How to plan a career without knowing your passion

It doesn’t matter if you’re fresh out of university or if you have been building your career for a while already. The questions often remain: how the heck am I going to find my passion or my true calling in life?! I certainly have struggled with this question myself in the past. But, as I discovered through repeated trial and error, there is hope! I will present you with a short guide that can help you get started to find answers.

First things first: is passion overrated?

Yes, in my opinion passion is overrated. Don’t get me wrong: if you know what your passion is, that’s great! This will certainly give you a handle on figuring out a fulfilling life. But if you don’t know what your passion is, that’s great too! Because this will prevent you from falling into the trap of ‘just following your passion’, which frankly is just bad career advice.

In my experience, not knowing your passion can actually drive curiosity and open your perspectives to include new possibilities. Being completely fixated on a passion can limit the options that you perceive at a given time in your life and career. You may think that you have to work directly with your passion to have a fulfilling life. But there are many more ways that your passion can influence your life, inside or outside of your work.

To me passion is just one of the ingredients to experiment with in planning a fulfilling career. But before you start thinking about planning a career, there is an even more important question to ask.

How plannable is a career nowadays anyways?

In this highly dynamic and complex world, is it even possible to plan a career? Personally, I think it has become inherently impossible to do this. First think of the fact that you will change over time – more than you think. Since we base most of our expectations and ‘predictions’ on past experience, we have to be aware that the career we’re trying to plan is a career that may not fit either our own future, or the future of the world around us.

Second, not only you will change: the environment around you will change too. And probably even faster than you do. Many type of jobs and careers will change unpredictably over the coming years, due to an unprecedented pace of development in technology and society.

That being said, I still think it is wise to sit down and make conscious decisions about your next career steps. But rather than betting on a 25 year career plan for your future, I believe it will serve you best to have a system in your life that helps you adapt to the way you and your environment are constantly changing. This brings us to antifragility.

Antifragile career planning

One of the most interesting critical thinkers nowadays, Nassim Taleb, coined the term ‘antifragility’. He explains that things that are antifragile gain from disorder, uncertainty and stress. Humans have been engineered by nature to be antifragile. For example, we function optimally when we are exposed to the right levels of stress: not too much, not too little.

Planning out a fixed 25 year career plan on the contrary is fragile. We simply can’t take into account all the uncertainties that lie ahead. Thinking linearly about your career is like building a house of cards: one wrong assumption can make the whole thing fall apart and disintegrate.

Therefore you want to be able to experiment and adjust along the way – much like startup companies that operate in a ‘lean’ or ‘agile’ fashion. It’s too costly to spend years developing a product that nobody wants. Similarly, it’s too costly to spend years building a career that, in the end, you didn’t want.

Startups often build a ‘dashboard’ to track how their actions and experiments are impacting their most important metrics of progress and growth. As individuals we can also systematically experiment with our career and track how the results are aligned with our most important (subjective) metrics.

The most important metric of your life

For most people it is safe to say that the most important individual metrics include:

  • The experience of feeling engaged (in flow) at work,
  • Finding their work meaningful,
  • Having a sense of overall satisfaction with life.

The Japanese use one word that sums this up: Ikigai. This is translated as ‘a reason for being’. I think this is what most of us want out of life. And I believe that everybody can find their unique experience of Ikigai. To make this more concrete, let’s see what factors contribute to finding Ikigai.

The four building blocks of Ikigai consist of answers to the following questions:

  • What are the things that you love to do?
  • What helps other people (or: animals, nature, the planet)?
  • What can you do that you can be paid for?
  • What are things that you are (or can become) good at?

Once you’re starting to find answers to these questions, you can start experimenting with finding what would be at the intersection of these four areas. This can help you to slowly but steadily close in on the type of work and life that’s most fulfilling to you – your Ikigai.

Creating a systemic approach to your career

Our complex world requires us to build an antifragile system for figuring out our career. To remain flexible (especially early in your career) you systematically and repeatedly expand and narrow down your career options. All with the goal in mind of eventually finding what can be a career and life most conducive of Ikigai for you.

