Careers develop continuously over the forty or fifty years of our working lives. They are subject to forces both internal (family dynamics, changes of interest) and external (the economy, politics).
Accordingly, I’ve always been dubious about “mapping out” an entire career in advance. The linear progressions of model career development—law school, clerkship, federal prosecutor, 9th Circuit, Supreme Court!–rarely play out so cleanly in real life.
I’ve certainly worked to navigate my career’s direction. However, rather than targeting a predetermined destination, I’ve focused on the journey itself.
My career plan is less a roadmap than it is a set of four practical guiding principles.
1. Do what you’re good at
We’ve all heard the dictum “do what you love.” This is great advice if you have strong passions and a clear vision of how to monetize them. But sometimes the things we love most don’t translate into a job that pays the bills–at least not right away. In these situations, I urge people to focus first on their skills, rather than their passions. In other words, do what you do well!
Skills can transfer to different jobs, industries, and interests. Focusing on professional strengths gives you career flexibility, while also illuminating potential avenues for work in the field of your choice. And ultimately, passion and skill are two sides of the same coin. There’s a reason you are good at some things and not others; your skill set is a reflection of the interest and enjoyment you derive from doing those activities. In this sense, doing what you’re good at is actually a way to do what you love.
2. Keep learning
Taken by itself, the “do what you’re good at” rule could lead to a static, monotonous career. That’s why it’s important to stay curious and explore new interests and skills. Read books and blogs, take classes, network outside your field–do anything that exposes you to new ideas. You may discover professional interests that you never imagined.
Throughout my own career, I have tried to say “yes” to learning opportunities whenever they appear. As a result, I’ve gained new passions for statistics, data analytics, and coding–a surprising development for someone who went out of his way to avoid math classes in college!
3. Stay balanced
It’s good to be passionate about your job, but it’s also important to have passions outside of the office. One of the best things you can do for your career is to have a healthy work/life balance. An active, rewarding private life provides an escape valve for the stresses of work; it can also insulate you from the inevitable down periods in your professional life.
Need a “business justification” for work/life balance? Research has shown that time off from work increases employee happiness and productivity. Plus, being an interesting person with diverse experiences and interests makes you a more appealing candidate for employment.
4. Live your own dream
This is the final rule, but perhaps the most important. You have to evaluate your career according to your own criteria–not anyone else’s. Professional contentment is neither objective nor relative; the only measurement is whether your job and career path bring you happiness.
In our hyperconnected world, it’s very easy to scrutinize our lives relative to other people, and rarely to a good end. (I admit… when I go on Facebook and see friends who are high-powered lawyers, or who work on Capitol Hill, it’s hard not to compare professional accomplishments.) But measuring yourself against other people’s success is like trying to live their dream, rather than your own. Try to focus on what you want to do without worrying about what others are doing and what they may think.