For most of us, our choices in life are heavily influenced by our environment.
We are born into a society that tells us how to pick a career path and we’re often too young to know any better. We are given a set of rules and goals at an early age, and these rules often determine our path in life.
For example, I was born into a strict Asian household where I was expected to excel academically. Skipping college was not an option and I was told that success consisted of getting good grades and finding a nice stable career (in engineering, law or medicine:)).
As a result, starting a business was never on my radar and it took me 32 years to discover my calling in life. 32 YEARS!!
For many of you reading this post, I suspect that you have a similar story. You’ve been conditioned to go to college, discover your interests, find the right job and live happily ever after.
Unfortunately, it almost never works out that way. Here’s why…
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The Problem With The Traditional Career Path
When we are young, we are forced to go to school until we are 18 years old. Then from there, many of us attend college with the hope of discovering our calling in life.
We take classes on various subjects like French Literature, Great Works and Psychology 101 but the problem with college is that it doesn’t teach you what it’s like in the real world.
For example, there’s no class on investing. There’s no class on how to manage your money. And there’s no class on people skills.
In fact, most people wander through college trying to excel in arbitrary subjects that have no practical purpose.
Then before you know it, 4 years pass and you are suddenly thrust into a world where you have to make important decisions that will alter the course of your life.
But the problem is that you’re clueless. You have no real skills, you have no network and you don’t have anyone to hold your hand through the process.
Because there is no process. There is no set path.
You’ve spent your entire life being a straight A student but you have zero experience running anything of consequence.
Then all of a sudden, you are stuck answering questions like
- What should I do with my life?
- What am I truly passionate about?
- Where do I go from here?
Then time happens.
You make a “practical” choice, stick with it for 20 years and then question how you got here in the first place.
The problem with the “practical choice” is that it rarely fulfills you in the long term.
Many of my friends who chose to be lawyers are now questioning their decision. Many of my doctor friends are drastically cutting back on their hours looking for something else to do.
Many of my friends in lucrative and prestigious positions are not satisfied with the career path they have chosen.
Here’s the thing.
People who are on their deathbeds often feel regret. And I strongly believe that many of these regrets stem from the fact that we live most of our lives going with the flow and choosing the “practical” path.
We allow society to influence our decisions even if they don’t make sense for our happiness.
So today’s post is about bucking the trend and finding your own way. It’s about analyzing the path that you’re currently on, and whether that path makes sense.
It’s Never Too Late To Make A Change…
First off, when it comes to making career decisions, it’s important to remember that nothing is ever set in stone and that you can always make a change.
When I was younger, I used to think that my choices were final and that I’d be pigeon holed into a set job for the rest of my life.
But if you look at my journey, I’ve done many drastically different things in the last 20 years.
When I graduated from college, I started out as an electrical engineer and worked my way up to becoming a director at my company.
From a director of hardware engineering, I started selling handkerchiefs online.
From running an ecommerce store, I took up writing and blogging.
From blogging, I started podcasting.
From podcasting, I decided to teach ecommerce over at ProfitableOnlineStore.com
And from teaching my course, I started my own event over at Sellers Summit.
The list goes on…But here’s the point.
Most of you stress out over your career decisions because you put too much emphasis on making the right choice on your first try.
You’ve been told to follow your passion but you aren’t passionate about anything.
You aren’t sure what you’re good at and you have no idea what to do.
In the face of uncertainty, your best course of action is to simply pick one thing. It doesn’t matter what it is in beginning, but make a choice and commit to it for at least a few years.
If your choice works out, then great but otherwise, remember that you can always make a change. In other words, it’s never too late to reinvent yourself.
With that in mind, here’s my framework for making the right career decisions based on your personal needs. Ultimately, this process requires a little self-reflection and an understanding of what makes you happy.
The 5 Pillars Of Career Fulfillment
First off, most people have a tendency to choose a profession that pays the most money and it’s easy to fall into this trap.
When I first graduated from college, I was obsessed with becoming filthy rich. I dreamed of a life where I made millions per year, flew in private jets and bought whatever I wanted.
And this drive for money fueled me to take jobs in the Silicon Valley that had the highest potential payout. It fueled me to set aggressive growth goals for all of my businesses at the expense of stress and happiness.
But as I unraveled the reasons for my money lust, I discovered that most of it stemmed from ego. I wanted to achieve impressive numbers that made me feel good despite the toll it took on my psyche.
