career path maze decisions
Photograph by Wavebreak—Getty Images/Vetta

A few thoughts on how to choose a career

Apr 23, 2015

Dear Annie: I’m curious to hear what you think about my situation. In about six weeks I’ll be graduating summa cum laude from college, and I have no idea what I want to do for a living. The problem isn’t that nothing interests me, it’s that everything does. In fact, it’s taken me six years to get through school because I kept changing my major, and at various times I’ve minored in different things too, including business and film.

Now, I’m getting all kinds of advice from relatives and other students, like “follow your passion,” or else “do something safe,” like go to law school or grad school. Is there some magic formula for choosing a career? I’d like to do something I’ll still be happy with in, say, 10 or 20 years. Is that a totally unrealistic idea? — Baffled in Boston

Dear B.B.: Alas, there’s no magic formula but, believe it or not, the fact that you’re baffled is a promising sign. After all, you’ve probably got 40 or 50 working years ahead of you, so it’s smart to make few, if any, assumptions right now about how you’re going to spend them.

“Our society doesn’t accept not knowing as an answer,” observes Nathan Gebhard. “But when someone is totally sure of their next step, especially if they seem to have gotten the idea from someone else, I always wonder whether they’ve really thought it through.”

Gebhard knows whereof he speaks. Starting about 15 years ago, he and a couple of colleagues set out to crisscross the U.S. in an RV. They interviewed working people, from lobstermen to brain surgeons to celebrity businesspeople like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Those conversations—about how they ended up in their careers, what they’ve realized over time, and what they would do differently if they could—became the basis of the PBS documentary series Roadtrip Nation and of a fascinating new book you might want to check out, Roadmap: The Get-It-Together Guide for Figuring Out What to Do with Your Life.

The first thing to keep in mind, Gebhard says, is that most of the well-meaning advice you’re hearing is “what we call noise. People will tell you all kinds of nonsense.”

One example: The oft-repeated counsel to follow your passion. The 1,000-plus successful people Gebhard has met have indeed found their passion, but only “at the end of a long process, a long series of baby steps. An absurdly small minority knew early on what they wanted to do and just went and did it. Careers don’t work that way anymore, if they ever did. Instead, it’s about making lots of small decisions that build momentum over time, and readjusting if something doesn’t feel right.”

So, right now, where do you start? First, tune out the “noise” and focus on what truly grabs and holds your attention. Then start working in that field, or as close to it as you can get, even if you have to start at the bottom. Gebhard quotes television producer Mike Lazzo: “Put yourself in the proximity of the things that interest you the most.”

Lazzo, a high school dropout, really cared about TV, especially animation. He applied for a job in the mailroom at Turner Broadcasting where, Gebhard says, “he got to drop into everyone’s office, while he was delivering their mail, and see up close what they were doing.” Programming caught his fancy, and he turned out to be good at it. Lazzo worked his way up to become the first programmer ever at Cartoon Network, and he now runs his own highly successful production company.

Keep an eye out for the unexpected. For instance, Delfina Eberly, director of data center operations at Facebook, told Gebhard, “The roads that my peers took, they were expected, [but] I wanted something different. I was searching for something to connect to.” To pay the bills, Eberly took a lowly job in the computer room of a local bank, even though she had no tech training or experience.

To her own surprise, she loved it. “Instead of shying away from technology, I leaned into it. I would just sit down and figure it out,” she recalls in Roadmap. “And that philosophy has really served me well, even today.”

The two biggest things to keep in mind, Gebhard says, are, “first, there is no universal definition of success. You get to define what it looks like for you, and pursue that. It’s a very freeing realization.”

And second, taking baby steps into a field where you think you’d like to work, while you’re still in your 20s and can change direction relatively easily, might look riskier than following a supposedly “safe” career path that someone else has laid out for you. But consider what Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist Randy Komisar, another of Gebhard’s interviewees, calls “the most dangerous risk of all—the risk of spending your life not doing what you want, on the bet that you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.”

Talkback: How did you choose your current career? If you had it to do over again, would you go into the same field, or a different one? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.

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