A formula for finding the right career

Sam at Financial Samurai, one of my favorite blogs, wrote a post called How Much Are You Willing To Sacrifice To Change Your Career? This excellent post prodded me to reexamine my own career choice and the mountain-sized impact it had on my net worth. My chosen career is a major reason I was able to FIRE as early as I did. So I’m living proof that if you want to FIRE, picking the right career is important.

Picking the right career is important for another reason – it impacts your health and well-being. There’s nothing more stressful and unhealthy than a job you hate, suck at, and pays like crap. Nobody plans on becoming a crabby Wage Slave but it happens all the time.

Conversely, if you find the right career, there are many times when working feels more like fun rather than work. And you can’t believe you actually get paid to have fun! At least that was my experience.

I waded through a boatload of career sludge before I stumbled upon the right career. Then it took me more time to process what I learned into a general career-picking formula. After that, I taught the formula to my sons as they entered high school. Now they’re both young working adults and, so far, the formula seems to be working for them. I hope it’ll help you or someone you know.

The formula is simple to describe – pick a career that you have a natural aptitude for, enjoy doing, and pays well enough. But it’s challenging to follow.

Natural aptitude

You better pick a career you have a natural aptitude for because you’re never going to kick-ass in a career where you’re a misfit. Kind of obvious, right?

But how do you know what you’re natural at compared to others? It’s often unclear but you can look at a few different things like I eventually did.

First, what subjects did you do really well at in school? Was math always easy for you? Or were you a great writer? Or did you rapidly learn foreign languages? Were you a talented artist or musician? Were you an excellent athlete?

Second, what type of personality do you have? Are you an extrovert or an introvert? An optimist or a pessimist? What type of people do you like to be around? Funny or serious? Talkative or quiet? Thoughtful or spontaneous?

If you want, you can take the Meyers-Brigg Test to help understand your personality type. If you ever heard someone say he’s an INTJ, ENTP, or other weird E-I-S-N-T-F-J-P four-letter combination, he’s referring to a personality classification of Meyers-Brigg. I never took the test but I’m probably an INTJ like many other software developers.

Certain careers are better for certain personality types. For example if you’re a pessimist, you might be good at being, say, a housing inspector. Your pessimism convinces you that there is something bad to find if you just look hard enough during an inspection. Looking really hard for problems is a great quality for an inspector. An optimist might presume everything is A-OK.

Third, what hobbies have you mastered? Are you an expert photographer, woodworker, or gardener? Are you a master chef? Are you the king or queen of crossword puzzles?

All these things provide important clues about your natural aptitude if you’re willing to pay attention. As you’ll read later, it took me awhile to pay attention because there was a big difference between what I thought I should be good at and what I was actually good at.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. You have to clearly see yourself and your abilities to pick the right career. Sounds easy, but it’s sometimes hard to be honest with yourself. You may want to ask others close to you what they think you have an aptitude for.

Enjoy doing

You need to find a career you enjoy doing. Life’s too short and work hours are too long to pick a career you hate, right?

How do you do find a career you enjoy doing? Well, you can start by looking at what kind of things do you do for fun during your free time. Do you like to read, talk with others, build stuff, exercise, or what? Do you prefer being indoors or outdoors?

Another clue is to think about what types of activities you lose yourself in when you do them. I’m talking about things where you lose all track of time and forget to eat and sleep. Where you forget that “you” exist. Where you enter a pleasant and engaging state of flow.

Lots of people pick careers because they seem glamorous or exciting. But the day-to-day work you do as part of that career may feel as glamorous and exciting as a job scrubbing airport restrooms. What’s not to love, eh?

For example, many people grow up thinking they want to be a doctor. Heck I was one of them. But you may hate the actual stuff you need to study to become a doctor. If that’s true, how much are you really going to enjoy being a doctor? Not much.

The best way to find out whether you would enjoy a career is to give it a shot. That might work if you want to try out a career as an accountant or electrician. You can become an assistant to an accountant or electrician with little or no training.

