I have realized that most of my (career-related) blogs already assume you know what you want to do or you may even already have a job. But how do you figure out in the first place what your passion is?

You are a high school and pondering your university choices. You may be at a college, perhaps  pursuing a more generalist liberal arts degree, and considering your job options. Or you are in a generalist position (e.g. in consulting or banking), and thinking about different sectors to focus on. You may be interested in some areas more than others, but how do you know this is where you should be concentrating your efforts for the next few years?

When making similar choices, you may be encountering a familiarity bias. You are more likely to be interested in areas/subjects, which you have already seen before and you have some knowledge of. You know what you can expect or you feel you may have a headstart versus others. I have recently witnessed this phenomenon in investment banking when junior interns are (often randomly) allocated to different teams for a summer internship. One of my friends ended up in the real estate team, and following the internship, he was certain he wants to focus in real estate in his career. It may be the best choice for him – but equally (or more) likely is that there may be other sectors of similar if not higher interest/fit. Do you want a random allocation influence your career?

On a similar note, people are afraid of the unknown. If people do not know something, they may naturally believe it is difficult or not the right fit. When I was entering consulting, I did not want to do projects in energy or chemicals, partially driven by the fact that I knew nothing about these sectors and partially also by my lack of excitement about physics and chemistry, which I thought were highly required to be successful. As the luck (or fate) wanted it, my first project was in energy, second in chemicals, and third again in energy. After these projects, I actually became really interested in these sectors – due to my knowledge/experience (familiarity bias) but also the fact that they were complex and hence very interesting (which I would not have discovered if I had not been thrown in the water and told to swim).

So how do you avoid the familiarity bias and basing your education/career choice on a potentially random experience from before? The solution is simple – expand your familiarity base. Early in your academic years (definitely at high school, during early years of college, or even in your first job), try to get as varied experience as possible. Select a wide variety of courses, get involved in extracurricular activities, go to different events, meet people from various fields, watch different movies, read books on a range of subjects, pick up random magazines, pursue projects across different departments and with different people etc. If you are afraid of doing/choosing something, try to consciously realize if there is a good reason for the reluctance or whether it is the familiarity bias in play – if the latter, make a point to overcome it. Over time you start recognizing areas that interest you more, and you will stop being afraid of less familiar ones. At the next decision milestone, you will be able to base your choice on facts (thanks to a much wider experience base), and avoid the pure impact of luck.

And do not worry – some element of luck (or fate if you wish) will always remain. Embrace it as it can take you on a fun ride.

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