By Dave Isbell, MSW, GCDF

I get asked all the time if I can give specific advice about what major a person should choose, or what s/he should do next to have the career s/he thinks will lead to his/her passion. To be honest, I’ve got my own opinions, but my answer is always going to be “I don’t know” and that is the honest truth! The reality is that the world changes so fast that by the time a person exits a degree program, what she has already learned is already outdated, the job market has changed, new technologies have already replaced or retooled a job, etc. Add to that, the real value of a degree (if a student is paying attention and the school is doing it’s job) is that the pursuit of the degree changes people and it is likely that they see the world differently now than when the program was started. As far as passion goes, it is impossible to “find your passion;” you either are or are not a passionate person. A passionate person will live in such a way that she is affecting the world around her. She does not wait for someone else’s permission, or credentialing, or job, to “find her passion” she IS passionate and inspires others to be so. She is always performing a dance in the midst of change that she is creating or responding to but that always creates the tune she is dancing to!

So, with all of this constant change, what is a person to do? Should he even bother with going to school? My answer to that is that I have a bias toward getting as many college degrees as possible, and there are numerous studies that show a college degree tends to be the ticket into the middle class. However, whether a person even gets one college degree entirely depends on the individual. Would it be better for a passionate person to just throw herself into the pursuit of said passion, ignoring all of that “ticket to the middle class” stuff and instead choose to live on a prayer and a good supply of Ramen noodles until her ship comes in? Again, I don’t know. I’ve met successful people from both camps, I’ve been in both of them, and both have pros and cons. Ultimately, my role as a coach is not as much to play fill in the blanks, as it is to try to poke around the edges, to ask questions, to support you to find your own greatness. (Admittedly, I’m not a great writer, so this is harder for me to do in writing than in person, but this blog is an earnest attempt to help as many people as I can with the limited time I have to offer!)

Here are a handful of ideas that might help start you off to gain some direction you are looking for:

Research Your Market

Your best bet is to go in with eyes wide open, do some research on the occupation AND the geographic location in which you plan to live. You should know the marketplace in that region. For example, who are all of the major companies/industries that will likely hire your when you graduate? Who are the consumers? What does the competition look like? Who are the experts, authors, researchers, etc. that are contributing to advancements in this field? What does the future look like for this field? If you had to start your own business doing whatever it is you are training for, what would be your niche? How are you going to gain experience in this field BEFORE you graduate?  (In many occupations, and in most companies, a specific degree is far less marketable than an experienced, skilled, well-connected person who understands the business they are attempting to collaborate with in order to achieve a mutually agreeable mission/vision.) What is the best way to gain an entry point into this occupation WITHOUT having to go to get a degree? If you get the degree, what is the return on investment? (Not just in income; in time spent, personal development, missed/gained opportunities, etc.)

Research Your Training Program

If you are going to school, spend some time on researching the specific program. Ask an advisor; ask a graduate of the program; ask a few professors: What skills are you going to learn? How is this degree, from this school going to help you to fulfill whatever it is you are trying to accomplish with your life’s work? What are the benefits (non-academic) of being a student/alumnus of this school? If you choose to go to school, how are you going to leverage your status as a student to make the university system work for you as a student and as you transition into a new profession?

Spend Time With The Experts

Spend some time researching the occupation, but make it a special point to spend some time with people who are in the field you are looking at! Find some disgruntled AND some passionate/excited veterans who will tell you the truth,  and maybe even let you peek inside the cover to (for example, doing a job shadow or volunteer project with them) see what it is really like on the inside.

Know Yourself

Above all, spend an enormous time researching YOU. As you look around the world, what is the problem you most get excited about solving? What would you do with your time if money were not an issue? How much money do you really need? Can you give up some of your lifestyle (material needs) to gain a comparable or living wage (assuming your desired profession may net you less money, at first, but more joy?) Why do you want to make the change; what is missing in your life to make you think the grass may be greener on the other side? Can you fill that in some other way before you change professions? Is it just your job/employer or is it really the occupation that you want to change? What are your values, those things that are your “guideposts” that let you know you are “on track” to becoming who you want to be. What are your natural talents (things come easy, the time passes when you use them, and you typically enjoy them) vs. your learned skills (you may be good at these but you just don’t really derive much joy from using them?)  What do you despise doing? What are you not so good at? (Don’t spend a lot of time trying to compensate for your weaknesses, look instead to capitalize on your strengths and surround yourself with people and resources that naturally compensate for your weaknesses.)

Live Intentionally

I know that I drive all of you logical, rationale, scientist and engineer-type people crazy! I didn’t give you data, or evidence, or even a specific plan. I just gave you more things to think about. But, passion is not always logical and the way I see it, life is kind of like that. Despite all of our best plans, all of our efforts, and all of our best research, things still seem to just happen “randomly” and then maybe reveal themselves to be “purposeful” in hindsight. If you’ve been around me for any length of time then you know I’m all about planning for what you want, living intentionally, but working to love what you have right now as if it is what you want. In short, I am a passionate person but I am striving to live intentionally and believe in harnessing my passion to serve my calling, not the other way around. It’s the best way that I know how to be and instead of attempting to impose it on others, what I’m challenging you to do is to find the way that works best for! You will know it when you stumble into it, and hopefully you will find a way to pay it forward to someone else who needs to hear what you have to say.

Here are a couple of past blog posts you may find helpful as you seek direction during this part of your journey:

Enjoy the journey!


Dave Isbell has been a Career Coach since 1999 and is currently the Alumni Career Service Coordinator at Michigan State University and a part-time contractual therapist in the counseling department at St Vincent Catholic Charities. When he is not working, he is enjoying domestic bliss with his wife and kids, serving as a leader in his church, or playing rock music on his bass guitar. You can find him on Twitter (@helpingspartans) and sometimes he writes about compassion, collaboration, and career for this blog.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Michigan State University.


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