But trying something directly is often impossible. The next best option is to shadow somebody who works in the career you’re interested in. For instance, if you think you want to be a doctor, see if you can shadow a few doctors for a day or two to find out what it’s really like. Are you fascinated or bored to tears?

If you can’t try a career or shadow someone, the next best thing is to get a job where the career happens. If you think you want to become a doctor, get a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office or in a hospital. Then at least you can observe from afar what doctors do on a day-to-day basis and decide if that’s something you’d enjoy.

One last option – you can talk to people working in the career about what they actually do. Set up a face-to-face informational interview where they work. You’ll learn things by being in their work environment that you’d never learn otherwise. I did this when I was thinking about becoming a full-time software developer.

Really Stupid Comic #12

Pays well enough

You need to find a career that pays well enough. So what’s “well enough”? The answer is that it’s enough money so you can live a decent life and still save and invest for retirement.

The amount varies a lot depending on who you are and how fast you want to FIRE. The great Mr. Money Mustache’s family lives on around $30K per year. So even a salary of $80K would allow him to save a decent percentage of his salary.

I’m FIREd now but Mrs. Freaky Frugal and I spend about $58K per year including rent. If I was starting out again, I’d want a career that made at least $120K per year so I could save a large percentage of my salary.

Obviously, the more Freaky Frugal you are, the less money you’ll need to live and the more career options you’ll have. You can afford to take a lower paying job if it’s your dream job and still save plenty for retirement.

My crazy career experience

OK enough long-winded pontificating, here’s what actually happened to me.

As a child, I was always good at math and I loved to build things. I’d build large snow forts with my friends and conduct various war games. I’d heave bowling-ball-size snowballs at my enemy’s fort and yell “FUSION BOMB!” like it was some kind of nuclear weapon of mass destruction. Good times for me but, yes, I was an odd child. But I digress.

I used an Erector Set to create strange mechanical contraptions and Legos to construct improbable buildings. I used glue and paint to assemble plastic model kits – monsters, cars, planes, and more. My parents bought a glass bookcase just to protect and display my many plastic models.

My very first model I built when I was 7. It’s the only model I have left now.

When I was 12, I built a Go-cart from scratch with a frame and a lawnmower engine. My best friend from across the street also built one. We had a fantastic time hauling ass around our neighborhood streets until the police stopped us. 🙂

I also loved to read books, browse bookstores, and go to the library. And I was somewhat introverted. All of these characteristics – math, building, books, introverted – SCREAM engineer for a career choice, but I paid no attention. My dad had a degree in mechanical engineering and, being a rebellious teenager, I wanted nothing to do with engineering.

Instead I thought I wanted to be a doctor. A Psychiatrist specifically. So I enrolled at the University of Michigan and declared a major in Psychology. But I gave up on the idea of becoming a doctor after only one semester. I hated the coursework and my grades weren’t good enough for medical school.

Then I decided I wanted to become a Psychologist. No medical degree required! The coursework was more interesting and I got better grades. I thought I’d get a PhD and become either a clinical or research psychologist. I took one research course, did some real research, and hated it. The results seemed imprecise and useless to me. I hated that psychology was full of “grey” areas. I prefer black or white. I realized becoming a clinical psychologist would be no better. I’d end up dealing with the “grey” areas of life that my patients wanted help with. No thanks.

It was too late to switch to another major, so I graduated with an undergraduate degree in Psychology. I was stuck because all I could find were crappy retail jobs. This was 1982 and the unemployment rate in Michigan where I lived was about 10%.

Then I got an MBA from Duke University with an emphasis on finance. This was a better fit because at least it dealt with numbers. Black and white. Right or wrong. But it still didn’t involve really building anything.

