Think of your route as a mountain: here’s how to plan your first steps

Whether it’s vacations, meals, or your career, if you really don’t care where you go, what you eat, or what you do, then there’s no need to plan. However, you probably have an idea of ​​what you want to do in your career, even if it’s not yet specific or fully formed. And it’s good to know roughly which career ridge to climb at this stage, even if you don’t plant a flag at the top of a particular ridge.

You just need to think about how to identify the mountain, how to take the routes to the summit and plan the first steps to reach the base camp. Without a plan, there’s a good chance you’ll start climbing somewhere you don’t enjoy or in an area that doesn’t make sense to you.

That should be your first clue in thinking about where to focus your career plans: what activities will give meaning and purpose to your work (and life)? There are no right or wrong answers, and what your friends or family think is not important; Your goal may be to entertain people with music or art, restore habitat, translate literature, heal the sick, find cures for disease, or any number of other goals.

A career is a long game — perhaps 40 years or more — and you’re unlikely to be doing the same thing all the time. So don’t worry that defining your purpose now will lock you into the same job or role forever; just consider what’s right for you now, given what you know now, your skills and experiences, and what’s going on in the world. In 10 or 15 years, technology and the environment will change, and new opportunities will appear. After all, just consider what has changed in the last 10-15 years.

Given that the world can feel like a pretty uncertain place, and arguably more volatile than it was to your teachers and parents, you wonder how anyone can make useful plans. A few guiding principles can help. While robots and artificial intelligence are gradually taking over more tasks, people are still needed to generate new ideas, persuade, care and inspire other people. And it hires people: even if the job application process may at some point involve a robot or automated assessment, in the end a person will make the final decision.

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Consider how the employer will decide who to hire. They will pay you for what you can do for them, what responsibilities you will take and what you will achieve. They too, being people, want to enjoy working with you in a team. So there are three things that recruiters are looking for: Can you demonstrate that you take responsibility, that you get things done, and that you will be good to work with?

It is likely that these three points have already been demonstrated; the specific topic or activity is not important. For example, you could be the secretary of a school or student club, or an active member of a sports team or a member of a music or theater group, or perhaps a volunteer for a charity..

For most jobs, you’ll also need a ‘card’ to play, recognized qualifications of good quality such as an apprenticeship, university degree and/or professional exam.

Once you have an initial idea of ​​which mountain to climb, what do you do next?

Find out if specific existing jobs will get you to base camp. For each job, what will it take to land? Find out what qualifications, experience, skills and interests they are looking for by reading job adverts and talking to people. Think about how much risk you’ll be taking: do you want to go high, taking the hard way, or do you feel better playing it safe?

Informational interviews can be a powerful technique; they give you the opportunity to learn about an industry and practice speaking about your interests. You can find people to interview by asking teachers, parents, friends, and LinkedIn. Ask the people you meet to recommend another contact or two you should talk to, build your network, and learn more.

For any interview or job application, the secrets to success are preparation and thinking about your audience. Everything you write or tell them should answer their questions and be relevant to the topic. Before an interview, list all the questions that might come up and spend some time planning what you would answer.

Don’t be afraid to seek help, even from parents and teachers, when preparing applications. Although the world of work and recruiting has changed since they were your age, they know you well and can help you review plans, challenge assumptions, and maybe give you some introductions.

Remember, your route and your flag is at the top of the mountain, but the advice of your followers can often help identify easier routes or avoid dangers along the way.

The writer is director of careers services at the University of Oxford and has a fortnightly FT column answering readers’ careers questions.

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