Explore Your Career Interests With These 5 Powerful Strategies

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I bet you have a million different interests and hobbies: rock climbing, photography, skiing, fashion, politics, traveling, hiking, jewelry, coffee, basketball, medicine, music…What about "professional" interests: website design, social media, business strategy, finance, programming, teaching, sales, graphic design, data analysis, writing, research…Here's the question I get asked the most -- especially from younger students.

"How do I start finding my passion"

Most don't know what their life’s calling is, or how they should spend their time in college and beyond.

The solution to this daunting question is simple: pick an interest (or combine a professional and general interest) and see where it goes. For example, you could be interested in graphic design and fashion. While these are two totally different interests, you can combine them to make your first career interest.

I call this building a career hypothesis, and wrote an extensive guide on how to do this here.

In an ideal world, you would be able to pick any topic you’re interested in and land a top job offer with an industry-leading company. Then, if you don’t like it after 2 weeks, 2 months, or 2 years, you could move onto something else with no strings attached. Too bad the world doesn’t work like that. This guide is intended to give you strategies to test your passions (read: career hypotheses) quickly while getting close to simulating real experience. It doesn't matter if graphic design and fashion are actually what you want to do in life... you just need to pick something and go. The faster you get moving, the faster you will learn about yourself and your viable career options.

We will look at 5 strategies to test your career hypothesis. I’ve rated each one based on the effort required and the degree of reality. The higher the degree of reality, the more similar it is to a real job -- which is the ultimate way to test a career hypothesis.

1) Secondary Research

  • Required Effort: 1/5
  • Degree of Reality: 1/5

I know this is a bit counterintuitive, but secondary research is the first and easiest way to test a career hypothesis. Secondary research means understanding existing information. In simple terms, this means reading blogs, articles, journals, books, forums, watching videos, or anything else you can easily find.

Let's continue with our previous example and assume you are interested in graphic design and fashion. You can kickstart your learning by reading major graphic design blogs, articles on Medium, and books on design principles. Simultaneously, you could follow fashion icons on Instagram, discover new fashion brands, and analyze website layouts and online clothing stores.

The Goal: Build up a baseline knowledge about the two topics and start to understand how they mix together.

My Tools: Google, Medium, Reddit, Quora, YouTube, local library

2) Primary Research

  • Required Effort: 2/5
  • Degree of Reality: 3/5

Okay, so now you understand the basics. You spent two weeks reading online, studying fashion brand websites, and reading a book from Amazon’s “best sellers in graphic design” list. If you don’t think you want to pursue this further, just stop. Evaluate your hypothesis to make sure you learned about yourself from this experience (this is covered in my previous guide). But let’s assume you like what you’ve learned and want to dig further. Now you can begin spending more time on learning through conversations.

Primary research is any form of research in which you go out and collect the information yourself. While this technically includes things like surveys, for our purposes primary research entails talking to people.

With a baseline of knowledge from the previous step, you now have enough of an understanding to have a rich conversation with friends or working professionals in the field. For example, you could use cold emails and set up coffee chats with professional graphic designers at fashion companies.

While primary research definitely requires more work than simply browsing the Internet, it will arm you with unique insights that are difficult to find anywhere else. In my experience, talking to people with expertise is the quickest and easiest ways to learn about a subject in-depth.

The Goal: Deepen your knowledge and uncover nuggets of insight from people who spend their careers in the field. You can later use these insights in interviews to make yourself seem smart and up-to-date. My Tools: Cold-emailing, coffee chats and phone calls, conversations with friends interested in the same subject

3) Hands on Learning

  • Required Effort: 3/5
  • Degree of Reality: 3.5/5

After a solid background in graphic design and fashion, it could be time for formalized learning. Often primary and secondary research focus on the “what” and “why” of a subject. These methods of learning don’t usually teach you “how”. You won’t be a great graphic designer, data analyst, or lawyer by just talking to professionals. Hands on learning such as classes and student organizations are an effective way to explore the “how” of your interest in a structured, low-risk environment. Usually this is done through hands-on projects and other engaging forms of learning. Quick note: you don’t necessarily have to go in this order. Sometimes, an introductory class is a great way to spark an interest prior to doing your own research and talking with professionals. However, classes and organizational involvement are almost always more time-consuming than reading a book or talking to people. If you're lucky, your university may have classes and organizations related to fashion, apparel, graphic design, front-end programming, or another subject with relevant overlap.

