Choosing a Career Path

We have a standard process to help our clients discover what career path or project ideas will be the best fit for them.

By Squirrel Logic on Aug 10, 2020

This article is part of a series on advice for freelance artists.

Don’t Follow Your Passion

The book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport is the best book I’ve read on finding a happy and fulfilling career. I consider that book as required reading. He’s given talks about it on YouTube so you can watch those before you buy his book. In short, he says that “following your passion” is horrible advice.

Don’t think thoughts like, “If I could be paid doing what I love doing, then I’ll be happy.” That sets unrealistic goals in your life because you are putting your happiness in the hands of other people’s choices. Depending on what you love doing, you may not be able to get paid well for that work.

In Cal Newport’s book, he says that people find joy in their work when these situations are met: they are doing something they are good at, they have autonomy in doing it, and their job has a positive impact on the world around them. That is what makes people truly happy in their work.

I didn’t plan on becoming a designer or front-end developer. My original passion was video games, then music, then 3D modeling, then education, then writing, then graphic design, then front-end development, back to education again, and then starting Squirrel Logic to help provide design and development services for marginalized creatives. Was I following my passion for every pivot? With video games and music, yes. The next 7 pivots were mostly opportunities that I took because I stumbled upon these problems I felt like needed solving, and I gave it a try.

All of those career pivots were over the course of 20 years. I was happy with those changes, and none of those felt like I was completely retooling my life.

Depending on the seeds you planted, or just dumb luck, you may be presented with opportunities that were not in your master plan. I recommend considering them. There’s no way that you can a perfect plan for your life, and sometimes life gives you opportunities that you would have never considered. When life presents me with a boost, I won’t ignore it just because it didn’t fit into my master plan.

Whatever it is, just make sure it fits those three ingredients for a happy career: being good at your job, having autonomy in how you get your work done, and having a positive impact on the world.

How to Figure Out What to Do With Your Life and What to Create

You may not know what you want to do with your life, or what type of project you want to create. So here’s an exercise that I’ve found to be very effective.

Make a list of everything you have enjoyed: movies, games, experiences, places, people, things, fantasies (you heard me), events, and topics. Create a big list of the things you have enjoyed most in your life.

For each item, write a few paragraphs about why you enjoyed it.

Then go back over that list and translate those paragraphs into a handful of individual words (e.g. speed, freedom, community, etc.). How ever many words it takes to describe what you enjoyed about that experience is fine, probably less than 10 though.

Then copy that word cloud from each item into its own document. Now look at that list. How often do certain ideas pop up repeatedly? How many concepts do you see come up again and again? You’ll start seeing a pattern. That pattern is the essence of things that you like. You’ll start to form brand new ideas for projects that you want to take on, or career paths you want to take.

This exercise can give you a massive amount of insight into who you are and what you like. Remember that people change, and so will you. So you may want to do this exercise every 5 years or so to see if you want to make a slight change in direction.

Create a Mission Statement

Having a personal mission statement is a useful. It helps you make decisions and realize what your own personal purpose is in life. I use it whenever I want to consider starting a new project. I check each product idea against my mission statement to make sure it’s compatible. Some ideas I have are just fun and wouldn’t really push me towards my deepest goals. A mission statement is a good way to remind myself who I am and what I want to do. You can always modify and refine your mission statement over time.

How to Choose Good Projects

I have a checklist that I use to determine if a project is a good fit for me or not. It’s a set of criteria that each project must be rated against in order for me to add it to my project list. You should come up with your own set of criteria for projects you want to create, but here’s an abbreviated version of my checklist:

  • Is the project in line with my mission statement? If no, the project dies immediately.
  • Can I do it myself?
  • Does it integrate tightly with skills I already have or want to have?
  • Will the time spent on this give me skills required for other projects?
  • Will I feel appreciated doing this?
  • Can I be prolific/efficient during this project so that it is completed quickly?
  • Will it have a significant cultural impact?

I score the project against that checklist and see how it compares to other projects I have, active or otherwise. Most project ideas die with this test, because I have other projects that better fit this criteria. I write the project idea down in my someday/maybe list, along with the results of that scoring exercise. I can then move on with my life and work on other projects, without wasting hours of time researching some new and shiny project idea.

Ready for the next topic? Here’s the list of articles in this series: