Finding yourself

How to choose a career which brings happiness and success

When it comes to career choice, our lives differ radically from those of our parents. It was simple for them. They were assigned their 单位(danwei), and that was that.

Now, it’s up to us to figure out our careers, the topic of my remarks last week to the Peking University Alumni Association of Southern California. PKU alumni are blessed with many choices in life; in fact, they tell me, over 50% of PKU graduates go outside of China for work or study. For them, as for many of you highly talented readers of this blog, with the world at your fingertips, the question becomes:  with so many choices, how to ensure that we make the right choices?

The Paradox of Choice

In fact, a superabundance of options can actually lead to anxiety, as psychologist Barry Schwartz argues in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. He cites a Columbia University study where a researcher went to a gourmet food store and invited shoppers to try out six different kinds of jam. Of those who sampled the jams, 30% bought some. The next weekend, she set out 24 different kinds. On that weekend, more people tried the jam, but only 3% of the samplers bought any.

It is true that choice complicates life. But for those of us who are so richly blessed, this kind of hardship is what 21st century life is all about:  learning to make our own way, define our own choices, and make our own goals.

Identify what you CAN do, then what you WANT to do

In an earlier blog post, I noted that to achieve happiness, you need to use your strengths, and you need meaning in your life. Harvard University professor Tal Ben-Shahar tells how, when he graduated from college, his philosophy professor said this: “Life is short. In choosing a path, make sure you first identify those things that you can do. Out of those, select the ones you want to do. Then, reduce your choice further by zooming in on what you really want to do. Finally, select those things that you really, really want to do – and then do them.”

So, in below diagram, the outer circle captures the possibilities available to you. The innermost circle encompasses your deepest wants and desires:


Know your strengths, and leverage them

As human beings, to be happy, we must stretch ourselves, to make full use of our potential. We should feel that we are doing things that challenge us, that use us fully and well. One thing that constantly amazes me as a recruiter is how unique each individual is. Two candidates can have nearly identical resumes, and yet be completely different when I meet them in person. There are one or two things that you do amazingly well – better than anyone else around you. Your challenge is to identify what those strengths are, and make them central to your job.

Seek work that gives you meaning

The French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote, “The great and glorious masterpiece of man is to live with purpose.”

Your career should be a part of your having a sense of purpose. This purpose should carry personal significance for you. It should not be dictated by society’s expectations, or extrinsic factors such as amassing money or status. Different people find meaning in different ways, for example, by starting a business, or entering public service, or practicing law, or raising children.

You can make your career more fulfilling, today

Your career is part of your lifelong evolution, so make the time to rejuvenate yourself and enjoy the journey. In future posts, I will blog on topics such as how to make a career transition, and what to do if you hate your boss. For now, I’ll just say that career transitions can be radical or they can be incremental.

I’ll leave you with an example that I relayed to the PKU audience:

A salesman is unhappy at work. He loves helping customers solve their problems, and he believes in the products he’s selling. But he absolutely hates making the hundreds of cold phone calls a week needed to identify potential customers. And as a result, he hates his job.

What does he do?

He follows his strengths and his passion, and develops a new way of reaching customers… by creating his company’s first-ever email-marketing campaign. He finds the blogs and online forums where they’re discussing their problems, and through those, he finds new and innovative ways to reach his customers and to solve their needs. Along the way, he achieves greater success and happiness than ever in his own career.

It’s no coincidence that my prescription for happiness at work – to leverage your strengths and to find meaningful work – is also my prescription for maximizing your career success.

What career choices can you make today to maximize your happiness and success?

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I welcome your comment, in English or Chinese, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.