"Nobody tells you what to do when you don't know what to do": On finding your career path

Every commencement speaker encourages the graduates with platitudes like "Follow your dreams!" and "You can do whatever you want to do!" But what about those who aren't at all sure what their dream is? What if you don't really know what you want to do?

Looking around us, we might think that for some, their career path was predestined, carefully and seamlessly laid out, like the yellow brick road, straight out of "The Wizard of Oz", (with neon signs pointing in the right direction, lest there be any confusion). But I think, for most of us, finding our career path feels more like we've been plunked down in the middle of a jungle, armed with only bug spray and a dull machete. (Sounds like an episode of "Naked and Afraid!")


On this labor day, it seems appropriate to begin a discussion about pursuing one's passions. I don't mean a Nora Roberts brand of passion. I'm talking about discovering what we love in work and life. What motivates us? What brings us joy? And then, once we find it, how do we make a living at it? I have friends of all ages---from college freshmen to stay-at-home moms---who are trying to figure this all out.

As I discussed such things with my daughter this weekend, she said:

"Nobody tells you what to do when you don't know what to do."

Another daughter disagreed:

"EVERYONE tells you what to do!"

They're both right, in a way. There are all kinds of people out there, trying to help guide you in different ways. My take on it is this: the people who aren't telling you what to do know something that the people who are telling you what to do have not yet realized. Only you know what fits.

In other words, no matter how cute the dress looks on the mannequin, you've got to try it on to see if it works for you! (Guys: if you prefer, think of it as taking cars for a test drive before purchasing one.)

red dress

My parents fall into the category of those "telling you what to do." They are convinced that their career path is the best career path for their grandchildren. They are most certainly the "everyone" my daughter was referring to, in the quote above. In their enthusiasm, they have forgotten that just because one outfit worked for them, it doesn't mean it will work for everyone.

My advice for those who are "naked and afraid" is to just go ahead and get started and try some outfits on! This is where the process of elimination can be helpful. You might know immediately that a certain dress (or car) will never work for you. You don't like the color or style. Excellent. Don't try it at all.

Another one looks like it might fit. You give it a shot. You intern somewhere or take a class or try a job for a time. You don't like it. Great! That's one more field or position that you can cross off of the "passion/interest" list. If it was just "okay", keep it for now, but keep trying other things on the side.

I was a translator for a while. I enjoyed puzzling over a text and trying to figure out how to convey the information in the target language. When I started my family, I kept translating but gradually moved into music and worship-leading. Over the years, I began teaching exercise classes. Today, all of my hobbies have become "jobbies." I am a worship-leader and university outreach staff person at my church. I am a Regional Director for Body & Soul, an international fitness ministry. And I started my own health coaching business last year.

It's a lot but I love it. This suits me. But it might not work for you. And it's certainly not where I started.

jungleIf you love what you're doing (carrer-wise or life-wise)--from working for the government, to a small dental office, to quilting, to volunteering at church, parenting, or grandparenting--then by all means, keep at it. But if you are trying to uncover your passion, you must take some kind of initiative. Take a class. Explore an opportunity. Try something new. 

You just may find something that suits you, which will in turn delight and refresh you (whether you feel like you're in the middle of a jungle or the wonderful land of Oz).