Featured in

Featured in: Tiny Buddha, Halifax Media Coop, Fine Fit Day, Simplify the Season, La Presse, Filles, Le Canada-Français

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How do you choose your career?

Communication, languages, writing, health, structure. With those 5 words, try to figure out what my professional occupation is (answer below). But first, let's talk about career choices.

Career choices are tough. You usually make them when you are still young, with little self-knowledge and hindsight.

A lot of people end up with a job they don't really enjoy. It's a shame since your job is something you devote a third of your time to.

Some (more and more of them it would seem) decide to change paths around midlife.

How can you maximize your chances of making the right choice in the first place, and thus minimize the risk of being unfulfilled at work? Here's my hint: stop thinking about the future and start focusing on the past.

Yes, you heard me well, to pick the right career you should look behind, not ahead. Let me explain.

Your career choice should not be based on what you'd like to do in the future so much as on what you've already enjoyed doing/learning about in the past. Your career should not be something you wish you were good at so much as something you're already good at.

What are your spontaneous interests, pastimes, talents? What do you find yourself doing/talking about/reading about when you have both energy and free time on your hands? What comes naturally?

Here's a list of questions (and my answers as an example) to help you circumscribe your potential "happy jobs" (because there's more than one, obviously. I never thought I would become what I've become, yet come to think of it, it makes total sense!)

First of all, here's what you should NOT base you career choice on.

You should NOT base your career choice on external factors like the pay or the prestige, or on what other people think you should do

This seems obvious, but unfortunately a lot of people still go that way, and the results don't lie: I've met my share of unhappy doctors and lawyers and financiers. Pay and prestige okay (some would argue "not even!"), but what about the fun? Everyone deserves a job they like, and once you have it, you might as well forget about prestige and pay altogether.

I know a few people who made the "wrong" career choice based on the fact that their family did not approve of their personal preference. In many cases this disapproval stemmed from intellectual snobbery. Those were kids whose parents had a liberal profession: doctors, lawyers, professors. Those are kids who had a "different" passion, and who wanted to become a police officer, an early childhood educator, a fashion designer, an actor. Some simply wanted to study philosophy. They were told that this wasn't good enough. Fast-forward ten or twenty years, where are they? Some are still wondering what they want to do "when they grow up" (even if they're well into their thirties or forties). Some work for minimum wage in a field they are not passionate about. Some are back to school after a couple years of wandering without a purpose. (Hopefully they are now happy and will get a job that resembles them.) A great passion and/or talent was wasted, the kid, now a grown-up, feels dissatisfied with his/her life, and I bet a few (now retired) parents are biting their fingers.

Personally I come from a family of number-savvy, science driven people. My father was a mathematician. My mother was in finance. My brother became a computer scientist. All of them enjoyed doing scientific experiments of all sorts as kids (to their respective parents' dismay).

Not me. You could say I was the black sheep, a letter-person in a world of numbers. My parents loved playing with words, but for a career, the choice was clear, and the pressure, overt or subtle, was there for me to pick a scientific curriculum. Don't take me wrong, I think science is both fascinating and tremendously important. (I'll come back in another post with some scientific concepts that are dear to me.) But I've always leaned towards communication and humanities. Who cares if there's better jobs in science (dixit my father)? If you really love what you do, and if you're really good at it, you will 1) be happy; 2) make an excellent living out of it (dixit my father again - a man of great contradictions!) So after a disastrous year in high school with advanced math, physics and chemistry (elective courses that I took because I kinda thought I had to), I made a 180-degree turn and plunged right into pure humanities. My father was disappointed, of course. But I became a straight-A student, and a very happy one. I never looked back.

Still, the interest for science was there, but in a literary way if there is such a thing. I enjoyed biology classes immensely, for learning all the terminology was very easy for me. I would see a term once, and remember it forever (I could spell it right, too). As for math, I had done best when it took the form of sentences. I got my best grade in math - a 100 % that pleased daddy! - when we spent a term on propositional logic. (In literature I particularly enjoyed syntax analysis. Structure and flow of text are still a hobby-horse of mine... even when working with Proust!)

Now the questions:

What do you do well?

What you excel at in school can serve as an indication. For me it was languages (my first being French) and humanities. Writing skills were my biggest asset. I aced spelling bees.

(In high school I also got excellent grades in economics, which surprised me a little bit, but it's true that economics are more about the concepts than about the numbers.)

The areas in which you perform outside of school count too. Is there anything you do really good at, more than your average peer? Look into it a little bit deeper. Each of us has a few of those talents. They might be a reliable indicator of something you would do well (and enjoy).

Another interesting way to look at this is to figure out what kind of intelligence you have. Spatial? Musical? Linguistic? Interpersonal? Intrapersonal? Naturalist? Logical-mathematical? Existential? Bodily-kinesthetic?

In any case, stop wasting your time trying to be good at something you're not. (I have long renounced learning how to draw.) Go for something you already excel at. Everything will become a piece of cake.

What do you do a lot of?

As children evolve into teenagers then young adults, it's a fascinating thing to see them develop interests and hobbies, some of which will last a lifetime. Wouldn't it be great if their main occupation incorporated one or two of those interests? Not all pastimes can become a job (or can they?), but you can certainly exploit some of your natural inclinations... and some of your natural talents, for that matter.

