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Why Can’t I Pick A Career?

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

In a world of interesting career opportunities, the question of how to pick a career is being asked of people across the globe. Could it be that you are asking the wrong question?

We are told from a very young age that we can be whatever we want to be and that we should follow our passion. Is this setting us up for a life of unfulfillment and a sense of failure?

In order to pick a career, you need a guiding mission that sets the trajectory of your career, a guiding light rather than a set career path.

I have come to this conclusion from theoretical study and practical application.

Practically, I have spoken to hundreds of people who are deemed to have made a “successful career” and interviewed a number of them for the Career Stories section of the Get Into Nuclear website.

The one thing that stands out is that the vast majority of them say that they “fell into nuclear” rather than set off from school with the idea that a career in nuclear is for them.

Theoretically, I like to read — and read, and read. I have read many autobiographies and books on building the perfect career. But, I have always struggled to put any sense to them. Many seem to stumble across their career and the advice on “lifestyle design” and “affirmations” doesn’t really sit right with me.

I could never put my finger on it until I read a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport.

What is a Career

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a career as: “the job or series of jobs that you do during your working life, especially if you continue to get better jobs and earn more money.”

Wikipedia says: “The career is an individual’s metaphorical “journey” through learning, work and other aspects of life. There are a number of ways to define career and the term is used in a variety of ways.”

I will define what a career means to me at the end of this article series. However, for now, let us think of a career as the series of paying jobs you do throughout your working life.

Do you have the correct mindset?

We are often told, and it is advised that we all have a passion that will provide the perfect career for us. If I write down three passions of mine;

  • bringing about environmental change,

  • reducing inequality in the workplace, and

  • bringing long-term well-paying jobs to postcodes that historically have not been given such opportunities.

These are the passions that got me to build Get Into Nuclear in the first place.

Although we need to find something that drives us and gives us a sense of being, not all passions are going to be able to provide us with a career, or in other words, pay the bills.

This is where the Cal Newport book changed my perspective. It is advised that you do not pursue a career based on your passions, but based on a mindset of becoming a craftsman — I prefer to use the word practitioner.

According to Newport, we should not look at what the world can provide for us but at what we can provide for the world. Have a practitioner’s mindset.

Work to be the best at whatever it is that you are doing with the understanding that those skills, or career capital, will pay dividends in the future.

Practitioner Mindset

The change from a passion mindset to a practitioner mindset doesn’t mean that you cannot love what you do. Expecting the universe to provide you with your passion, however, leads many of us to disappointment when our passions never reveal themselves.

Rather than defining a passion from your predetermined views on the world or from one of the many personality tests that are available, let’s be more proactive and figure out what makes a remarkable life remarkable.

To answer this exact question, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan created the Self-Determination Theory that was defined that “to be happy, your work must fulfil three universal psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness”.

Breaking this down, to have a successful career we must find something that:

  • We have control over how we spend our time and what we do.

  • We are good at, enjoy doing and take a sense of meaning from.

  • We get a sense of connectedness by being part of something bigger.

Considering the above, our ikigai* should be to find happiness in our work. And to do this we need to focus our career plan on achieving control, competence and connectedness in our work.

The good news; by taking this approach you needn’t lose sleep over any individual or career choice you make, as “working right trumps finding the right work”.

*Ikigai is an old Japanese concept for finding happiness at the intersection of what you love, are good at, and the world needs and is willing to pay you for. See the below diagram.

Credit: Wikimedia

What is the difference between a passion and a mission?

When someone thinks of a passion, it is usually around the emotion of what feels good. As a result, you often hear the term “do what you love”. However, doing what you love doesn’t always provide you with a means to make a living.

A mission, in our context at least, is a career goal that allows you to use your expertise to make a change in the world. Although often your mission will lead you to enjoy and feel passionate about what you do in your working life, it is not the driver or a prerequisite to happiness.

A mission is not easy to find. Most people do not leave school knowing that they want to be a pilot or a nuclear physicist. Additionally, for most, it is not possible to leave school and decide that you are going to travel to Asia for a month to figure out your mission.

