, you might want to consider a job in a classic “helping” field, like being a kindergarten teacher. If it’s also important to you that others perceive you as glamorous and worldly, however—no judgment!—you might look in another direction, as teaching five-year-olds doesn’t typically offer much of a jet-setting life.

The upshot

The goal of these questions isn’t to pinpoint one specific job that’s right for you, but to narrow down your choices and think more clearly about the kinds of professions that will help you stay true to your sense of self. And as new options arise throughout your career, think about how they fit—or not—with your answers to these three questions. A good fit doesn’t guarantee a wise career move, but it can serve as a gut-check as to whether or not this is a move that ultimately reflects, and ideally gets you closer, to your goals.

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