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Personal fit

How to find the right career for you

This is an abridged version of an article from 80,000 Hours.

Everyone says it’s important to find a job you’re good at, but no one tells you how.
The standard advice is to think about it for weeks and weeks until you “discover your talent.” To help, career advisers give you quizzes about your interests and preferences. Others recommend you reflect deeply, imagine different options, and try to figure out what truly motivates you. Many people just go with their gut.
But plenty of research shows that these methods aren’t very reliable. Indeed, asking “What am I good at?” is already the wrong question, since you really want the answer to an even harder question: “What could I become good at?”

So what’s the answer?

Since we know introspection doesn’t work well, what does? The best approach is an experimental one, that looks outwards instead of inwards:

  1. Make some best guesses about which options seem best.
  2. Identify your key uncertainties about those guesses.
  3. Go and investigate those uncertainties.
  4. Try something, then update your best guesses, and repeat.

Finding the right career for you isn’t something you’ll figure out right away — it’s a step-by-step process of coming to better and better answers over time.
Here are some more tips on each stage.

1. Make a big list of options

Avoid one of the biggest decision-making biases: considering too few options. It’s hard to predict where you’ll excel, and the cost of accidentally ruling out a great option too early is much greater than the cost of investigating it further. A lot of people think they need to stick narrowly to their recent experience. For example, they might think that because they studied biology, they should mainly look for jobs that involve biology. But what major you studied rarely matters that much.

So start by making a long list of options — longer than your first inclination.

2. Figure out your key uncertainties

You don’t have time to try or investigate every job, so you need to narrow down the field.

To start, just make some rough guesses: roughly rank your options in terms of your chances of succeeding at the job, supportive conditions for job satisfaction, and impact.

Then ask yourself: “What are my most important uncertainties about this ranking?”

In other words, if you could get the answers to just a few questions, which questions would tell you the most about which option should be ranked highest?

People often find the most important questions are pretty simple things, like:

  1. If I applied to this job, would I get in?
  2. Would I enjoy this aspect of the job?
  3. Would the pay be high enough given my student loans?
  4. What’s the day-to-day routine actually like?

3. Do cheap tests first

Now that you have a list of uncertainties, try to resolve them!

Start with the easiest and quickest ways to gain information first.

We often find people who want to, say, try out economics, so they apply for a master’s programme. But that’s a huge investment. Instead, think about how you can learn more with the least possible effort: “cheap tests.”

In particular, consider how you might be able to eliminate your top option. Or consider what you might need to find out to move a different option to the top slot.

When investigating a specific option, you can think of creating a ‘ladder’ of tests.

After each step, reevaluate whether the option still seems promising, or if you can skip the remaining steps and move on to investigate another option.

One such ladder might look like this:

  1. Read 80k’s relevant career reviews, all their research on a given topic, and do some Google searches to learn the basics. (1–2 hours)
  2. Speak to someone in the area. (2 hours)
  3. Speak to three more people who work in the area and read one or two books. (20 hours)
  4. Given your findings in the previous steps, look for a relevant project that might take 1–4 weeks of work — like applying to jobs, volunteering in a related role, or doing a side project in the area — to see what it’s like and how you perform.
  5. Only then consider taking on a 2- to 24-month commitment — like a work placement, internship, or graduate study. Being offered a trial position with an organisation for a couple of months can be ideal, because both you and the organisation want to quickly assess your fit.

This might take weeks or months of work to make sure you get it right, but this is your career, so it’s worth it!

4. Try something (and iterate)

So when should you stop your research and try something?

Here’s a simple answer: when your best guess stops changing.

If you keep investigating, but your answers aren’t changing, then the chances are you’ve hit diminishing returns, and you should just try something.

Of course, some decisions are harder to reverse or higher stakes than others (e.g. going to medical school). So all else equal, the bigger the decision, the more time you should spend investigating, and the more stable you want your answers to be.

Once you take the plunge and start a job, it helps to remember that even this is just an experiment. In most cases, if you try something for a couple of years and it doesn’t work out, you can try something else.

With each step you take, you’ll learn more about what fits you best.

How much should you explore in your career?

Suppose you’ve decided to try a job for a few years. You now face a tradeoff: should you stick with it, or quit with the hope of finding something better? Here are some key research findings on this question.

  1. Explore more when you’re young. The earlier you discover a better option, the longer you have to take advantage of it.
  2. Consider trying several paths, but order them carefully. For example:
    • Try reversible options first. It’s better to explore before graduate school rather than after, and it’s easier to go from a business job to a nonprofit job rather than the reverse.
    • Choose options that let you work in different industries (e.g., consulting), practice different skills (e.g., at a small company), or have the free time and energy to explore outside of work.
    • Try something on the side, such as after work or during university holidays.
    • Consider including a wildcard option, totally outside your experience, such as in a different culture, community, or sector. It may open up possibilities that you hadn’t even thought to consider.
  3. If you’re unsure, quit. The sunk cost bias is the tendency to keep doing something that doesn’t make sense anymore, just because of how much you’ve invested in it. This suggests that if you’re on the fence about quitting your job, you should quit. Indeed, in an influential randomised study, 22,500 truly undecided people chose whether to quit based on a coin toss. A few months later, those who quit gained 2.2 points of happiness out of 10!
  4. Shoot for the stars, but don’t be overconfident. When told to dream big, young people often overestimate their chances of success and usually fail. But a high-risk high-reward option can be the better choice when, if it doesn’t work out, you can still go back to the safer alternative. The situation offers an asymetry: if you succeed, the results could be really, really good; and if you fail, the downside is limited. Indeed, such long-shots are the paths you stand to learn the most from. If you have a good back-up plan and the opportunity to try lots of things, you could adopt an aggressive strategy and go for the option with the highest potential upside, despite the risks. Or, for a more moderate strategy, use this as a tiebreaker when uncertain between two options.

Final thoughts

We like to imagine we can work out what we’re good at through reflection, in a flash of insight. But that’s not how it works.

Rather, it’s more like a scientist testing a hypothesis. You have ideas about what you can become good at (hypotheses), which you can test out (research and experiments). Think you could be good at writing? Then start blogging. Think you’d hate consulting? At least speak to a consultant.

If you don’t already know your “calling” or your “passion,” that’s normal. Instead, go and try things. You’ll learn as you go, heading step by step towards a fulfilling career.

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What you should do now

  1. Sign up for our intro programme
  2. Check-out events happening near you
  3. Check out the groups we got across the Netherlands
  4. Go through 80,000 hours career guide