While speaking with a 20-something the other day for the first time about what she wishes to do next with her career, I encouraged her to think carefully and analytically about what she liked and disliked about her previous jobs. I pressed her to consider not only the teams she worked with, bosses she reported to, and how she spent her days, but also whether she fit naturally into those roles, and why or why not that was true.
Since then, the theme of following your instincts and applying to work what you're good at keeps turning up in front of me. I listened as Tony Kornheiser spoke to Bill Simmons about, among other things, how he believes columnists are born of a certain persuasion and others simply can't be trained; I saw that the most on-demand soft skills are topics I obsess over on a regular basis; and I read an argument from a George Mason University professor in defense of liberal arts majors. Wherever I look, I see good cases being made for allowing young people to explore and find their way, at their own pace.
The common thread here for me is that I know now, with the comfort of hindsight, that my decision to pivot from a career in media and publishing and to pursue instead one in marketing in communications was the right decision for me. At the same time, I know that my former colleagues who have gone on to work at some of the most well-known publications in the world made the correct calls for themselves. We all may have shared a passion for writing and editing, but my skill set and area of interest is slightly different from theirs. While they aspired to be reporters, I sought to spread their articles around.
My greatest professional asset is in my ability to write good emails, knowing how to craft a short one and also a long one when it's called for. Not surprisingly then, my current job in press and partnerships requires me to be skilled at outreach over email. I'm a growth hacker, focused on communications. In a world where Slack and other chat software are trying to supplant email, my correspondence skills remain of the utmost importance. I use Slack and social media, too, learning and developing how outreach can be done effectively elsewhere, but at least for now it all circles back to email.
When you're 23, you don't know that being great at writing emails can be the framework for a job. That's why I tell 20-somethings to drill down more than what field they'd like to enter or which companies are on their shortlists. They should find one area where they excel more than the average person does, even if it's something as seemingly mundane (or ridiculous) at penning emails that people read and respond to. Most likely, whatever they come up with, it won't be the title of or nature of a job right away, yet it'll undoubtedly be the basis for one at a later point.
The question therefore isn't where you want to be in 10 years, rather how you can take what you are today and to build around those skills for 1, 5, and 10 years down the line.
This post originally ran on LinkedIn.