Typically a person’s mission is only discovered once they master a particular skill, field or industry. At this point, you will find the adjacent possible in which your true mission, or at least your next mission emerges.

You are unable to change the world until you have mastered a rare and valuable skill that enables you to see potential changes in the world.

To quote Cal Newport on his blog, you “need a non-conformist’s confidence and a dedication to exploration. [But,] this sense of exploration has to be backed by competence in the relevant field.”

So, the challenge for those seeking to achieve their ikigai is “to balance a myopic focus on getting good with a regular infusion of exploration and a sense of possibility”.

Passion driven = do what you love; — e.g. artist, drummer, sportsman — is this achievable? Will it pay the bills? — for some, yes. For most, no.

Practitioner driven = focus your effort on rare and valuable skills; —e.g. social value, latest design software, another language — Are these skills rare and valuable? — there are endless opportunities to upskill here.

Mission driven = focus your effort on a useful cause; —e.g. social value manager, engineering manager, international project manager — Does your practitioner focus align with your mission? Do they align with your ikigai? — If you can answer these questions “yes”, you will propel your career where many people plateau.

Already have a clear mission?

If you have a clear career mission from the outset that you are confident will give you control, enjoyment and connectedness. You then need to work backwards to gain the skills needed to progress up the career ladder.

For example, if you are clear that you want to be a project manager in the nuclear industry, undertake a career mapping exercise [link], to map out your career path as — Project Assistant > Project Engineer > Project Manager > Senior Project Manager > Project Director > Chief Operating Officer — now get to work building the skills needed to upskill and level-up to the next step on your career journey, then rinse and repeat.

Make sure you speak to others that have already done it then put your head down and follow your mission. Do not fall prey to distractions trying to knock you off course, stay on the path.

I wish you the best of luck and hopefully, you will get the happiness you deserve from your chosen career

Can’t Pick A Career?

If like me, you had (or still have) no idea what you want to be when you grow up, then there is good news and bad news.

The bad news is that you are going to need to make a decision, stick with that decision and put in the hard work for a number of years.

This is the part that no one likes to hear. But pretty much everyone that I have spoken to who has a successful career has had to go through it.

The good news, as long as you stick to the principles we are going to run through below, it doesn’t really matter which decision you make as the process ultimately takes you to the ‘adjacent possible’ in which your next mission will present itself.

The world doesn’t owe you anything. Your boss won’t immediately let you pick your next assignment. You can’t decide you want to take a month off each year to travel around France.

To get these rewards you need to build rare and valuable skills that you can cash in for rewards that will give you more control, enjoyment and fulfilment.

Before I go continue to look at how we decide which skills to pursue, I just want to clarify something to those who are not currently working — students leaving college or people in-between jobs.

Don’t waste any time searching for the right career. Find a job, any job that is available. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make you happy right now, you can always quit later. You need to find what it is that you truly value, and work at that every day. It is by working in a paying job that we are able to do this.

Rare and valuable skills

There are many skills that you can choose to develop. We are not talking about general communication, persuasion, teamwork or leadership-type skills. These general skills are important to change the way that you are perceived.

As part of achieving our mission, we need to develop skills that change what you are to your company or industry.

Furthermore, when you are the top performer in your company or the leader in your field, you will naturally develop the other skills or they will become less significant in defining your success.

There are a couple of ways that you can identify the rare and valuable skills that you need to work on through your everyday business interactions.

#1 Identify someone you admire in your field and ask yourself the question of what they can do that you can’t. This is something that Tony Robbins terms, Modelling.

They may have a qualification, technical skills, or a way of communicating you don’t currently possess. They could also have specific industry or functional knowledge. It could even be a reputation or network that they have built over years.

List them down.

#2 You can listen to feedback. From team members, bosses, customers, and pretty much any other stakeholder that is involved in, or affected by what you do. What are their current issues? What task would they pay someone to take off their hands? What skills are they lacking?

