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Career Planning: Would You Set Limits If There Was No Risk of Failure?

Career Planning: Would You Set Limits If There Was No Risk of Failure?


By Angela Matthews
Core Learning Instructor, American Public University

Many of us endure jobs we dislike. If you have one of those jobs, you know exactly how much you dread going to work each day. You dream of quitting and wish you could do something else. It’s a horrible feeling of dissatisfaction that seeps into the rest of your life.

I waited tables through college, and I couldn’t stand it. I left work feeling beaten down and never wanted to return the next day. Other people loved doing the same job at the same restaurant, however.

Picking the Right Career Is Vital to Professional and Personal Satisfaction

A job is not the right fit for everyone. Picking the right career path makes the difference between feeling happy or miserable at the end of the day. We need to devote time and energy to thinking about the type of job that is the right fit for us.

Several years ago, I taught my first Introduction to College Success class at a small community college. We wanted our students to start thinking about a career that would be a good fit for them after graduation, so they could feel satisfied with their jobs and content with their choices. Our subject for that particular week was to think about career possibilities.

We had an open discussion on general factors that influenced our career choices, such as the sort of lifestyle we wanted. The discussion didn’t involve a fantasy life, but realistic and plausible possibilities. Do we remain single, have families or travel a lot? Do we want to live in a city or in the country? Is our preferred location out west or down south? Would we stay put in our communities and avoid a big relocation? Would we prefer to work alone, with other people or with information?  In other words, what do we really want to do?

If You Knew You Couldn’t Fail at Your Career, What Would You Do?

We followed our discussion with a short writing exercise. The topic: What would we do for a living if we knew, for certain, that we would not fail going into our field?

When I selected the topic for this exercise, I didn’t think ahead about my own response to this question. My answer hit me as soon as my pencil touched the paper.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a psychiatrist.  I imagined talking to people about their worries and fears, helping them figure out what they wanted in order to become happier and more productive people. It seemed like a great job, both important and rewarding.

Although I took psychology classes in college, I never majored in it. As soon as I realized that psychiatrists must attend medical school, I decided I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t smart enough for medical school. If I managed to get into a medical school by some miracle, I would never actually get through it.

I gave up on the idea and didn’t even try. Now I realize that there were many ways for me to continue studying psychology and earn a living at it. Even without medical school, I could have become a psychologist and counseled people. Instead, I just gave up on the idea entirely and focused my energies on another field.

For me, the change worked out well. I studied English and higher education, and I have loved my work ever since. I don’t regret my choice, but I’m also not happy with myself. I gave up on a career I wanted because I thought I might fail.

Fear Is Your Biggest Barrier to Job Success

I don’t want other people to give up on what they really want to do, including my children and my students. You don’t really have anything to lose by trying. If you dream of a certain job, try and reach for it.  If you change your mind and decide that it is not the right fit for you, that’s fine. But you should at least try.

I remember hearing a nurse talk about returning to medical school to become a doctor. When she said that she wanted to do it but felt afraid that she was too old (40ish), the response she heard was “Well, you’re going to turn 50. Would you like to be a doctor when you turn 50, or just turn 50 and never be a doctor?”

I thought that was a great response! She was already in the medical field, her goals were realistic, and it turned out that she was not too old. She did become a doctor and felt grateful for the advice to try.

We should never let fear drive our career choices. Instead, we should look at the big picture. We should think about what we want to do with our days, consider job market growth and decline, and focus our energies on what can be realistically attained. I would also add this advice: Go for it, even if you are afraid you might not be able to do it.

About the Author

Angela Matthews teaches COLL 100 at American Public University. She is currently working on her dissertation in Higher Education, an autoethnographic study of grief and doctoral attrition. Previous publication credits include both fiction and non-fiction pieces in Once Upon a Time, Knowonder!, and Kidzwonder magazines, as well as the anthologies Seven Hills Review and  Under the Surface.