Three Steps to Help Students Start Their Careers

“So, what do you want to do with your life?”

This question paralyzes students more than any other. They get stumped—not because they don’t have any idea—but because they have so many ideas. They often have several visions for their future. When I sat down recently with a group of high school and university students, this is what I heard:

1. What if I choose a job, only to find out I missed something better?
2. Should I just do more school (graduate school), if I don’t know what to do?
3. What if I find out I don’t measure up and can’t pay off my student debts?
4. If I find a great job, why would I deserve this opportunity more than others?
5. My parents expect me to jump into my career now, but I’m not sure I’m ready.
6. There are so many choices. What if I overlook what I’m supposed to do?

Summarizing the Challenge

Many of the fears I heard from students are laced with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and YOLO (You Only Live Once). They don’t want to miss the crazy amount of options afforded to them in the 21st century. And I can’t blame them. There are more career opportunities today than at any point in history. Sometimes I even get overwhelmed.

Usually, graduates face two looming questions more than others. Before they can answer the questions from the list above, they must respond to these two questions:

1. When is it right to accept the first opportunity I get?
2. When is it right to wait?

Obviously, there is not one right answer for everyone. The answers require shrewd wisdom, critical thinking and some old fashioned common sense. Let me offer a spark to ignite conversation with your students about this issue.

Wisdom and Common Sense 

I believe stepping into a job or career is one of the most important decisions a person will make. Hence, it should not be taken lightly. Each decision we make can form a “rut” or a “groove” that will later be a blessing or a curse. Jobs create thought patterns and thought patterns become dictators on how we live our lives. Consider the following “common sense” concepts for conversation:

1. Strike a balance in your thinking.

I have found students must strike a balance between finding the “one, perfect job” and taking the next appropriate step that makes sense. Too many young adults seek that perfect job, where they assume they’ll love every moment and feel satisfied each day just from doing their tasks. Wow. Good luck with that one.

There is a healthy balance between finding the perfect job and taking whatever comes along just to pay the bills. Even on a great job, you will not love every task you are required to do. Author Marcus Buckingham says if you find a job that allows you to work in your strength areas about 75 percent of the time, you’ve got a great job. I started my organization, Growing Leaders, in 2003 and admittedly, I don’t love every minute of my job. We all must perform some “not so glitzy” tasks along the way. Young professionals should seek out work that allows them to explore areas of interest and giftedness, but they need to proceed as a learner.

2. Discover who you are through what you do.

I believe we must know ourselves before we let a job define our identity. However, I don’t believe we can genuinely discover who we are by simply sitting idly by, doing nothing but thinking. I have done most of my discovering about myself (and my career) by stepping into roles of service and learning via “On-The-Job” experience. It is a combination of both service and reflection. Neither is complete by itself.

I worked four jobs while I was in college, and I found my first career job while still in school. In fact, I graduated with peers who were much smarter than me (and had a higher GPA), but upon graduation I had five job opportunities awaiting me, while many of those smarter grads had none. It’s difficult to discover a career path in a classroom alone. Start serving and you’ll learn your strengths and interests. Someone once said, “Even God cannot steer a parked car.” Along the way, you’ll be able to answer the questions:

  • Do I want to work with my mind more than my hands or vice versa?
  • Am I more of a creator or an implementer?
  • Do I prefer constantly doing new tasks or do I love settling into a routine?
  • Am I someone who prefers more activity or reflection?
  • Do I prefer working primarily alone on projects or working with people?

3. Choose the best next step over the perfect step.

Too many students are looking for the perfect job or the one that’s going to deliver the best experience for them, right now. I think that might be short-sighted. While those ambitions are not evil, they may blind a young adult from thinking long term. As my friend David Salyers says, far too many graduates are asking:

  • What job will pay me the most money?
  • What job will be the most fun?
  • What job will provide me with the best tasks?

What if students chose a different set of questions that went like this:

  • Where can I add the most value?
  • What job sets me up best over the long term, more than right now?
  • What job has a mission that aligns with my personal values?

In other words, thinking long term liberates a student from needing to find the perfect job match right now. It’s simply the best next step.

Why not start a conversation with your students about this topic? I believe we can genuinely help them answer the question: “So, what do you want to do with your life?

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Three Steps to Help Students Start Their Careers