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Career Planning

Don't Know What You Want?

Getting ready to graduate and don't know what you want?

Peter Vogt, Monstertrak Career Coach

June 05, 2007

Don't Know What You Want?

Sometimes the harder you try to figure out what you want to do for a career, the more you wind up beating your head against the wall.

Sound familiar to you? If so, then try the reverse strategy: Take a close look at what you don't want to do. That way, you can explore the opposite and start getting at least some sense of what you do want to do.

Admittedly, this is an unusual approach. After all, it isn't often that you try to accomplish something by first doing the opposite! But I've used this method many times with college students who were in the, "I have no idea what I want to do," stage of their career development.

The method to my madness: I've discovered that, more often than not, lost students can easily pinpoint what they're not interested in, what they're not good at, or what's not all that important to them. "I only know what I don't want to do" is a line these students frequently volunteer in my meetings with them. It's often accompanied by a sort of self-mocking chuckle, as the person seems to be thinking, "I'm an idiot."

There's no need to beat up on yourself for only knowing what you don't want. In fact, you might look at this knowledge as a tool that can help you slowly build a clearer picture of what you do want.

Let's look at a few examples to see how this approach might work for you.

Suppose, for instance, you're lost when it comes to a career decision, but you do know that you hate working with numbers. Not only do you detest figures, quantitative data, statistics and the like, but you also feel you're simply not good at mathematics. What might this knowledge tell you, especially if you think in terms of opposites? Well, maybe you'd enjoy a career that doesn't involve much work with numbers instead. Perhaps, for example, you'd rather work with words (e.g., journalist, editor) or ideas (e.g., sociologist, graphic artist). Or maybe you'd be good at or feel better about working with people (e.g., teacher, counselor).

Suppose you're an extrovert, and you generally don't like working or being alone. What might this knowledge suggest about future career options you should explore? It probably means you'll feel most comfortable in a career where you can work and interact with a lot of different people (e.g., marketer, salesperson, financial planner). Or maybe it suggests you'd perform best in a career that involves a great deal of collaboration with colleagues (e.g., human resources, advertising rep).

Suppose you can't stand it when something seems unresolved or doesn't have a specific, black and white answer. Maybe accounting or finance -- careers in which the numbers always need to check out -- would be a good fit for you. Or maybe a field like architecture or interior design would allow you to continuously see the tangible results of your efforts.

Do you know what doesn't fit you in a future career? Start writing these characteristics down, perhaps in the left-hand column of a two-column list. You can then use the right-hand column to jot down some opposites of these characteristics and, if you can, some potential career areas where these opposites come into play. To get ideas beyond your own, have a friend contribute to your lists, or work with a knowledgeable campus career counselor.

Let's be clear: You probably won't wind up with a completely crystallized picture of the career for you when you're done with this process. But you will have a better sense of the general career directions you ought to explore in depth -- all because you didn't mind starting with a detour in the opposite direction.

This article originally appeared on

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