My parents advised me from an early age to follow my passion. They encouraged me to excel to the best of my abilities, but they never forced a particular career track onto me. That resulted in me trying my hand at many different roles, among them professional poker player, teacher, card counter, bartender, aerospace engineer, and—most recently—tech startup executive.
The thing is, the path to finding a career you love is rarely a straight line. Your core values probably won’t change much over your adult lifetime, but your interests might, and your skills certainly will. So when someone tells you to “follow your passion,” the advice isn’t inherently wrong. It’s simply incomplete.
Knowing what you enjoy in a career is essential, but knowing what you dislike is even more crucial and arguably easier to determine. So next time you find yourself questioning whether you’re in the career you want, ask yourself the following questions.
1. Is this really what I want?
I spent my first year after college as a professional poker player, but by the end of that year, I was bored with playing all the time. The game had lost its luster, leaving me intellectually unfulfilled. But I never took the time to ask myself why.
I ended up chasing several jobs I thought I “should” try. Each time, I’d find myself unfulfilled and itching to make a change as quickly as several months in. As I approach my 40s, I’m coming to understand what makes me tick. It’s never too early or too late to make a change, but it’s not enough to just plod along and see what comes your way.
The important thing when evaluating your career is to be intentional, even experimental. We all know someone who took a job they hated because they wanted to please someone else. I’m not saying that you can’t factor in your relationship with others when it comes to your career, but it’s critical to balance that impact with what we know about ourselves. The best way to experiment with what’s right for you is to start with first principles.
2. What are your first principles?
Very few jobs are likely to contain all the things you love, so find ones that provide as many as possible while offering as few downsides as possible. To do this, break down decisions into first principles—things you know for sure to be true for you. This approach requires you to deconstruct complicated problems into essential elements and then reassemble them from square one. In my case, breaking down my passion into its constituent pieces allowed me to see what truly drives me.
When my poker pursuits plateaued, I put my degree to use. As an aerospace engineer, I was able to tap into something I love: science. The problem? Science required problem-solving, problem-solving required a lot of programming, and I hated being stuck behind a computer all day. So I transitioned to technical sales, which allowed me to solve challenging technical problems with the upside of interpersonal communication and travel. It also provided better pay, which was a bonus for me.
3. How have others felt about this?
In high school, I was all but sure that I wanted to be an astrophysicist. However, after talking with a few astrophysicists in college, it became clear that this field would serve me better as a hobby and not a career. My dream was to make discoveries about the nature of the universe, but in reality, a career in astrophysics would require me to spend many hours sitting behind a computer and pandering to government benefactors. That’s why I think it’s not enough to know your passion. You also need to understand the gap between your ideal scenario and what reality actually holds.
Social media provides access to people across every profession, and many of them have gone through exactly what you’re experiencing. So don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for their perspectives. Ideally, you’d be able to add value to the person whose advice you’re seeking, but many people are happy to provide guidance should you simply ask, “I’m interested in doing X, I’ve done Y and Z to put myself in a strong position to achieve X, and I would appreciate any advice you can offer.” Now, some people might not respond, but there will be those that do. After all, they were once in your seat, someone helped them, and they’re now happy to pay it forward.
4. Is there something new worth trying?
Sometimes, there’s no way to understand what you don’t like without trying it out. Even with a high degree of self-awareness, most people need to evaluate a few different opportunities before coming to terms with what matters most to them in a career.
Changing jobs every six months is a surefire way to annoy employers, but few companies will resent your wandering spirit if you move around as frequently as every 18-24 months. There have never been more options available to explore new opportunities while working, and part-time, contractor, and remote roles have given people exploring new careers thousands of options. Many companies will allow you to work part-time or volunteer with other businesses, provided there’s no competitive conflict, which can be a great way to get new experiences without having to dive straight into the deep end of the career pool.
There are no direct paths to finding the career that’s best for you. As you search, take stock of what’s not working or what’s unappealing. The key to finding your passion is knowing what you dislike. From there, you can hone in on the journey that’s right for you.