One of the most common ways that college career centers try to help students figure out their career paths is to tell you to “Write your own obituary.” Other variations of this question include, “What do you want people to remember about you?” or “At then end of your life, what do you want to have accomplished?
The problem with these questions (besides being super morbid) is that they require looking really far into the future. It’s hard to envision your life so many years out, even if you have a general idea of what you want to do. And for students like me, who didn’t even have a general idea of what I wanted to do when I came to my career center, these questions are even less helpful.
In the end, when I was asked to write my own obituary, I came up with something super vague about being happy and “successful” and living a long life. The question didn’t help me to figure out a career path, let alone an action plan to get myself there. What I really needed was help understanding my career options, since I didn’t know what was out there, and then help setting some achievable goals on a reasonable timeline.
When I met Emily and started going through the NextStep Career Visioning process, that was the first time I really felt like I was getting a handle on what I might want to do. The process helped me to narrow down my career path based on my current interests and strengths, and then pick the right next steps to get myself there. I didn’t feel like I had to pick my entire life right then and there – just a next step. I found it way less intimidating and way more practical than the obituary question.
A big part of the NextStep program is training students to do informational interviews so that you can gather information about what different career paths are like. Emily helped me to set up a bunch of informational interviews and I was really surprised to learn that even the most focused people didn’t have linear career paths. There were always surprise twists and turns because they learned, grew, and changed over the course of their careers. And as people’s interests and perspectives changed, what they wanted changed too.
Sometimes people went forward, sometimes they went back, and sometimes they made a lateral change. But no matter who I talked to, everyone said that it took a number of career pivots (and being open to those pivots) for them to achieve their goals. Emily likes to quote Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and say that you don’t have a career ladder, you have a career jungle gym.
Even former president Barack Obama said that when he was in his twenties, he never imagined himself later becoming president. (Tragically, I didn’t get an informational interview with Obama – I just watched him talk online.) I found it comforting that one of the most celebrated, successful Americans had no idea where his career would ultimately take him when he was starting out. If he were asked the obituary question, Obama wouldn’t have known what to write either.
So here’s my advice – ditch the obituary question. Stop trying to decide your entire life right now. Instead, use the NextStep process to figure out your options and decide on some short term goals. NextStep has helped thousands of students to discover their career paths and it definitely worked for me.
Madeline Vuong is a guest writer for NextStep. She is currently attending Chicago Booth for her MBA.