PCs had just come out and I used them a lot at Duke. God I loved PCs. I got a job at Scott Paper Company’s corporate headquarters and became known as the company-wide Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet guru. I loved building spreadsheets with complicated macros. I could make those spreadsheets dance! But then it got to be too easy because you can only make a spreadsheet do so much. I wanted something more challenging.

So I started teaching myself Turbo Pascal and taking comp-sci classes part-time at Villanova. I eventually left my job at Scott Paper, got my first programming job at Unisys, and completed a Masters in Comp-Sci at Villanova.

I’d finally found my career – Software Developer. I had a good aptitude because I was good at math and logic which is the primary ingredient for writing solid code.

And boy, did I love programming! I was never happier than when I was buried deep in code – I was in my own little world buzzing on a state of flow. And I was finally building something again! I could see the software working and being used when I was done.

Programming paid more than well enough. I eventually did freelance work and in my best years made over $200K (about $290K in today’s dollars).

I hope you see how finding a good career can be a winding, evolutionary path. I wish I could have made this path a little straighter and would’ve if I’d had this career-picking formula and accepted who I was. But hindsight is always twenty-twenty, right? And hopefully this formula will save you or someone else time and suffering.

Wrap up

This sounds like a live-happily-ever-after story but after programming for more than 20 years, I got sick of it. I just burnt out and it just wasn’t fun anymore.

Fortunately I soon had enough to FIRE. I was soon able to FIRE. Which is another really good reason to have enough to FIRE even if you think you want to keep working. You may change your mind.

Thanks for reading! What do you think? Does this formula make sense? How did you find your career?

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  1. Hi Mr. Freaky Frugal,
    Congrats on a great career choice and FIREing at 52! The right choice of a career is so important! Our oldest is in college now and we were adamant that he enroll in the co-op program. That’s a great way to test out a career before you finish 4 years and then decide it’s not for you.

    1. Dash2Retire – Thanks!

      Wow, you guys were really smart to get your oldest into a co-op program! He has a much higher probability of finding the right career because he’ll really know what it’s like to work in it. And he can still change his mind if he wants. If you don’t mind me asking, what degree co-op (business, art, engineering, etc) did he choose?

      It seems like all universities should have co-op programs, doesn’t it? We need more trade school apprenticeship programs too.

      Thank you for sharing!

      1. Hi,
        Our son is enrolled in a Bachelor of Business Administration in International Business Marketing. He is just now starting to apply for his 1st co-op in April of next year.

  2. Great article. I currently teach Personal Finance to high school students so this is perfect material for them! It reminds me of “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
    You should check it out! They had an audiobook version at my library.

    1. Zack – Thanks!

      I took a Personal Finance course in High School and it was one of the most useful courses I ever had. I think it should become a requirement because young people can get into financial trouble faster than you can say “financial trouble”.

      You must get a lot of interesting questions from students. 🙂

      Also, thanks for the “Designing Your Life” suggestion. I put it on Hold at my library.

  3. I’ve changed careers once into a more lucrative and promising area. It took some time, but I finally got there. Some of it was luck finding a subject I wanted to major in, because I never had career aspirations like my sister who wanted to be a doctor.

    You landed in a highly lucrative role as a Software Developer. In order to make that much dough in Accounting, I’m looking at a CFO or CAO position.

    1. HP – Congrats on the smart career switch! I have friends who are accountants and they do well. And, of course, there is The Wealthy Account dude who is pretty famous for a PF blog.

      I got a little lucky in my Software Development career. I was doing OK in a full-time job, but then a friend of mine started doing freelance and doubling his income. He convinced me to give it a shot and it worked out really well for me.

      Take care!

  4. So true! We are at our jobs most of the time during the week anyway. I was fortunate to realize in college after initially earning an IT degree that I didn’t really like it. That’s when I started studying Accounting and learned this is a much better fit for me. Maybe I could have been making more, but I know myself and I wouldn’t be happy with the career.

