We learn in school to take what I like to think of as a “top-down” approach to building your career. When it’s time to pick your first job, you think about a broad, top-level category like “PR,” “Marketing,” or “Engineering,” and then you try to find jobs or projects that match that category.
While this might work for some, I know from experience that it is terribly ineffective for most people to plan their careers this way because the kind of knowledge needed to make such a decision can only be acquired through real world experience, which they usually lack. Fear of missing out and paralysis analysis are the norm in top-down career planning.
It also tends to lead to disappointment as people have misguided assumptions about what people in those career categories actually do. I know personally many people who thought they wanted to go into advertising until they actually got a job in advertising. You want to avoid this if possible.
Bottom-up career building
A better approach to building your career is “bottom-up.” Instead of trying to pick a neat box to put yourself in, just take jobs and projects that have specific activities you’re interested in.
When I left college, this is exactly what I did. I had no idea I wanted to do “marketing,” but I did know I was interested in doing some photo and video work, so I did it. Then I saw that it could be fun to do some social media work for companies, and so I did that as well. I also built eBay, Amazon, and Shopify stores, did graphic design, order processing, customer service, website development, copywriting, email marketing, sold teeshirts, and tried building a standing desk business.
Eventually I started to build up into the beginnings of a profession. You could classify me now as a “marketer” but it’s not something I deliberately chose, nor could I have deliberately chosen it when I was getting started. It’s also not something I am committed to in the future. “Marketing” is just another step along the way.
And funny enough, in the time I did all of that, many of my peers were still in school trying to figure out what career category to put themselves in.
In a sense, the difference between the bottom-up and the top-down approach is the difference between doing and being. In top-down, the mindset is all about what field you’re in and what title you can give yourself. In bottom-up, it’s all about what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis, always recognizing that it could change dramatically at any time.
I read somewhere recently that today’s college graduates and new job applicants are among some of the most stressed ever. My advice to them is to relax.
You don’t need to box yourself in at the beginning of your career. What you do now probably won’t be what you do in future anyways, so instead of worrying about a category, just follow specific activities that you’re interested doing and projects that you want to work on. Time and experience will be your best teacher.
Get started now.