How Not to Choose Your Career

by | Apr 16, 2024 | Lifestyle

Have you ever struggled to choose which career to pursue after finishing high school? If so, you are not alone. Although some people develop a burning passion for one career path when they are very young, most of us don’t know what we want to do with our lives so early.

We typically get conflicting advice at this crucial juncture. Although our parents and teachers often tell us to settle for a certain career path (usually for prestige or money), many adolescents—sometimes secretly—prefer another one. Yet they often refrain from uttering this preference or, if they do share it, they still lack the courage to pursue the career they really want.

When my classmates and I finished high school, most of our parents and teachers incentivized us (with promises of degrees and future successes) to become lawyers, teachers, or scientists. Their argument was that there would always be a need for these three professions. The underlying message was that the allegedly perennial character of these professions was more important than our interests and passions.

Back then, many of my peers uncritically followed their parents’ and/or teachers’ suggestions. The physical and psychological results were, in most cases, devastating. Many of my peers failed to get a job in their unchosen profession. This likely happened because so many students at this time followed their elders’ advice and studied law, education, and STEM subjects, which created an oversupply of lawyers, teachers, and scientists five-to-ten years later. Hence, there were little-to-no job opportunities within these three fields.

Some of my friends did, however, manage to find (often well-paid) jobs. Today, many of them seem to lead successful and peaceful lives. Their inner states, though, often reveal a very different picture. Most of my outwardly successful friends are unhappy, often without understanding the reasons why. After all, they have achieved everything they set out to achieve a decade or two earlier, or so they state.

One of the reasons for their dissatisfaction, I later discovered, is that my peers never chose their purposes themselves. Rather, they accepted their aims from someone else and, therefore, they never identified themselves with their goals in the first place. Many of them later confided in me that they had always had ideas about what to study yet refrained from pursuing their dreams for a number of reasons, such as the fear of not finding a job or disappointing their parents.

All of these observations point to the importance of preserving one’s integrity, which, as American philosopher Ayn Rand argued, “means that one must never sacrifice one’s convictions to the opinions or wishes of others.”1 To put this in positive terms, integrity, as philosopher Leonard Peikoff pointed out, “is the policy of practicing what one preaches, regardless of emotional or social pressure.”2

The error that many of my peers committed was not that they failed to form independent judgments about which career to pursue. Rather, they lacked the courage to act on these judgments. Nowadays, they rationalize that their current life actually constitutes a purposeful life. Yet many of them have told me in private that they often experience a nagging sense of guilt—which I think they feel from leading double lives. In reality, they live a life they hate. In their minds, however, they fantasize about a life that could have been. Yet despite this cognitive dissonance, virtually none of them has ever attempted to change his or her course. Ultimately, they ended up condemning the world and damning themselves.

Given my experiences, I think that it is reasonable to check one’s parents’ and teachers’ advice before deciding which career to pursue. However, this doesn’t mean that our alternative is to disregard long-term repercussions and blindly pursue a career just because we “feel like it.” I think the best approach is one based on your independent conclusions about what interests you. To do this, experiment and establish your interests and then use them as a guide. People’s career advice, in this light, become suggestions—suggestions that either help you achieve your interests or not. Your interests, then, become a powerful filter that may help you narrow down a career that makes you physically and spiritually alive.

  1. Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: Signet, [1964] 2014), 28 [emphasis in the original]. ↩︎
  2. Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Meridian, [1991] 1993), 260. ↩︎

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