1. Create a list of options while building flexible career capital

To create antifragility in your career, you want to have flexibility and adaptivity. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Build up ‘flexible career capital’: skills, experiences and connections that are easily transferred and usable across different industries and jobs.

Having flexible career capital will prove useful when you’re in the process of experimenting with your career options. Before you can start experimenting, create a list of career options that appeal to you based on the previous Ikigai questions and other questions like:

  • What type of problems would you like to work on?
  • What kind of roles interest you in teams and organisations?
  • What would you do if money didn’t matter?
  • What valuable career capital do you already have up to this point?

2. Select and sequence your options

Once you have selected your top options that appeal to you, next up is validating your assumptions about them. You can start out by doing research online, which can be a very cost-effective place to start. See if you can find job reviews, descriptions, videos, Quora answers, forums, etc. where real life people explain what it’s like to have certain jobs. You can also try to get in touch with people that perform these jobs to interview them or even ‘shadow’ them for a day.

Doing a little bit of research can already help you narrow down the big list of options to a few favorites. Once you have these, try to sequence them. Rank your options on different things like how much you like it, the time needed, effort needed and monetary costs/risks. Generally try to rank options higher when they have low risks and investments with high potential for gaining insights and increased certainty about the Ikigai questions.

3. Experiment

Ultimately, no amount of reflection or imagination will substitute the experiential learning that will happen when you actually try your options out in real life. Decide what is going to be the primary option for now that seems most appealing to you. If you already have a really good idea about this, you might commit to this option for up to a year or more. This way you give it a good try and you can collect a lot of ´data´ about how fulfilling this direction can be and if you want to pursue it further.

Next to the primary option, also select a secondary option that you can move into when the primary option turns out different than expected. Also think about a backup plan, like jobs you can easily get into to make some money for a few months. This will help you take bigger risks with your primary and secondary options.

Remember that the goal here is to find answers to the four Ikigai questions – you don’t have to get your dream job right away!

4. Collect data

Once you’re getting started with exploring and experimenting with different options, you will want to capture your learnings along the way. This doesn’t have to be high-tech or fancy at all: a simple journal or spreadsheet will do. I put most of my learnings into Evernote.

All the feedback you collect will be food for your antifragile system to grow. This feedback can be internal and external. Internally, try to keep track of your subjective feelings and overall happiness when trying out your career options. Are you experiencing positive emotions, engagement (flow) and a sense of meaningful contribution?

External feedback is important too, since others can see things we can’t see ourselves. While you’re trying out your career options, what do others say about it? Do colleagues review you positively in certain roles? Maybe you can find new perspectives or insights you hadn’t thought of before.

5. Pause, reflect and reconsider

Block time in your calendar to take a pause every 6 to 12 months. Create a little bit of distance and get perspective on your journey. For some people, a day in the weekend can be enough. Others like to go abroad for a few weeks to let things settle down inside. Whatever you prefer, commit to reserving time for reflection.

I highly recommend involving other people in this process like your partner, friends, family or a ‘mastermind’ group. Also consider looking for a mentor in the reflection process, which may prove extremely helpful if you already have narrowed down your options to a certain industry or career type.

Above all, reconsider how well aligned the results of your experiment(s) are with the goal of discovering your Ikigai. Did you find new or more specific answers to the Ikigai questions? Also celebrate when your assumptions turned out completely wrong: it can be very liberating to finally discover that not everything will be right for you – and that you don’t have to be good at everything!


This is just a scratching of the surface, but I hope you will find some useful ideas here on how to systematically close in on what your unique Ikigai may be. If you want to go a lot deeper than this, I can highly recommend the website 80000 hours. You can find a comprehensive (evidence based) guide to planning your career there which has helped me in the past.

To summarize, the overall idea of a systemic approach to figuring out a fulfilling career

  • Expand your career options through researching the building blocks of your Ikigai.
  • Narrow down your options by researching them first.
  • Experiment with a few options and test them out experientially.
  • Collect data from the experiment that helps you answer the four Ikigai building blocks.
  • Pause and reflect. Then repeat the process of expanding and narrowing down your options with your new insights, while keeping an eye on your flexible career capital.

If you have any questions let me know in the comments and get in touch if you want more help on this topic!

18 augustus 2017

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