Why Can’t I Pick A Career? 1/4

In a world of interesting career opportunities, the question of how to pick a career is being asked of people across the globe. Could it be that you are asking the wrong question?

We are told from a very young age that we can be whatever we want to be and that we should follow our passion. Is this setting us up for a life of unfulfillment and a sense of failure?

In order to pick a career, you need a guiding mission that sets the trajectory of your career, a guiding light rather than a set career path.

I have come to this conclusion from theoretical study and practical application.

Practically, I have spoken to hundreds of people who are deemed to have made a “successful career” and interviewed a number of them for the Career Stories section of the Get Into Nuclear website.

The one thing that stands out is that the vast majority of them say that they “fell into nuclear” rather than set off from school with the idea that a career in nuclear is for them.

Theoretically, I like to read — and read, and read. I have read many autobiographies and books on building the perfect career. But, I have always struggled to put any sense to them. Many seem to stumble across their career and the advice on “lifestyle design” and “affirmations” doesn’t really sit right with me.

I could never put my finger on it until I read a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport.

What is a Career

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a career as: “the job or series of jobs that you do during your working life, especially if you continue to get better jobs and earn more money.”

Wikipedia says: “The career is an individual’s metaphorical “journey” through learning, work and other aspects of life. There are a number of ways to define career and the term is used in a variety of ways.”

I will define what a career means to me at the end of this article series. However, for now, let us think of a career as the series of paying jobs you do throughout your working life.

Do you have the correct mindset?

We are often told, and it is advised that we all have a passion that will provide the perfect career for us. If I write down three passions of mine;

  • bringing about environmental change,
  • reducing inequality in the workplace, and
  • bringing long-term well-paying jobs to postcodes that historically have not been given such opportunities.

These are the passions that got me to build Get Into Nuclear in the first place.

Although we need to find something that drives us and gives us a sense of being, not all passions are going to be able to provide us with a career, or in other words, pay the bills.

This is where the Cal Newport book changed my perspective. It is advised that you do not pursue a career based on your passions, but based on a mindset of becoming a craftsman — I prefer to use the word practitioner.

According to Newport, we should not look at what the world can provide for us but at what we can provide for the world. Have a practitioner’s mindset.

Work to be the best at whatever it is that you are doing with the understanding that those skills, or career capital, will pay dividends in the future.

Practitioner Mindset

The change from a passion mindset to a practitioner mindset doesn’t mean that you cannot love what you do. Expecting the universe to provide you with your passion, however, leads many of us to disappointment when our passions never reveal themselves.

Rather than defining a passion from your predetermined views on the world or from one of the many personality tests that are available, let’s be more proactive and figure out what makes a remarkable life remarkable.

To answer this exact question, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan created the Self-Determination Theory that was defined that “to be happy, your work must fulfil three universal psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness”.

Breaking this down, to have a successful career we must find something that:

  • We have control over how we spend our time and what we do.
  • We are good at, enjoy doing and take a sense of meaning from.
  • We get a sense of connectedness by being part of something bigger.

Considering the above, our ikigai* should be to find happiness in our work. And to do this we need to focus our career plan on achieving control, competence and connectedness in our work.

The good news; by taking this approach you needn’t lose sleep over any individual or career choice you make, as “working right trumps finding the right work”.

*Ikigai is an old Japanese concept for finding happiness at the intersection of what you love, are good at, and the world needs and is willing to pay you for. See the below diagram.

Credit: Wikimedia

What is the difference between a passion and a mission?

When someone thinks of a passion, it is usually around the emotion of what feels good. As a result, you often hear the term “do what you love”. However, doing what you love doesn’t always provide you with a means to make a living.

A mission, in our context at least, is a career goal that allows you to use your expertise to make a change in the world. Although often your mission will lead you to enjoy and feel passionate about what you do in your working life, it is not the driver or a prerequisite to happiness.

A mission is not easy to find. Most people do not leave school knowing that they want to be a pilot or a nuclear physicist. Additionally, for most, it is not possible to leave school and decide that you are going to travel to Asia for a month to figure out your mission.

Typically a person’s mission is only discovered once they master a particular skill, field or industry. At this point, you will find the adjacent possible in which your true mission, or at least your next mission emerges.

You are unable to change the world until you have mastered a rare and valuable skill that enables you to see potential changes in the world.

To quote Cal Newport on his blog, you “need a non-conformist’s confidence and a dedication to exploration. [But,] this sense of exploration has to be backed by competence in the relevant field.”

So, the challenge for those seeking to achieve their ikigai is “to balance a myopic focus on getting good with a regular infusion of exploration and a sense of possibility”.

Passion driven = do what you love; — e.g. artist, drummer, sportsman — is this achievable? Will it pay the bills? — for some, yes. For most, no.

Practitioner driven = focus your effort on rare and valuable skills; —e.g. social value, latest design software, another language — Are these skills rare and valuable? — there are endless opportunities to upskill here.

Mission driven = focus your effort on a useful cause; —e.g. social value manager, engineering manager, international project manager — Does your practitioner focus align with your mission? Do they align with your ikigai? — If you can answer these questions “yes”, you will propel your career where many people plateau.

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You can find the next article in the series here.



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Andrew Crabtree

Andrew Crabtree


Husband, Dad, Programme Manager in the Nuclear Industry | ex-pro rugby player, 4x Ironman finisher, ex-Bank Manager | getintonuclear.com