Every one of us must choose a major, map a career path, and plan out our future. I stood in that position almost 20 years ago, and looking back over my decade as a physician assistant I think there are some great lessons we can learn from Dr. Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

What career can I pursue that fits my passions?

There is limited evidence that following your passions results in a rewarding career. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have a passion, but that passion typically doesn’t lead to rewarding careers. Rather, rewarding careers lead to a passion for that career. We can easily succumb to the thought of “If only I could find the right major/career I would feel fulfilled.” This mindset, however, leads to chronic unhappiness and confusion because the world fails to match this dream. Additionally, by fantasizing, we fail to be in the moment and we lose focus on improving our current situation and building our future careers.

So, what makes a rewarding career?

Dr. Newport notes any career can be rewarding when it provides these three basic psychological needs:

  • Autonomy: the feeling that you have control over your day and that your actions are important.
  • Competence: the feeling that you are good at what you do.
  • Relatedness: the feeling of connection to other people.

To obtain these within any career you will need to develop career capital.

Career what?

Career Capital is the rare and valuable skills you are offering to employers in return for improving compensation and/or gaining the above psychological needs within your job. The rarer and more valuable the skills you are offering, the more leverage you have to obtain the three basic psychological needs.

But where do I find and develop rare and valuable skills?

Many students view required general studies courses class as an obstacle or hurdle that must be overcome.  Rather than perceiving a course as an obstacle, ask yourself

What rare and valuable skill can I obtain from this course?

For example, those of you on a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) degree track will be taking an English composition course. Why spend time working on this course when your STEM classes are clearly your passion?

The composition course offers the rare and valuable skills of organizing and constructing logical arguments as well as analyzing the arguments of others. Acquiring and mastering these skills will give you a substantial advantage over your peers when applying for jobs (resume/cover letter writing), publishing in journals or trade magazines, or drafting reports for your employer. You can easily overlook  this course as something you “have to do” rather than recognize the opportunity to jump start your career capital acquisition.  If, instead, you approach every course as an opportunity to build your career capital, you will begin setting yourself apart from your peers.

I’ve identified the skill, now what?

Become So Good That You Can’t Be Ignored! Begin by establishing what Dr. Newport calls the “Craftsman Mindset.” By developing a relentless focus on improving a skill, you are increasing your career capital. Instituting “deliberate practice” is the first step to improving the skill.

Deliberate practice is stretching your ability in the skill/area beyond where you are comfortable. Scheduling time for deliberate practice is critical in improving the skill. This deliberate practicing is commonly seen in performance fields (athletes or musicians) but rarely seen in other academic fields. 

To use our English course example, try stretching yourself to write multiple drafts of your argument. Then take it to the campus writing center for consultation with a peer tutor. Try viewing any feedback as an opportunity for improvement rather than a criticism of your skill or character. This will prompt you to refine and analyze your own arguments while engaging is deliberate practice.  Additionally, the feedback helps with identifying the nuance of the skill where you are weak and can be used in guiding your deliberate practice.

Before completing a final draft, solicit feedback from an expert. In this case, visiting your professor would be a great step. This final pass by a known expert will allow you to further refine your skill and guide you towards obtaining career capital.

By becoming so good you can’t be ignored and acquiring career capital, you are setting yourself up to develop a rewarding career.

UMHB is the university of choice for Christian higher education in the Southwest. If you are looking for a place to receive an education for life and an experience of a lifetime, UMHB would be a great fit for you! Check out our website for more information, or stop by any time for a campus visit to learn more!