Deciding on a career that’s right for you, and that makes you happy isn’t just about identifying your skills and matching them to job specs – it’s about taking time out to reflect on who you really are; what motivates you, what makes you feel energised and positive – even relaxed.

In a career where you achieve some sense of happiness and fulfilment, you’ll likely enjoy the work assigned to you, feel positive about the people you are working with, be happy with the financial benefits you receive, feel recognised for your contribution and have the scope to improve your skills and progress. You’ll also likely enjoy the work environment, in terms of both the culture and your surroundings.

If you can put ticks against these things, you’re either very lucky that everything has landed in place, or you’ve put the work in and have found and nurtured something that’s really working for you! Congratulations!


Finding a job, that leads to a career, that makes you happy

It may seem a chore and a bit of a pain, but there’s career planning work to be done way before you even start to think about any job search! To give yourself the best chance of deciding on a career that’s right for you, and that will feel rewarding over what will hopefully be a significant period of your life, get out your notebook or journal and start to seriously think about the following:

  • Who are you now and who you want to become
  • Your skills, knowledge and key attributes
  • The reasons why you work (or wish to work)
  • Your working style
  • What your ideal working environment looks like

how to decide on a career


Who are you now?

This question may look quite straight-forward on first reading but trust us when we say that it is one of the most difficult questions you will ever be asked about yourself. It is also a question that will need to be asked over and over, as you gain life experience.

Knowing who you are is about understanding what you value – what important morals or codes you want to live by, and what standards you expect of yourself and from others. These things are likely to change over the course of your life, however, it’s often the case that a few really important things ‘stick’ from an early age and become the bedrock of shaping the person you are – in work, but also outside of it.

Trying to write even a few paragraphs that describe who you are, is no small feat. Don’t take on the task lightly. Start with a stream of consciousness – just write down what comes into your head. If you find this easy, ask more searching questions of yourself, such as what things motivate and give you energy? What things frustrate or irritate you? How do you like to be seen by others (both in the sense of your image and style but also in terms of your values and opinions?) If the words flow, keep going!


Who do you want to become?

Deciding on who you want to become is altogether more difficult. Don’t be surprised if you simply don’t know – very few people start out in the world with a clear game plan. Perhaps you aspire to be like someone you admire? That’s a great place to start. Is there someone you would like to emulate? Is someone doing work that you think is important or you like the look of?

how to decide on a career

Of course, the temptation is to want to emulate your heroes – be they sport stars, music legends, actresses, presenters or other famous faces. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to lofty heights. Just remember that you will need to find your own path to get there. If you don’t have the natural abilities of your favourite footballer, could you have a rewarding career in sport as a physiotherapist, agent, or trainer? If you want to sing but don’t have the voice for it, is there a career behind-the-scenes that would be equally satisfying?

When starting out there’s no need to give up on your dreams early? Keep tuning in to the voice in your head and remain open to different possibilities, options and ideas. And remember the old saying – to become a master of something you need to practise it for at least 10,000 hours! Make every hour count.


Your skills, knowledge and key attributes

No matter where you are on your career journey there’s always time to assess (or re-assess) your areas of strength and preference. At school were you naturally drawn to certain subjects? Have you gained academic qualifications that are vocational (for example, a medical or law degree) or have you studied subjects that you just found interesting? Have you worked during your teenage years and discovered you are adept at certain skills – such as using your hands to build things or writing computer code?

If you take this current point in time as a marker, what would you summarise as your strengths in regard to what you are skilled at, what you know and what natural abilities you have? What do these preferences tell you about the types of careers that might excite or interest you?

For further help with getting to know yourself better start career journaling with Notebook Mentor.


Your preferred work style

When we talk about work style, we are really thinking about your preference for the “manner, method or way things get done in a job”, making your career experience more personally palatable over the long-term. So, for example, you might prefer to seek out roles that will allow you to work in one or more of the following ways:

    • Where you are free to work anywhere you want to work – for example, working permanently from home, or from a hot-desk, or perhaps having the flexibility to choose
    • Where you are free to make your own independent decisions – for example, working alone, being left to get on with things, taking charge autonomously, signing off something without passing the decision up the organisation tree. Do you want to take charge of a project or work on something with little outside interference?
    • Where you have the flexibility to manage your time how you choose. Do you relish opportunities where you can choose how your time is structured? Do you like to be allowed to work at your own pace and dislike too many structured meetings? Do you like to take ownership and plan your own work agenda? Do you like the routine and knowing what to expect each day, or are you happy to come into work and not know what you will be faced with?
    • Where the rules, policies and procedures you have to follow are informal or open to interpretation. Will you be comfortable in a career where you have to follow strict procedures or rules (for example in financial services or medicine)? Do you get satisfaction from adhering to policies and processes that must be followed to the letter? Or would you rather do work where you can interpret how things should be done, where there are few strict procedures to follow?
    • Where work gets done through people, talk and collaboration, rather than through working with machines or technology.

how to decide on a career

Here are some other workstyles you might like to consider:

  • Will you thrive in a career where there is a variety of work to be done, or are you happiest when your jobs require you to perform routine tasks?
  • Do you like seeing tangible results? Do you believe that manufacturing something is more attractive than providing a service?
  • Are you motivated by risk, change, and uncertainty? Do you thrive when the environment or the work is constantly changing? Do you like challenges and jump at the opportunity to be the first to do something new, or are you looking for continuity, consistency and predictability in your career?
  • Do you like the idea of a career environment where you are working with like-minded people or are you excited to be challenged by people who think differently to you?
  • Do you get satisfaction from making sure the detail is perfect or do you only like working on the bigger picture?