If not, consider taking online classes -- this is an especially great way to ramp-up your learning over the summer! I searched for "online graphic design classes" and found many high-quality options. Depending on the subject of interests, online classes could be a perfect option.

I came into college thinking I was interested in technology and startups. After digging-in through primary and secondary research, I was itching to get tangible experience. As a result, I signed up for technology and business classes and simultaneously joined an entrepreneurship organization. The Goal: Learn the “how” of your career interest through projects or something similarly tangible. This will enable you to talk about your real accomplishments during interviews, while giving you a taste of what your career could look like. My Tools: Classes at your university, online classes and tutorials, side projects, student organizations, competitions

4) Internships

  • Required Effort: 4/5
  • Degree of Reality: 4/5

This is what most students think of when they want to explore a career interest. The reason this is so far down the list is because:

  1. Internships take up a lot of time and effort
  2. It is difficult to get an internship without prior knowledge of the space

Don't get me wrong, internships are literally my favorite way to get meaningful and substantive experience in a field. But, it's not easy to be competitive for great companies unless you have some prior experience and/or knowledge.

Internships are often done over the summer, but are also effective during the school year. I did 3 of my 5 internships during the fall or spring semester. Everything you learned through the previous steps will pay off in landing interviews, blowing away your interviewers, and succeeding on the job. But none of them are a replacement for real-world experience. Once you’re seriously interested in pursuing something, it’s hard to beat the experience of an internship.

Would Nordstrom rather hire a graphic designer who can talk the talk, or someone who has tangible experiences through classes, student organizations, and prior internships? The Goal: Validate your career-hypotheses in as close to a real-world setting as possible. This is where you may find out if graphic design and fashion become a viable career option or are better as serious hobbies. My Tools: Cold-emailing and coffee chats, career fairs, ask professionals in your network, apply online (LinkedIn Jobs, company website, your university career website). I’ve written about this extensively here, here, here, and here. There will be much more to come.  

5) Jobs

  • Required Effort: 5/5
  • Degree of Reality: 5/5 (by definition a job is the real thing)

If you find a career hypothesis you are excited about throughout your research, projects, and internships, it is probably worth pursuing as a full-time job.  You can see how following this process will reduce the chances of ending up in a full-time job that doesn’t validate one of your interests. Ideally, you want to keep iterating on your hypotheses and building on the ones that you continue to find interesting. By the time you start applying to full-time jobs, you will develop conviction and confidence in your career-trajectory because of all your prior experience. But let’s suppose you ran out of time and couldn’t land an internship. It’s not a bad idea to bite the bullet and go straight for a full-time job.

At the end of the day, your first job is just another hypothesis; one of countless hypotheses you will test over the course of your career. I've heard many experienced professionals say "in hindsight my career may seem like a straight line, but in the moment it felt zig-zagged." It’s impossible to predict where you will end up. If you start your career with a job you’re unsure about, just remember that most millennials change jobs every few years.1

A full-time job is pretty high-effort relative to the other ideas on this list, but it’s also the best way to validate a hypothesis. If you decide to make the switch between one full-time job to another, try to validate your interest in the new job prior to jumping ship.

The Goal: The ultimate validation -- do you enjoy this interest enough to spend 40+ hours/week doing it?

My Tools: Same as internship tools.

By using this approach, you will learn about yourself at an accelerated pace. While you are probably doing some combination of the above, it's important to realize there are many ways of testing a hypothesis with varying levels of effort and "degree of reality”.

The average college student changes their major 3 times.2 But changing majors is a high-effort way of testing a new hypothesis. You now have a clear framework to quickly test new career interests without changing your major over and over again. If you start early enough, you'll also increase your chances of landing a job that genuinely excites you because of prior validation (research, hands-on learning, internships).

Throughout college, I was able to expedite my learning by quickly testing many hypotheses simultaneously. This meant taking classes in different departments, reading about various topics, talking to people with diverse interests, and building experience through internships, competitions, and student organizations. As I gained more experience, my hypotheses became more targeted.

In many ways, the hypothesis-driven career is similar to the expert-generalist. Over time you will find yourself learning about many new things while building expertise in a few subjects that you love and consider your strengths.

The key of the process is to focus on what you love and minimize time spent on boring subjects.

If you really hate accounting, don't force yourself to pursue an accounting career because all your friends are -- choose something that you find interesting. It's your career, not theirs.

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