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.
As I describe in my new book with Columbia Business School’s Tory Higgins, Focus and in our recent HBR article, there are two ways you can be motivated to reach your goals.
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:
Promotion- focused people excel at:
- Creativity & innovation
- Seizing opportunities to get ahead
- Embracing risk
- Working quickly
- Generating lots of options and alternatives
- Abstract thinking
(Unfortunately, they are also more error-prone, overly-optimistic, and more likely to take risks that land them in hot water)
Prevention-focused people excel at:
- Thoroughness and being detail-oriented
- Analytical thinking and reasoning
- Accuracy (working flawlessly)
- Anticipating problems
(Unfortunately, they are also wary of change or taking chances, rigid, and work more slowly. Diligence takes time.)
By now you probably have a sense of your own focus in the workplace, but if you don’t, try our free online assessment.
Knowing your dominant focus, you can now evaluate how well-suited you are motivationally to different kinds of careers, or different positions in your organization. More than a decade of research shows that when people experience a fit between their own motivation and the way they work, they are not only more effective, but they also find their work more interesting and engaging, and value it more.
If you are promotion-focused, look for jobs that offer advancement and growth. Consider fast-paced industries where products and services are rapidly changing, and where the ability to identify opportunities will be essential, like the tech sector or social media. To use a sports metaphor, look for a career where you get to play offense — where boldness, speed, and outside-the-box thinking pay off.
If you are prevention-focused, look for jobs that offer you a sense of stability and security. You are good at keeping things running, at handling complexity and always having a Plan B (and C and D) ready at a moment’s notice. Consider careers where your thoroughness and attention to detail are valued — for instance, as a contract lawyer or data guru. You work best when you are playing defense — you can spot a threat a mile away, and protect your company or client from harm.
But what about entrepreneurs? you ask. I’m thinking of starting my own business — which motivational focus is best for that? For any successful venture, the truth is that you need both promotion and prevention. An entrepreneur who is all promotion may get her business going, but she probably won’t keep it going for long, since she’ll be unprepared for the obstacles that will inevitably come her way. And the prevention-focused entrepreneur will get so bogged down worrying about obstacles that his business may never get off the ground at all.
This is one of the reasons that good partnerships can be so invaluable — it often takes a Steve Jobs to see a product’s potential, and a Steve Wozniak to actually build it and make it work. So if you are starting a new venture, make sure that you’ve got a healthy balance of promotion and prevention thinking in the right places.