Making more money is all fine and good but after a certain point, you realize that your drive for money stems from a desire for financial security rather than vast amounts of wealth.
Don’t get me wrong. Making money is important but it almost always comes at a price.
For example if you choose a career that requires working 100 hours per week, it will negatively affect your social life and your relationships.
If you choose a career that doesn’t make a positive impact on the world, you may feel unfulfilled.
They key is to take some time to reflect on what makes you happy and choose your path based on how you rank the following criteria.
- Lifestyle – Do you want a career that will allow you to be flexible with your time? How important is your leisure time and how many hours do you want to work each week?
- Impact – Do you want your profession to make a positive impact on the world? Does your work improve the future?
- Ego – Do you want to become well known for your work? Do you want to be well respected in your niche? How important is fame and appreciation?
- Personal Growth – Do you want your work to test your potential? Do you want your profession to challenge your mind?
- Financial Security – Do you want to make lots of money? How important is job security?
Unfortunately, these 5 criteria tend to conflict so ultimately you must make tradeoffs based on what you value the most.
Pillar #1: Financial Security
If you’re Asian like I am, chances are you lean towards the “practical” career path. The practical career consists of a high salary job that pays the bills and gives you peace of mind when it comes to your finances.
It is the “safe” option.
A few careers that come to mind are engineers, lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants etc… Now there’s nothing wrong with any of these professions.
They are in high demand and can be quite fulfilling to some people. But more often than not, it boils down to money.
At a base level, practicality comes down to being able to pay the bills every month, support your living needs and provide a sense of financial security.
Pillar #2: Quality Of Life
What you do for a living will have consequences on your everyday life even when you are not doing work. For example, I have friends in Silicon Valley who think about their job 24/7.
Even though they are only physically in the office for 8-10 hours per day, they are mentally consumed and constantly check work emails on nights and weekends.
They are burdened with a tremendous amount of stress because they are forced to meet aggressive goals and deadlines for their company.
Even though they make excellent salaries and are compensated extremely well, there’s always a work related issue weighing heavily on their minds.
Overall, your job flexibility will play a huge role in your relationships with your friends and family as well. It will affect the types of activities you can do in your free time and play a huge role in your overall happiness.
The toughest part of about having a career with a great lifestyle is that it often conflicts with all of the other pillars.
Pillar #3: Impact And Passion
Pillar #3 is about fulfilling your passions. Do you truly love your work and are you actively helping others make the world a better place to live?
Do you want to wake up every morning ready and raring to get to work?
The impact pillar is what most people suppress in favor of money and practicality which is why there are so many disgruntled workers in the world.
I once had a friend who made a killing working at an ad tech company. But as years passed, he realized that devoting his life towards getting people to click on more ads simply wasn’t a fulfilling outcome for him and he left for a much lower paying non profit job.
Today, he is much happier and he spends his time helping other people.
Similarly, I find running MyWifeQuitHerJob.com infinitely more fulfilling than my engineering job.
Helping people change their financial lives through ecommerce has been especially rewarding for me and I love it when my students find success selling online.
Pillar #4: Ego And Respect
We’re all human and it’s only natural to care about what other people think of you. After all…
We all want to be appreciated for our work.
We all want to be recognized for our accomplishments.
We all want to be well liked, admired, and work on interesting projects.
For me personally, I’m not ashamed to admit that I immensely enjoy getting recognized for my work:) I love it when people approach me to thank me for my content.
After all, what you do for a living eventually becomes a part of your identity.
What do I mean by that? Think about how you respond when someone asks what you do? Do you say…
- “I’m an engineer” or “I design computers”
- “I’m a lawyer” or “I practice law”
- “I’m a doctor” or “I cure patients”
Most people identify themselves by their job title rather than by their actual job duties.
And your job title affects your ego because people judge you for it.
For example back when I was an electrical engineer, no one cared to hear about what I did for a living. In fact, eyes would often glaze over when I tried to explain my job:)
But today when I mention that I’m a professional writer and podcaster, I get a totally different reaction and people are actually interested in learning more.
Overall, you have to take pride in what you do for a living and it feels great when others express interest in your work.
Pillar #5: Personal Achievement
The personal achievement pillar is about challenging yourself.
Does your career force you to excel?
Are you pushed to your full potential?
Does what you do require brainpower?
