Boston Globe Column
Forget the soul search;
just do something
By Penelope Trunk
Boston Globe, May 14, 2006
When it comes to finding a career, the huge soul search is hugely overrated. At some point -- usually much earlier than people think -- you should just start doing something. Anything.
Brett Zaccardi is chief executive of the marketing firm Street Attack. But he didn't take a personality test that told him to be a chief executive. In fact, he started out studying physics. But he was involved in the local music scene and found himself doing marketing and promotions as a way to network among people he liked. Then he realized he could make a business out of it, so he quit school and started Street Attack.
What makes Zaccardi's path effective is that he kept doing things he thought he might like until one of them turned into a career. Of course, he did make one big decision, to drop out of college in his junior year, even though he didn't quite know where he'd end up.
But Zaccardi points out that ''everything is a risk. If you have a college education, you don't know where you'll end up, either." And therein lies the rub: There is no way to know before you try.
While the soul search is routinely touted in books found in the self-help section of bookstores, it is not the most practical approach. The first problem with the soul search is that it takes forever. Literally. Knowing oneself is not an end game; it is infinite. So there's no point in waiting until you ''know yourself" to pick a career.
The other problem with the soul search is that it assumes a soul mate. But with career choice, ''there is no one right answer," says Jennifer Floren, chief executive of the recruiting firm Experience. ''The concept that there is one right job for someone is ridiculous." Take the pressure off career decisions by reminding yourself there are many types of work each person could do, and be happy. ''People have multiple selves," writes Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, a graduate business school in France.
Different jobs will address different parts of ourselves at different periods in our lives. ''In any of us there's a part that's very pragmatic and there's a part that's very creative, and there are times in life when we give more time and space and energy to one side than the other. But if it's in you, eventually it kind of bubbles up, and it wants some airtime."
No one job can satisfy our whole personality, so stop aiming for that. People coming out of college today will change jobs often -- and choosing one is not that big a deal. If you don't like it, it will be over soon..
''It's a waste of energy to focus on the negative consequences of a job search because there's no such thing as a wrong choice," Floren says. ''Every step of a job search is a good step because you're going to grow and you're going to learn more about yourself and the world around you."
Another argument for action over analysis is that sticking with the first job you pick is not as beneficial as moving around a bit. So making a choice you don't like could be good for you.
''The trend today is to get a broad perspective from working in different industries. This is a way to build a more layered network that will work for your future," says Catherine Kaputa, author of U R a Brand! How Smart People Brand Themselves for Business Success.
When it comes to career schemes, we do not have accurate imaginations about what life will be like for us in different situations, says Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology and author of ''Stumbling on Happiness." Our most accurate information about what will make us happy comes from snooping on other people to see if they are happy. And the best way to watch other people is to be in a variety of offices. Gilbert calls the informal process of judging other peoples' happiness ''surrogation." He says ''surrogation is the best way to predict if we'll be happy. Observe how happy people are in different situations."
Ask Zaccardi what he markets, and he says ''authenticity -- authentic connections"; that is, because of his age and interests, customers trust his tastes and hence the brands he brings to them.
People who find jobs they love through diligent exploration are people who value authenticity -- in themselves and in others. The best way to explore the work world is to be your true self, take action, and see what sticks.
So what do you need to know before you decide? Figure out what was bad about the jobs you've had so you don't duplicate the problem. Then just start testing the waters -- put a toe in the current to see how it feels. Then take a leap, and if you don't like where you land, reframe your landing pad as just a steppingstone. And put your foot in the water again.
''We should have more trust in our own resilience and less confidence in our predictions about how we'll feel," Gilbert says. ''We should be a bit more humble and a bit more brave."