What are you passionate about?

What do you find yourself talking about all the time? What kind of pictures and articles do you repost on Facebook? What do you watch on TV? You might not think anything will come out of this, but try to find a trend. What kinds of topics to you revolve around?

As I was looking at my bedside table this morning, I realized the books we read are an excellent indication of our passions. Here are the titles I am currently reading (yes, I do read numerous books at a time) or that I recently read - or that are permanently resting beside my bed in case I need to consult them in the middle of the night!

Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Bill Bryson)
Quiet - The Power of Introverts (Susan Cain)
The Conflict - How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women (Elizabeth Badinter)
Gender Trouble (Judith Butler)
How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky)
Rêveurs et nageurs (Denis Grozdanovitch)
The Book of Wine (New York Times)
The Onion and Philosophy
I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar
The History of the World According to Facebook
A travel guide to the Greek Islands (about time I put it away, was there 6 months ago!)
A few manuals on dog training
A philosophy dictionary
A medical encyclopedia
An encyclopedia of literary terms and literary history
A running magazine

In fiction I have a Queneau, a Modiano and a Tournier.

Obviously the first thing one should gather from that list is that I'm a bookworm! If you get past that, remember that it is enduring interests we are looking for. Those topics that fascinate me - writing, travel, humor, health/fitness and numerous social issues - have been a passion for quite a while now, including the oenological one - I obviously started "acting on it" later, but the seed was planted early with a trip to Burgundy before I turned 10.

What unusual behavior/activities did you have as a kid?

Those are an indication of your early "tendencies", and reflecting on them can be enlightening!

First of, I started reading early - before school. And once that started, nothing could stop me! As Frank Zappa said: "So many books, so little time!"

As I child I loved to play "bookstore", and I remember wishing that one day I would find myself locked up inside a library for the night - even better, for a few years if such things happen! Among my favorite books was Robinson Crusoe. I was fascinated by the way he collected and organized objects and building material for his new life, and by the way he communicated with Friday.

When I discovered dictation, I quickly developed a love for it. For the most popular (and arguably one of the hardest) French dictation of all times, see here.

As a teenager, I took part in numerous dictation contests, and a few writing ones. I read the complete works of Freud (and some of Rogers) by the time I was 15. Around the same age, when asked what I wanted for my birthday I replied "a medical encyclopedia" (I still have it). I skipped science classes to provide free psychotherapy to my peers in need. I drew house plans every day. I had a sustained correspondence with thirty kids around the world (in either French or English). I also exchanged letters with my classmates, and to make sure the teachers would be unable to decipher them, we wrote them using the ancient Phoenician alphabet.

Gawd, now I look like a total weirdo!

What did you want to become when you grew up?

I wanted to be a vet, a nurse, a physician, a psychiatrist - do you see a healthy trend?

I wanted to be a psychologist. I did get a bachelor's degree in psychology. I loved it, including learning about all the nervous system components and their functioning... but it wasn't exactly what I thought it would be and I switched to French language and literature for my master's, hoping to teach French after. Which I did temporarily, with much pleasure.

I also wanted to be an architect. Turned out not to be such a good idea as it involves numbers. However, I can't help but see this as another sign of a fascination for structure - something I work on daily.

Finally, I wanted to be a writer or a journalist. Hmmm... getting warmer.

What student jobs did you have?

I was a lifeguard, a swimming/1st aid/CPR instructor trainer, a research assistant in neuropsychology and a volunteer with Alzheimer patients - again do you see a trend?

I was also a camp counselor (water sports) and a swim coach; my favorite part was the teaching component, which involves taking information and communicating it in a clear, organized, orderly fashion... something I do in my job, albeit in a completely different manner.

With all this in mind, and if you've been able to notice trends and recurring topics... what do you think your ideal job should be?

And with all this in mind, don't you think it would make total sense that I spend my days reading, reviewing, translating and editing medical text?

(As much as I love my job, I still haven't said my last word, and in a few years you might very well find me in the role of either 1) a freelance writer; 2) a sommelier; 3) a life coach; 4) anything else I set my heart to!)

In the next post: you will get to discover what a medical translator eats in winter!


  1. This is a wonderful discourse on an important topic, Julie!

    I suppose I was lucky as I wanted to be an artist and a doctor from an early age. My path was a bit circuitous, but I eventually was able to actualize both of those dreams. I honestly can't say I planned everything out, but chance seemed to smile on my meanderings, and as the persistent river, I eventually reached the sea :-)

    I was talking to a Jamaican man one day about life, etc, and he said to me, "You have to remember."

    My foolish reply was, "Remember what?"

    He wisely said nothing, and in the next thirty seconds, I wrote this poem in my mind.

    You have to remember
    the days of your past.
    The many tomorrows
    whose fates have been cast.
    The future behind you
    from where it once lay.
    Serves to remind you
    See the moment
    Seize the day!

  2. This is a beautiful comment, Dr. J.
    I couldn't help but notice the structure and the flow.. :-)
    I would add I also noticed the music in your words.