Don’t be too surprised if you don’t immediately know your preferences around working style. It may take you time to work these things out. Perhaps your work preferences will change around your life circumstances? These things are worthy of consideration when deciding on a career but expect them to change over time.


Working Environment

Finally, it’s worth thinking about the type of working environment that makes you happy. If you’re someone who wants a career in the city or prefers work in a sleek office, then pursuing a role (however good a fit) that is based in a factory, may lose its appeal quickly. If you’d like a career working outdoors, then office jobs might make you miserable. If you prefer a career that requires you to dress smartly for work, then dressing in overalls or medical scrubs might not appeal.

Here is a list of considerations to think over:

  • Do you prefer to work in a quiet environment with little background noise and chatter?
  • Do you like to be able to listen to music while you work?
  • Do you like working in an open-plan office? Would you like your own desk or are you happy to hot-desk? Do you have a desire to personalise your workspace?
  • Do you want to work from home or do you like working with people around you? Do you need camaraderie and water-cooler moments to get you through the day?
  • Would you prefer to work from multiple locations rather than just one? Does travelling for work float your boat?
  • Do you want to dress smartly, or wear a suit to work? Would you like to wear the same clothes to work as you wear at home? Are you happy to wear a uniform?
  • Do you want to work near shops and facilities so that you can go out in your lunch hour, or would you love to spend your lunch hour in the canteen chatting to your teammates?
  • Do you want to work outside, being close to nature?

In all honesty, we could go on listing different ways of working and work environments and styles that may or may not appeal to you. If you want to decide on a career that makes you happy, knowing which of these things matter most, will certainly help you make more informed choices.

Then there is the consideration of your work-life balance. Do you need to work or follow a career path that allows you to be close to schools or near to other family members? Do you want to limit the amount of time it takes to travel to and from work every day? Is it important that you have a career that allows you to work part-time, such that you are able to pick your children up from school?

If it helps start a log of important work style and environment statements that matter to you. As you start to plan your career and job choices, keep checking in with how well these statements will be fulfilled.


Starting your career by finding a job

Even if you haven’t perfectly worked out and decided on a career that’s right for you, at some stage you will need to test the water by getting employed!

how to decide on a career

To search for a job, you need to use a recruitment agency, look online at company and recruitment websites, or use your network, matching roles based on your skills, interests, qualifications and job history. If you are selected for an interview, prepare well, be yourself and ask lots of relevant questions to gather more information about the company culture and your role. Check out our blog on interviews and how to make a good impression. Remember, interviewing works both ways. It’s just as much your chance to work out whether this is a good first step for you, as it is an employer’s opportunity to consider whether you will fit.

If successful at an interview, negotiate your reward if you have the flexibility to do so, or accept your job offer. If unsuccessful repeat the process until you have secured a job.


If you are new to the job market

Theoretically, you should be able to work out if a particular job role will suit you and kick start a happy career, by checking your reaction to all the things we have talked about before you even apply for any jobs!

  • Carry out research on what people say about careers or jobs in a particular sector. If you like the idea of working in technology, what do people say about the technology companies out there? Look at the type of roles these companies advertise. Do they offer roles of interest to you?
  • If you are applying for a specific role, what do people say about the employer? What type of culture might you be heading into? Is it warm and friendly? Are the ways of working conducive to good problem solving and creativity? Are people happy and motivated with the way they are led and managed? What do current and former employees say about how good it is/was to work there?
  • Forensically examine the job description for any role you are considering. Does it match your own skills and abilities? Does the work you’ll be doing make your heart sing? Is it at least work that you know you’ll enjoy and get satisfaction from? Could it build toward a career you’ll find satisfying?
  • Have a look at the reward package attached to the role. Is it enough to unburden you from acute financial worry? Are there opportunities for you to increase things like your base salary and benefits going forward? While research suggests that financial reward alone won’t make you happy at work, taking this basic hygiene factor off the table, certainly makes everything a lot easier.


Focus on your happiness

When you are out of work or feel stuck knowing what career is right for you, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. This can often lead to taking on any job you can get. It’s understandable of course, particularly in the current environment. If you can, try to reflect beyond this immediate urgency.

Landing a job quickly is one thing. Discovering that you find the job dull, irritating and frustrating is quite something else. For many, it may even be a worse prospect than waiting a little longer to find your happy place. If you do find yourself in the situation of being unhappy about your job or career choices, follow our helpful career guidance on what to do next.

how to decide on a career

There are no absolute guarantees that if you follow all of the above advice you will find a job, that leads to a career, that will make you happy. But you’ll certainly be giving yourself the best chance possible.

Think of the analogy of a new job being like a new pair of shoes. They look great when you choose and pay for them. You can’t wait to get them home and start wearing them. Truth is, you don’t know how comfortable and satisfying they will be to wear until you walk in them properly. Will they be a perfect fit? Will they mould to the shape of your foot or will your foot have to suffer a few blisters until you have moulded to them? Will they pinch or be downright uncomfortable? Only time and a bit of wear and tear will tell.

Your happiness cannot be dictated by thinking that you have to get it right the first time. Working things out with a bit of trial and error is perfectly normal. Sometimes discovering what you don’t like actually serves you well – it really does shine a light on what will make you happiest.

Sarah Coombs is Head of Brand & Marketing at Notebook Mentor, providing the best career journals to help ordinary people manage, develop and be happier at work.


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