    1. SMM – It’s ironic that we did the kind of the opposite of each other – I from Finance to IT and you from IT to Accounting. 🙂

      Some people thought I was crazy when I made the switch and I even took a pay cut when I did it. But I figured, just like you, that I would be more happy in the career I liked. I also thought I would do better in the long run when I did work I really loved.

      Accounting is a great career! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Great post. Sometimes we tend to forget how it all happened. My oldest is graduating this year and she is really not sure what she wants to do. She liked her program but not enough to work in the field. Such a stressful time for kids. I tell her what matters is that she does something she enjoys and makes enough money to live comfortably (whatever that means to her). I didn’t get into the savings part yet!

    1. Caroline – Thanks and thank you for sharing! I agree – it’s a stressful for kids (and us parents) when they graduate college. I hope she finds what she’s looking for. You can ease her into the savings part later after she get a few paychecks under her belt. 🙂

      My eldest son found a job that he initially liked but got bored with after a couple of years. He’s now finishing up a PhD in Computational Biology. I’m waiting to see what he’ll do next. It worked out well for my son because he gets a stipend which covers all his expenses. Is there any chance your daughter will want to go to graduate school?

      My youngest was ROTC so he had a job in the Army waiting for him when he graduated. But I’m not sure he’s going to stay in the Army once his 4 year obligation is over.

  6. She was talking about getting her Master for a while but doesn’t seem to want to anymore. I am a little worried about her next move but I have to let her make her choices. Do we ever stop worrying? Pretty impressive that you eldest in finishing up a PhD in Computational Biology.

    1. “…I have to let her make her choices.”

      That is one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with as a parent. All I can do is be a cheerleader and backstop if things go wrong. I don’t think we ever stop worrying at least a little.

      Yep, I’m proud of my eldest. His undergraduate degree was in Bio-Chemistry so it made sense. But he may end up with a job in Machine Learning which is somewhat related to the statistics, programming, and Big Data stuff he deals with now. We’ll see – all I can do is watch. 🙂

  7. That’s awesome that you found something that you love!!! I have to admit that I don’t jump out of bed loving what I do. Personally, I love teaching people about personal finance but it’s hard to walk away from the job that I have now. Especially, since I don’t have anything to fall back on just yet and plus the money is pretty nice. But I definitely think at some point I’ll make a transition. Just not sure when…

    1. Mustard Seed Money – I feel very lucky that I found a career I loved! I eventually got tired of it, but it was exciting and fulfilling while it lasted.

      I agree – it’s hard to walk away from a job that pays well. Heck, I hesitated a bit even after I had enough to FIRE and was tired of my career.

      I like the in-depth analysis of your blog posts. Keep up the great work!

  8. I’m pretty jealous of those who chose better careers than I did. I guess a lack of guidance, confidence and information held me back. I would have loved being a eco or finance major. But growing up without any and parents who refuse to talk about it held me back from any semblance of financial knowledge. I guess I’m trying to catch up now 🙂

    Oh I’m INTP by the way, hehe. Rare for a girl I think.

    1. Lily – You’re young, so you still have plenty of time to experiment with multiple careers.

      But it seems like you already know a lot about the practical aspects of finance. Plus you’re an AirBnB expert! Plus you’ve become a PF blogging goddess! Keep up the great work!

      I imagine INTP is rare for a girl.

  9. Finding something you love that is also a “job/career” is a pretty tough task. I think no matter what the career there are pros and cons, same with a lot of things in life. Good on you for continuing to find what makes you happy and fulfilled. Do you think this is the last thing you will try?

    1. It is pretty tough and to some degree I got lucky. And don’t get me wrong, I didn’t love every minute of my career, but overall it was enjoyable.

      I’m FIREd, so I’m probably done trying paid work. I’m fiddling with this blogging stuff, but that’s more of a hobby. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!

      1. I am still working full time and giving blogging a shot, I think it is fun! I had no idea how to create my own little piece of the web and I just keep rolling with the punches! In life I think you have to keep challenging yourself to stay fulfilled.

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