What’s your favorite food in the world?
That’s a simple question, to be sure, but the answer is complex. I’m going out on a limb here, but I guess that the correct answer for anyone reading this is “I don’t know.”
You see, I didn’t ask “What’s your favorite food that you’ve ever tasted?” That’s a very different question, and much easier to answer, whether your choice might be beef stew or pepperoni pizza or sushi. But that’s not what I asked; I asked what your favorite food is “in the world,” and that includes all the foods you’ve never even tried.
How can you know something isn’t your favorite if you’ve never tried it?
And yet that’s exactly what we expect from our college students. We ask them to pick a career before they’ve ever really experienced any of them. Sure, an internship or a summer job can give you valuable work experience — and this experience is essential to landing a job after graduation — but these can’t give you more than a taste of just a few different types of jobs and work settings.
The Truth About Career Paths
The worst planning mistake college students can make is to shoot for perfection. They’re not ready to pick the “perfect” job because they don’t have enough experience.
I don’t really think that most students need to make up their mind as to what they want to do with their career before they graduate. Sure, it’s great if you already know you want to pursue a “destination” career such as nursing or teaching or engineering and you structure your education for that goal. But it’s also okay not to know what you want to do with the rest of your life. (Click here to tweet this thought.)
That’s the beauty of an entry-level job in most companies. You don’t get a lot of pay, and you don’t get a lot of responsibility. These jobs may not be the most exciting in the world, but they also tend not to be the most stressful jobs, either. And this gives you time to observe what’s going on around you. You can get to know your colleagues and find out what it is that they actually do. If you show some initiative, you might even get to do some extra work helping out in areas that appeal to you.
The fact is that few people end up doing the work they studied for in college. For example, my younger brother studied music. He took a job sweeping out a sound studio after college. In time, the owners found that he was able to make repairs to the sound equipment. Before long, he was building a new control board for the studio. Eventually, he was hired by Steve Jobs to work on computers, and later he founded a company that created a new form of wireless networks. He’s not using his music training at all in his professional work, and yet he’s had a successful and happy career.
Ask people that you know about their work history, and you’ll soon discover that few careers follow a straight path. One work experience often leads to a discovery about what you’re good at or new opportunities you didn’t know existed. It’s like walking into a new restaurant and trying a dish you’ve never had before and finding out it’s your new favorite.
But How Can You Plan For This?
You have to get started, and that means getting a job after graduation. The most important step is to develop useful skills that companies need. These include “soft” career skills such as strong verbal and written communication skills, a good work ethic and taking responsibility for your decisions and actions. You also need to know what you’re good at and be able to demonstrate that you can bring value to your prospective employer. That’s why internships and work experience are so important; they offer proof that you were able to apply your knowledge and skills in productive ways.
Remember that when you land that entry-level position after graduation, your studies are just beginning. Learn all that you can about your company and about the different roles people have in the business. Your colleagues have a lot they can teach you, and they can open doors to new experiences that will help you discover talents and interests you never knew you had. In most cases, you’ll have to work to make this happen, so plan to do your assigned tasks well and without complaint, and take the time to pay attention to all that’s going on around you.
In time, you just might find that you have a brand new favorite.
What have the twists and turns in your own career path taught you? Share your wisdom with young professionals in the comments!
Alfred Poor, America’s Success Mentor for Young Employees, is a speaker and the author of 7 Success Secrets That Every College Student Needs to Know! You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @AlfredPoor on Twitter.