Sitting in a Broadway theater watching the amazing Hamilton, I noticed a catchy line sung by our eponymous hero: “I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
Thinking about this line later, it reminded me of the many students I’ve had who fit the bill. They were young (college students), scrappy (about to graduate), and hungry (in need of a job). We’ll get to the shot part later.
Every generation sees the subsequent ones as lost, unfocused, and unsure. “Certainly we weren’t like that!” we tell ourselves. In truth, we were.
Still, when yet another one of my students says, “I don’t know what I want to do,” I have to resist the urge to shake them! I want to say, “You or your parents just spent tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars for you to sit in college for four years getting a degree, and you don’t know what to do with it?!”
But I remind myself to be empathetic. Instead of making them feel bad, I say, “That’s okay — let’s figure it out.”
This lack of direction is not limited to young graduates! Even many established mid- and late-career professionals find themselves wondering if the career path they are on is really right for them.
So, if you’re scrappy and hungry — regardless of how old you are — I have some advice as an executive, parent, and professor:
1. Consider Taking a Gap Year
Yeah, I know, it’s hard asking your folks to support a year-long vacation to “find yourself.” Lying on the sofa or a beach somewhere isn’t going to change your situation. If, however, you use this time to travel internationally, volunteer, make connections, and learn a foreign language, you will be much more marketable when you return.
Attack your year with a goal, a strategy, and an action plan. Your parents will also appreciate such a well-prepared proposal (once they’ve climbed off the ceiling).
Get your resume in shape and keep electronic and hard copies with you. Get business cards to hand out to everyone you meet. Keep a detailed journal each day of what you did, whom you met, and how you felt. Later, you’ll use this info to follow up with people and sort out what you enjoyed and what you’d rather avoid in the future.
This exercise is meant to help you identify what you like and don’t like, so diversify your activities. Experience new food, music, and customs. Travel by plane, train, and boat. Stay at hostels, Airbnbs, and motels. Consider picking up a job for a few days in each city you visit; restaurants, bars, and hotels often need daily help. Volunteer at local soup kitchens, schools, churches, or synagogues. Participate in Habitat for Humanity. Immerse yourself in the culture. Talk to people and let them know what you’re doing. They may know someone who knows someone who can give you some advice.
There are many organized gap-year programs that are part academic and part travel agency. Do your homework to see if one of these could be a good fit for you.
2. Try Vocational Evaluation Tests
Though often considered a last resort because of the (sometimes questionable) validity and expense, such tests could be helpful in determining where your aptitudes lie or where your personality shines best. That said, they won’t answer the bigger question, “What do you want to be doing for the next 40 years?”
Like all tests, your results will depend on how well you test, how honest you are, and your mood/attitude at the time. Despite the dubiousness, career tests can at least offer more information to include in your quiver.
Many online assessment companies provide “free” quizzes. Warning: There are no free lunches. After you’ve answered a lot of questions, nearly all of these companies will want you to sign up for their services to get the results.
The price tags of vocational and aptitude tests can run the gamut from $150 to several hundred or even thousand dollars, depending on the services you purchase. You may want the simpler, cheaper online assessment, or you may want personalized attention from a coach or counselor. It’s up to you.
Keep in mind that regardless of the results, it’s still your decision. Don’t become a bookkeeper just because the tests say so.
For more professional success tips, check out the latest issue of Recruiter.com Magazine:
3. Head to a Bookstore and Find the Magazine Section
Now, clear your mind, and may the Force be with you. Your task is to slowly walk down one side of the aisle and up the other, grabbing all the magazines that look interesting to you. Then, look at your stack and find the common denominators. Are they mostly about travel? Photography? Real estate? Cars? Music? Sports? Animals? Fitness? Fashion? If you’d want to spend time reading about a topic, you may enjoy a career working in it.
Just don’t forget to put the magazines back when you’re done.
4. Draw Three Overlapping Circles
In circle one, list the skills you have been trained for — the things you’ve learned formally. In circle two, list things you are good at, both those you think you are good at and those other people have said you are good at. These things may be very different from your education. For example, you may be good at playing guitar, but if you’re self-taught you may doubt you could play professionally. In circle three, list things, causes, places, or products about which you are passionate.
Now, the payoff. Step back and look at your circles. What are you good at? What have you been trained for? What would fill your heart or make you smile if you did it every day for decades? Look at the area where all three circles intersect. Get feedback from family and friends about how they see your attributes. The more opinions, the better.
Mid- and Late-Career Professionals: You Can Use This Advice, Too!
If you’re older and have many years of work experience, you may also be disenchanted with your career. As you’ve aged, maybe married, had kids, took out a car loan and a mortgage, maybe you’ve realized your circumstances have changed. Maybe you no longer like your job, boss, salary, or city.
You, too, can use the above suggestions — with some slight adjustments. Students can take a gap year, and professionals can take a sabbatical. It may not be realistic to drop everything and travel for a year, but you may be able to get away for a month or a few weeks. Given your lengthier experience in the world, you can more easily target where you want to go and what you want to accomplish. Use your friends’ and schools’ networks to schedule appointments with new contacts. The goal is to see and do new things to help you decide what and where you want to be.
A seasoned professional can also make use of vocational tests and the magazine and circle exercises above. It may have been years since you last did such assessments, but your circumstances have changed, so now is the perfect time to reevaluate your path.
Hopefully, the exercises outlined above will inspire you to see the bigger picture and take aim at the career destination you desire. It’s your life. Take control, take a breath, and don’t throw away your shot!
Ferris Kaplan is founder of Best Of You Resumes.