The spy who sold me a Rolex on the beach (or 3 tips to help you make great career choices)

Base your career choices on what’s fundamentally important to you.

In the months before I graduated from the University of Virginia, I had three job offers on the table.

  1. Enter Macy’s Buyer’s Training Program in New York.
  2. Work as a drama/swim/scuba instructor at a Club Med somewhere in the Caribbean.
  3. Become a spy for the CIA.

I’m not making this up.  Although these three directions have seemingly little in common, people who knew me then could tell you why it made perfect sense that I would be considering them.

From my perspective, each in its own way would help me meet many of my key life and professional needs, the things I felt I had to have present to feel fulfilled.  Things like adventure, creativity, lots of people interaction, travel, and variety.

I eliminated Club Med from the running on my own.  Sounded fun, but without much intellectual challenge or variety.  Could get old fast.

I was torn between Macy’s and the CIA.  I couldn’t tell anyone beyond my parents about the CIA, but I needed to get some additional perspective from someone I trusted and admired.  So I broke the rules and confidentially sought out my favorite UVa English professor, Mark Edmundson.  Mr. Edmundson advised that by basing myself in a city like New York, I’d have more potential to live the Romantic (with a capital R) life I studied in his classes.  This, as opposed to a life in the CIA where my major professional and life decisions would be less mine to make.

Plus, I had just spent a semester in Paris—and was hungry for a cosmopolitan experience on an even larger scale.  Being a buyer meant the possibility of national and international travel.   I could exercise my creative and social muscles.  And New York had theater.  In my heart, acting was what I really wanted to do.

Next stop, the Big Apple—and a great training stint in the Fine Watches buying office.

Key takeaways no matter where you are in your professional lifecycle

  1. Start your exploration and make key choices based on your core needs, like challenge, variety, and creativity.  When they are present in your work, you’ll be more fulfilled and productive in what you do.  Your career center or alumni association can help you assess these needs and values.  Or contact me and ask for our Needs and Values Assessment, and I’ll send it to you.
  2. Get good advice.
  3. Make a decisive choice, so you can market yourself convincingly with your resume, on LinkedIn, and every time someone asks you what you want to do next in your professional life.

But know that your path is not set in stone, particularly in the early stage of your career.  As big as these choices seem, things rarely turn out the way you plan them.  I didn’t become a spy (at least that’s what I have to tell people) or even a buyer (a family illness threw me a curve).  But I did become a professional actor.  Years ago, as my needs and values evolved, acting morphed into career consulting—a role in which I draw upon all the professional experiences that came before.

What’s the craziest career choice you’ve ever had to make, and how did you make it?  Tell us about it below!

Larry Braman is president of Los Angeles based Global Career Consulting and Placement, where he helps people, from new grads to executives, create and find more fulfilling, productive careers.