One thing that I enjoyed about my day job as a director of engineering was that it was extremely challenging from a technical perspective. And to this day, I have yet to find anything to match it.
While I enjoy running my businesses, most of my day to day involves cultivating relationships and it’s rare that I ever get to tackle difficult technical problems.
But that being said, I also derive a lot of personal satisfaction from growing my businesses, developing personal relationships and studying human psychology.
Every satisfying career requires a certain level of challenge to keep you interested.
Prioritizing The 5 Pillars
Now that you are aware of the 5 pillars of career fulfillment, you must prioritize your needs and wants because you can’t have it all.
The 5 pillars can and will conflict.
For example, it’s rare to find a high paying job that offers a great lifestyle. It may be difficult to find impactful work that pays the bills.
Because there’s no perfect career, making the right tradeoffs requires a deep analysis of your fears.
Fear guides your decisions. Fear is what prevents you from making a change.
For example, if you find yourself working a day job that you hate but you can’t get yourself to quit, it’s because fear is keeping you there.
If you’ve always wanted to start your own business but you can’t get yourself to take action, it’s fear that’s making you stuck.
Overcoming your fears often requires a deep dive into your subconcious to trace the root cause of your anxiety.
- Are you afraid of failing?
- Will you be embarrassed if your business idea doesn’t pan out?
- Are you worried about not appearing successful to your friends?
By taking a lower paying job that you find more fulfilling, are you worried about making ends meet or sacrificing your lifestyle?
Are you scared that making less money will negatively impact your social life? Will you be judged by others for not making as much money?
Are you worried about the public perception of your career? Is it prestigious? Will people look up to you?
Back when my wife and I first started our wedding linens shop, we considered all of the above.
- We were worried about failing
- We didn’t want to be embarrassed if we didn’t succeed
- We wanted to appear successful to our friends
- We were worried about downgrading our lifestyle
- I personally didn’t want to be known as the handkerchief guy (Too late!)
And to overcome these fears, we played a game called “worst case scenario”.
The rules are simple. You take a piece of paper and write down all possible negative outcomes.
For us if our business failed, worst case…
- We would both go back to work.
- If we couldn’t find a job, we would move in with our parents.
- We would stop eating out and cut back on our expenses
- We would delay buying a house
By enumerating all of the worst case scenarios, we realized that no outcome was catastrophic. And our worst case analysis gave us the courage to pursue a career in entrepreneurship.
Bottom line, nothing is ever as bad as it seems and most of your fears are made up scenarios in your mind.
That’s why when it comes to choosing your path, I encourage you to not place the financial pillar at the top of your list. Instead, try to find a career that makes you excited to go to work everyday.
Most people place too much emphasis on the money which is almost a sure fire path to dissatisfaction.
What My Pillars Look Like Today
If I were to rank my career satisfaction today running my businesses, here’s what it would look like.
Note: This list is also in ranking order of importance to me.
What do your pillars look like? Please share in the comments!
Overall, the goal of this post is to prevent you from having life long regrets about your choices in life.
Because looking back, I wished that I had started my online businesses sooner. I wished that I had the courage to forge my own path long ago.
The rules of society push us towards going to college and finding a nice stable career that pays the bills but it doesn’t always lead to satisfaction.
The key to career fulfillment is prioritizing what you enjoy and taking action on making the changes that will get you there.
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Steve Chou is a highly recognized influencer in the ecommerce space and has taught thousands of students how to effectively sell physical products online over at ProfitableOnlineStore.com.
His blog, MyWifeQuitHerJob.com, has been featured in Forbes, Inc, The New York Times, Entrepreneur and MSNBC.
He's also a contributing author for BigCommerce, Klaviyo, ManyChat, Printful, Privy, CXL, Ecommerce Fuel, GlockApps, Privy, Social Media Examiner, Web Designer Depot, Sumo and other leading business publications.
In addition, he runs a popular ecommerce podcast, My Wife Quit Her Job, which is a top 25 marketing show on all of Apple Podcasts.
To stay up to date with all of the latest ecommerce trends, Steve runs a 7 figure ecommerce store, BumblebeeLinens.com, with his wife and puts on an annual ecommerce conference called The Sellers Summit.
Steve carries both a bachelors and a masters degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University. Despite majoring in electrical engineering, he spent a good portion of his graduate education studying entrepreneurship and the mechanics of running small businesses.