Your strengths

Every campus has them. From the minute they kiss their parents goodbye, they seem to know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives. They know which classes are taught by profs and who can get them connected. They know which campus activities are worth their time and they can’t be bothered with anything else. They just seem to make finding the right career seem so intuitive. At times, it seems like everybody is THAT person. But that’s a distortion induced by stress.

The truth is that most people are a lot like you. One day, maybe somebody asked you about your resume. “What resume?” you thought to yourself. Or maybe a well-meaning relative asked you over Thanksgiving if you know what you’re doing after graduation. Then your mind went haywire. You realize it’s time to start finding the right career, but you don’t know where to begin

Breath in. Deep. Clear your head. Put away the resume book. Stop googling Fortune 500 companies. Forget about your cover letter (for now). Take a step back, grab a pad and pen and think about you. Here are four things you need to sort out before you do anything else:

1. Your interests. What were the three books you’ve enjoyed the most to this point in college? If you could spend the next three weeks choosing how to spend your time, what would you do? Who are three famous people who seem to have great jobs? What are the three most interesting classes you’ve taken?

Are there any patterns to your answers? Every job you’ll ever have will seem like work at various times. There will be days that you don’t look forward to going to work and tasks that you’ll wish weren’t on your plate. But finding the right career is about identifying what excites you. You should want to get better at your job; you should want to learn everything there is to know about the subject; and you should want to meet everybody there is to meet. You’ll never get there, of course, but you’ll love the journey.

When thinking about your interests, take yourself seriously but not so seriously that you limit yourself. Maybe your ideal day consists of 10 hours playing Call of Duty and another five hours talking about it. The good news is you could explore a career in video game development or marketing. There are worse lives to lead. Do you fantasize about how you’d invest a million dollars? Think about financial planning. Love beer? How about selling ad space for a craft beer magazine?

2. Your strengths. There are hard skills and soft skills, and every job requires its own mix of each. Hard skills include programming, technical design and layout, languages, writing expertise, and mathematical ability or scientific knowledge. Soft skills include leadership, creativity, public speaking, networking, and collaboration.

Notice: I didn’t say every job requires every skill. If that were the case, we’d all be out of work. Some skills we have in abundance, and we simply lack the gene for others. Are you a math ace who prefers to work solo? On the flip side: Did you take stats instead of calculus because you mistakenly thought it would be easy, yet your chapter updates keeps your sorority sisters in stitches week after week? In both cases, awesome career paths lie ahead. But you have to be brutally honest with yourself. In fact, not only would it not hurt for you to work on this assessment with somebody you know and trust — an honest friend, a boss, even a sibling — but I strongly suggest it.

StrengthsFinder 2.0 is a NY Times best-selling book and assessment tool that helps you pinpoint what you’re really good at and develop a plan to get even better. The book’s author Tom Rath believes that finding the right career means looking for opportunities that allow you to build on your strengths rather than forcing you to fix your weaknesses. I very much agree with him.

You should also think about your motivators, personality and work preferences. Do you want to be in a diverse environment or have you always excelled more when dealing with like-minded people of similar interests and backgrounds? Do you handle blunt, on-the-spot feedback well or do you respond better to constructive criticism in a formal framework? Do you like to mix business and pleasure or are you a 9-to-5 type of guy who isn’t comfortable “friending” co-workers? Do you want to show up to work in your hipster gear or have you always dreamed of wearing a suit every day? The only right answers are honest answers.

3. The cold shower. Not literally, of course. But now that you’ve zeroed in on some fields that may interest you and have taken stock of your strengths, weaknesses, motivators and personality, you need to do the challenging work of facing reality. You’re probably not going to land your dream job right away. Life puts up certain walls that we have to figure out how to get around rather than through.

Back to the beer guy. If he has student loans to pay off (and just put a spring break trip to Cancun on his high-interest credit card) opening a brew pub isn’t in the cards. But there are some wholesale distributors that would probably give him a shot. Then there is the sorority sister with a knack for comedy writing. It turns out her mom has health problems, so she can’t move to New York to be a production assistant at the Colbert Report. Fret not, plenty of PR firms and ad agencies are on the look-out for clever writers. Our hopeful millionaire majored in history, but some finance jobs typically require degrees in finance or accounting, or at least a relevant internship. Well, he can take a stop-gap job while interning for a summer and studying for the Series 7 on his own.

Finally, and this one really sucks, the math whiz goes to a well-regarded state school, but some prestigious global consulting firms only recruit from schools like Ivy Leagues, Stanford and MIT. Fortunately, for him, those consulting firms are not the only game in town. Eventually, whatever you do, your talent and passion will take you to the top.

4. Identify resources and mentors. Now you know what field interests you, you’ve taken a hard look at your skills and limitations, and you’ve confronted your own life’s realities. You’ve begun to envision your career.

Start talking to professors. Some might consult in your industry and can tell you about the various entry-level roles, responsibilities and typical days. Go online and read trade publications. Join a relevant campus group. (It’s never too late.). Hang out at the career office and use their paid subscriptions to career sites like Vault and Wet Feet, so you can learn the inside scoop on professions, industries, companies, and professional tracks. Go to any guest lecture or workshop that may seem relevant to your career.

I was recently catching up with an old friend, who has climbed the career ladder in digital product development. He told me how his career journey started on campus. He read the college paper every day and made it his business to be anywhere people were speaking about or playing around with the Web. In his words, he “sucked the marrow out of that university.”

In my case, a meeting with my faculty adviser set me on my way to finding the right career. I was clueless and very nervous. He knew that my passion was music, specifically singing. I sang in every choir I could. But I knew that I didn’t have the voice to make a viable career out of it. He suggested that I explore the business side of music. My first job was doing marketing at Warner Bros. Records, and I spent several years working in the music industry. Those were some incredibly cool and memorable experiences. I became so fascinated by the art and science of branding that I spent the next decade helping global companies shape and tell their stories.

A career is an exciting and wonderful journey that rarely follows a straight line. That is the best part. And as long as you stay true to who you are, go around obstacles you can’t get through and accept that you’ll probably need the help of some mentors along the way, you’ll have many more good days than bad.