Readers of a certain age might recall the character “Norm” from the television comedy Cheers. Norm was the consummate bar fly, a ubiquitous presence who delivered one-liners with punchy, understated charm. He was played by the actor George Wendt, who attended the same university I did – the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. I once had the good fun of watching him speak. At the end of his comments, he told the story of how, in his junior year, he heard about a party—in Colorado, I believe—and embarked on a road trip he never returned from. He was expelled after the registrar posted his 0.0 GPA in that term.
In recounting this story, Wendt played up his party animal credentials. He concluded his remarks by noting that his classmates from college all studied disciplines ranging from engineering to finance to theology. None of those classmates, he further observed, was working in a job that matched their major. “I, on the other hand, did exactly what I studied in college,” he said. “I sat on a bar stool and drank beer.”
Wendt’s punch line was funny because, as with all humor, there’s a lot of truth in the joke. The frequent mismatch between a college major and the career field a graduate ends up in highlights how difficult it is to anticipate where your interests will intersect with your employment opportunities. It’s a reason this survey found that 52% of undergraduates agreed with the statement “I have no idea what I want to do with my career.”
This uncertainty about where you’re meant to spend your working hours continues well into many individuals’ early careers. Researchers from Pew note that among 18- to 29-year-olds, only 26% view their job as a career. Forty-one percent say it’s a steppingstone to a career, and 33% say it’s just a “job to get them by.” That’s a large number of people who don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.
Recognize you’re normal
First, recognize that you aren’t a three-headed unicorn. As the statistics above indicate, it’s more the norm to be unsure of how you want to spend your life than the exception. So, don’t get mired in too much self-pity. You’re normal!
Do what you do now with excellence
Second, do the job you have today as if it were the most amazing job in the world. You never know when you’ll need former bosses and colleagues to say nice things about you. Eighty percent of hiring managers report checking references, according to a Harris Interactive study. Moving into your dream job at a future date will depend on others seeing you as conscientious and hardworking no matter the circumstances. Don’t make it hard for them to say nice things.
Expand your network
Next, expand your network. When young professionals ask for help figuring out how to pursue a career that will provide a living and stoke a passion, I’m often surprised by how little they’ve talked to others. This doesn’t mean blasting cold-call style messages to people you don’t know on LinkedIn (although doing that in a targeted fashion is acceptable.) Start closer to home—literally and figuratively. Talk to friends and family members. Even if they aren’t in an industry or career you find interesting, they may know others who are. Also, don’t get hung up on finding a job even if that might be your ultimate goal. Rather, have conversations that give you a sense of possibilities. Allow things to percolate. Take notes. Patience is difficult, but it really helps ensure you don’t jump from the frying pan into the fire.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of really awesome
Finally, don’t look for something that doesn’t exist. You’ll never find a job that’s perfect in every regard. Resolve yourself to that, and it will be easier to find your place in the world. When you do start to hone in on a new field that interests you, don’t just get a sense of what the entry-level job would be like. Go up the chain to learn what more senior employees do. I found it fascinating—although unsurprising—that surveys show that the more senior a person is, the more likely they are to say they had good days at work. This isn’t a shocker for two reasons. First, more senior folks have simply had more time to learn what they like. They’ve lived more of life and have already been where you might be. Second, they’re typically managers who are more in control of their work lives. Those two things go a long way toward happiness at work.