List them down. Could you upskill yourself to solve one of these problems?

#3 Now you have a list of rare and valuable skills, it is time to look at yourself. Look at the skills that will give you career capital in the future and identify where you have any gaps.

This exercise often depends upon where you are on the career ladder. In more junior roles, you will be looking to improve your technical capability (learn design software, gain risk management experience, work on writing skills). In more senior roles you will be looking to improve your supporting skills (leadership, communication, motivation). You now have a list of skills to work on.


Before we discuss how to do this in the next section, it is important to not fall into a trap when looking into the skills you are going to develop. Do not proceed, or at least do not prioritise skills that are high in demand as they will not be seen as rare and valuable.

Additionally, do not pursue skills that people are not willing to pay for. Ask or seek evidence first.

Credit: Brett Jordan UnsplashDeliberate Practice

Now you know what rare and valuable skills to acquire to propel you up the career ladder in pursuit of your mission, it is time to get to work and learn them.

Deliberate Practice is a term coined by K. Anders Ericsson which is used as a blueprint to ensure your training is effective in making you valuable.

It encompasses the five steps below:

The first step involves working out what market you are in — “winner takes all” or “auction”?

“Winner takes all” markets are those in which there is only one type of career capital available and everyone is competing for it.

Writers, standup artists, or brain surgeons. For example, the only capital a software developer has is their software writing capability.

“Auction markets” are less structured and different people in similar roles may get there by generating a unique collection of career capital.

For example, the career capital of a CEO could come from Finance, Technical, Marketing or Operations.

The second step involves identifying what type of career capital to pursue. If you are in a winner takes all market, this is pretty simple as there is only one type of capital.

For an auction market, you have flexibility. One thing you can do is to seek open doors. These are the opportunities that are already open to you based on the career capital you have already generated.

Open doors allow you to move quickly and they build momentum as you progress. This is where it can often be difficult to move into another field, particularly later on in your career as it is difficult to find open doors with a limited network in the sector*.

*Spoiler alert! In subsequent articles in this series, we will discuss how changes in demand for work in the nuclear sector is opening doors that have been closed for decades.

The third step is that you need to define what success looks like. You need clear goals — if you don’t know where you are headed it is hard to take effective action.

If you take the rare and valuable skill identified above and then decide to learn a topic or skill by reading a book, signing up for an online course or enrolling on a new qualification, success is still not guaranteed.

If you want to increase the chances of successfully acquiring career capital you need to set goals or benchmarks.

Benchmarking will give you a clear definition of success. Examples include:

  • Rare and valuable skill: Risk Management. Benchmark: implement and manage risk management across Project X during the next project phase.

  • Rare and valuable skill: Written Communication. Benchmark: write 10 articles on LinkedIn seeking feedback from peers.

  • Rare and valuable skill: New Design Engineering Software. Benchmark: gain certification and run internal intro presentation in the office.

  • Rare and valuable skill: Twitter Marketing. Benchmark: generate 100 Tweets with supporting analysis paper.

Don’t just look to get better, find a project that with your current level of skill, you currently couldn’t achieve, but with your new skills, you will be able to. You need to be uncomfortable to improve.

The Fourth step is that we have to stretch and destroy.

Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, but is the opposite of deliberate practice.

To grow we need a deliberate effort of practice — not just mindlessly repeating something you can already do, over and over again. Many people find a plateau whereas following deliberate practice will push you past this plateau.

However, deliberate practice is often difficult and not enjoyable — hence the term stretch.

You also need to embrace immediate honest feedback even if it destroys what you thought was good. Go to lengths to keep a constant stream of feedback. Harsh feedback can accelerate your growth.

And the fifth step, be patient. You need to have a long-term perspective. You also need to remain focused on your mission and ignore the distractions that entice you across the journey.

Acquiring capital can take time. Build your capital day after day and eventually, you will look up and think “hey I’m pretty good at this” and before long others will notice too.

Cash In Your Career Capital

You have gained career capital when you are considered an expert in your field or a specific role.