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Ask yourself the tough questions about what career you really want

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Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

At least one student is returning to college this week feeling as certain as one can that he picked the right major.

No, he didn't take a test during the summer that told him his personality was a match made in heaven for business. And he didn't take an online quiz that asks questions like, “Would you rather be on the debate team or in the math club?” then voila, displays the perfect major.

He talked to his parents, then me, about the fact that he was drowning in certain classes crucial to his previously declared major in engineering. His most important revelation: “My heart's not in it.”

With way too much worry about the future on the face of this 20-year old, he told me, “I don't want to be one of those people who doesn't like what they're doing 10 years from now.”

His father was concerned that he hadn't lived long enough to have evidence of what he enjoyed and did well. But you can be 20 or 50 years old and the right questions and objective probing reveal what you know deep down inside.

Then off he went on a mission I assigned him: Find out what it's really like to work in various aspects of business, a direction he wanted to consider.

Like most people, he had flawed ideas. He thought “accounting and finance are just sitting there writing stuff down all day.” He thought people worked only in big companies.

He thought everyone knew from the minute they could talk what they wanted and never strayed.

After he met with one person, he came back bubbling with information and excitement.

That's just one opinion, I told him. Get more.

He returned to describe a man who has the “kind of day I want to have.”

Talk to more people, I said. Ask what they wished they had known. Ask about their best and worst days and what it takes to be great at this work.

He discovered that another person started out in a totally different direction. He found out about business restructuring and bankruptcy that “sounded depressing,” pros and cons of small firms and large companies, and paths people took to get to where they are now.

He learned how some people grew to love their work and why others changed directions.

We scrutinized everything. I asked him to compare that to what we discovered about his interests and what excites him.

I made him think through and explain why he ruled out some directions and not others. I made him go home and research a few things, then come back and tell me what he thought.

“What do you still need to know?” I asked him.

Although I don't typically share personal contacts with clients, he had proven he could be professional. So I sent him to an executive I know in a consulting firm who would help complete the picture.

He had one last meeting. This conversation expanded his thinking and opened a door to a possible internship.

This process of asking the right questions and analyzing “made me more confident,” he told me. “I'm not just jumping into something now.”

He is developing a habit that will ensure a promising career — to never rely on anyone but yourself to know what's best for you.

Career consultant Andrea Kay can be reached at Twitter: @AndreaKayCareer.

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