Choosing a career path (or changing one) is, for most of us, a confusing and anxiety-riddled experience. Many will tell you to “follow your passion” or “do what you love,” but as Cal Newport argues in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, this is not very useful advice. When I graduated from college, I liked lots of things. But love? Passion? That would have been seriously overstating it.
We all want to choose a career that will make us happy, but how can we know what that will be? Research suggests that human beings are remarkably bad at predicting how they will feel when doing something in the future. It’s not hard to find someone who started out thinking that they would love their chosen profession, only to wind up hating it. In fairness, how are you supposed to know if you will be happy as an investment banker, or an artist, or a professor, if you haven’t actually done any of these things yet? Who has ever, in the history of mankind, taken a job and had it turn out exactly as they imagined it would?
So if passion and expected happiness can’t be your guides, what can be? Well, you can begin by choosing a career that fits well with your skills and values. Since you actually have some sense of what those are (hopefully), this is a good starting place.
But a bit less obviously — though just as important — you also want to choose an occupation that provides a good motivational fit for you as well.
Some of us tend to see our goals (at work and in life) as opportunities for advancement, achievement and rewards. We think about what we might gain if we are successful in reaching them. If you are someone who sees your goals this way, you have what’s called a promotion focus.
The rest of us see our goals as being about security — about not losing everything we’ve worked so hard for. When you are prevention-focused, you want to avoid danger, fulfill your responsibilities, and be someone people can count on. You want to keep things running smoothly.
Everyone is motivated by both promotion and prevention, but we also tend to have a dominant motivational focus in particular domains of life, like work, love, and parenting. What’s essential to understand is that promotion and prevention-focused people have — because of their different motivations — distinct strengths and weaknesses. To give you a flavor of what I mean: