How To Choose A Career (And Not Screw It Up)

By Jeff Gillis

There are a shocking number of possible careers, which makes choosing a career a monumental task.

The little boy who dreams of becoming an actor will find countless opportunities in entertainment that he never dreamed of as a child. It isn’t until you are on the set of a major motion picture or television show that the scale of the production becomes evident.

Different experts are trained for and assigned to very specific tasks. Someone physically records the audio, another person handles recording levels, and still another will edit, adding sound effects and music that are selected by yet another person. Someone’s only job is to make sure that props and gestures are consistent between shots.

The directors and actors are only a very small proportion of a film making crew.

Other industries operate in much the same way.

If your heart is set on being a construction worker, fireman, or lawyer, you can make this happen, but most people will not end up in one of the careers children learn about in school.

Along the way, people fall into careers they never knew existed, find they like them, and carry on. Let’s call these people the Happy Accident People. This is a fine way to find a career.

There are, unfortunately, another class of people. Let’s call them the Stuck in Mud People. These people fall into careers they don’t like, and never claw their way out.

Often, the difference between being a Happy Accident Person and a Stuck in Mud Person is intention.

The Happy Accident Person is usually working towards a career goal, when they are sidetracked into a related profession. This can happen for any number of reasons.

Perhaps an exciting opportunity arises or maybe the job market it rough and they just need that paycheck. If the sidetrack job is a good fit, the person becomes a Happy Accident Person.

Crucially, if it is not a good fit this person is much more likely to continue to search for jobs and follow their career goals than a person who was not walking on any particular path when they landed in a less-than-ideal profession.

People without career goals are much more likely to become Stuck in Mud People.

Without a goal in mind, these people have no option other than falling into an accidental career. They are on no particular path, so they are less likely to be pulled into a position they find interesting than their Happy Accident People counterparts. They are also less likely to search out other opportunities. After all, they weren’t sidetracked from a dream career.

Choosing a career is an important step in your professional and personal trajectory, even if you don’t end up in that career.

At the very least, it sets you up to be a Happy Accident Person, which is a great place to land. Others achieve their original goals, which is also a wonderful outcome.

What Exactly Is A Career?

A career is a professional, long-term job. The specifics can vary greatly.

  • You can work in an office or outdoors.
  • You can work with people or with computers.
  • You can working forty hours a week, or twenty.

There are as many career options as there are people to fill them.

Traditionally, people chose one career and had relatively few shifts throughout their adults life. The safe route that our baby boomer parents often suggest is to find a company you like, work your way up, and enjoy your pension upon retirement.

Times, however, have changed.

Careers have changed, too. Gallup reports that 60 percent of millennials are open to new employment and refers to new workers as the “job hopping generation”. To be clear, a job is not necessarily a career.

Intent is key.

Working as a waitress to pay your way through college is a job, not a career. Working as a waitress for thirty years, however, is a career.

A career is your chosen profession, while a job is transitional employment. Of course, your job can become your career, and that’s okay. Just make sure it is a happy accident.

How To Choose The Right Career For You

There are many things to consider, including (but not limited to) the characteristics below:


It is all too easy to either over or under value passion. This is your career, so it should certainly be something you are passionate about, but not all passions are built to become careers.

If you can’t work in your all-time-favorite passion because it doesn’t balance well with your other goals, that is okay. Just making sure your work-life balance leaves ample time for hobbies.


Salary is an important component of a career.

  • Do you value travel?
  • Do you want to have children?
  • Do you expect to have two incomes, or only one?

Many young people are surprised by how much life really costs. The little things that seem simple – movies, trips to visit sick relatives, medical bills – add up faster than you know. What seems like a lot of money now, may not be enough when your life is in full-swing.

Take the time to think about how you want to live and research what that lifestyle actually costs.

Work-Life Balance

The time you plan to spend at work in comparison with the time you plan to spend with friends, family, and engaged in your own hobbies is crucial to how you choose a career.

Research is key. Before you settle on a career choice, take the time to understand the work-life balance in the field.

JEFF'S TIP: Interning is the very best test-run for employment. You should be spending at least your junior and senior year interning in your industry of choice. Start early so that you can change your mind. As an added bonus, you will be in a much better position to find that coveted entry-level job out of college if you already have connections at several companies.

Mistakes To Avoid When Choosing A Career

Of course with every decision you make, there are pros and cons… choosing a career is no different.

These are some of the mistakes you need to avoid to ensure you don’t get trapped in a career that makes you miserable:

1. You Like The Idea, Not The Reality

This is particularly common in careers that have been romanticized: the starving artist who hasn’t painted in ten years or the struggling writer who doesn’t write. It is, however, also common in other fields.

By the time you finally reach that dream job, you may find it just isn’t what you imagined. You liked the idea of doing science, but hate the nitty, gritty day-to-day of pipetting in the lab. You thought you wanted to be a doctor, but find you don’t actually like working with people.

Interning early and often is the best way to avoid years of training only to find you don’t like the reality of your chosen profession.

2. You Are Living Someone Else’s Dream

Some people are blessed with parents who tell us to follow our dreams. Others, with the best of intentions, demand particular careers from their offspring. If you fall into the second camp, you have a harder road to walk.

Finding yourself in a career of someone else’s choosing is unlikely to be a Happy Accident.

It is, after all, no accident at all.

3. Not Understanding the Work-Life Balance or Salary Limitations

Being a neurosurgeon might be really cool, but the state of affairs for this elite class of doctors is a life in the hospital with very little time reserved for family, friends, or hobbies.

Being a scuba instructor also sounds like a great career, until you take a look at the salary.

What kind of lifestyle do you envision for yourself?

Plan accordingly.

Putting It All Together

Choosing a career is important independent of whether you actually end up in that specific career.

Choosing a career will set you down an intentional path, making it much more likely that you will be a Happy Accident Person and avoid the Stuck in Mud Person’s fate.

If you don’t find your dream job along the way, it will be waiting for you at the end of your journey as long as you’ve chosen wisely. Research opportunities, intern like it’s your job, and enjoy the ride.

What To Do Next

Take a career aptitude test! Check out our article “Top 3 Career Test (or Career Quiz) Guide”.

These tests can really help you choose a career that is right for you.

Good luck!

About The Author

Jeff Gillis

Co-founder and CTO of Jeff is a featured contributor delivering advice on job search, job interviews and career advancement, having published more than 50 pieces of unique content on the site, with his work being featured in top publications such as INC, ZDnet, MSN and more. Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.