Choosing the Right Career – A Model Based on Psychology and Career Coaching Experience

We’ve come a long way since the days when men were expected to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and women were expected to be homemakers. But with so many opportunities now open to us, and the expectations of friends, parents and society to consider, people can often find it difficult to choose which career would be most suitable for them. Fortunately, research from the fields of positive, personality and work psychology can provide a good framework to guide us in making these difficult, and important, decisions.

A general definition of personality provides a good starting point; “personality is made up of the characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that make a person unique”. This definition highlights three important points. Firstly, the way that you think, feel and behave is clearly going to have a significant bearing on determining the career that you are most suited to, so understanding your own personality is an important part of any career decision. Secondly, our personalities are very complex. They comprise many different attributes and are often not straightforward or easy to understand. And thirdly, we are all different. Each of us has a unique personality and therefore each of us is suited to a career with a unique set of characteristics. It may seem obvious, but it’s worth emphasising that what works for one person may not work for another, however similar they may appear to be. Advice from friends and family can be useful, but ultimately each of us has to choose our own career because no-one else understands our thoughts and feelings as well as we do.

So what is the most helpful way of assessing your personality in the context of choosing a career? There are a number of different theories of personality and various psychological models, which can be helpful in varying degrees, but I have developed a simple model, bringing together the most important of these, that makes it easier for you to choose the career that best matches your personality. My Career Personality Profile model has four elements; Interests (what you enjoy doing), Values (what you find meaningful), Strengths (what you’re good at) and Environment (where you feel most comfortable). Taken together, the first two elements, Interests and Values, incorporate Martin Seligman’s theory of Authentic Happiness, Tal Ben-Shahar’s Happiness Archetype and Kennon Sheldon’s research on self-concordant goals to show that we are happiest when doing things that we enjoy while pursuing goals that we find personally meaningful. The third element, Strengths, reflects Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of Flow, in which we are most likely to achieve a state of optimal experience and optimal performance when the difficulty of tasks that we undertake matches our skill level. Another way of viewing this is that we are most likely to feel good about ourselves when we are using our strengths and avoiding using our weaknesses. The fourth element, Environment, recognises that the way that we feel and behave is going to be strongly influenced by our environment, reflecting research by Peter Warr and others into the influence of environmental factors on the happiness we experience at work.

How do you build your Career Personality Profile? When I work with clients, I use the Birkman Method® behavioural assessment and coaching techniques to develop a really deep understanding of the four elements, but it is possible to develop a simple profile for yourself. Basically, you need to reflect on each of the four elements in turn and write down the things that are most important to you. For Interests, what do you enjoy doing, both at work and in your spare time? For Values, what gives meaning to you work, or what do you want to achieve with your life? For Strengths, what are you good at, not just in terms of practical (hard) skills, but also in terms of behavioural (soft) skills, such as relating to people, dealing with change and making decisions? And for Environment, where do you feel most comfortable? What size and type of organisation, what management style, what kind of daily routine? It’s best to do this exercise at a time when you are relaxed and unlikely to be disturbed. Also, try to think of examples for each point that you come up with and remember how you felt at the time.

Once you’ve considered each of the four elements, write down all of the key points on a single sheet of paper to give a profile of your ideal career. You can now use this profile to guide you as you consider different careers. Compare each career that you’re considering to your profile and see how well it matches. Which one is the best match? Or if none of them seem to match very well, can you think of something else that would? The closer the match between a possible career and your profile, the more likely you are to both enjoy it and succeed at it. If you feel that you don’t know enough about a possible career to make a meaningful comparison, then you need to further research that career to find out more about it.

I hope that gives you a good idea of the best way to approach career choices. The reality for many people is a lot more complex than this simple illustration would suggest, but my experience as a career coach has shown it to be an extremely effective way of helping people to focus on the right things. Obviously, when I work with clients I go into great depth and help clients to understand aspects of their personality that are not already clear to them, but the overall approach is exactly the same. The most important thing to remember, is that you need to start by understanding yourself. If you don’t do this, then you’re unlikely to choose the right career.

I am Dr Roger Todd, co-founder of The Right Career, a career consultancy based in London, UK. We specialise in using personality profiling and career coaching techniques to help clients identify the career that will work best for them. Sign up for our free email course at [] for a more detailed step-by-step guide to Choosing the Right Career.