Figuring out how to "help people..." for a living


One of the most common things I hear from people considering a career change is: “I don’t know what I want to do... I just know I want to help people.” 

The challenge with this statement is that, while it may be a very admirable intention, it isn’t usually enough to provide someone with a direction they can easily transform into a profession. “Jobs that help people,” can present just as many frustrating options as they can satisfying ones, so finding the right way to help the right type of person is super important.

So, how does someone with a desire to help others a) figure out what they can do, and b) actually turn it into a [paying] career? Here are a few tips on how to narrow the scope and define the path.

Specifying Your Helpfulness

When someone says, “I just want to help people,” my immediate response is twofold:

“Okay, great…. so WHO do you want to help, and HOW do you want to help them?”

It sounds so simple, yet most people have to pause to think about it.  

Do you want to help… battered women? The elderly? Children with disabilities? Refugees? At-risk youth? Budding entrepreneurs?  The WHO is so important (and nine times out of ten, the easier of the two parts to define).

The HOW can be much more elusive. Do you want to… teach literacy? Provide an expertise of some sort? Serve as an advocate? Play music at nursing homes? Train rescue dogs so they can be adopted? Again – so many follow up questions. But this is the process of narrowing the scope.  Once you land the plane on these two items, you can begin tailoring an actual job search out of them. Until you do some soul searching though, you might wind up a) working with someone in a way you don’t find valuable, or b) doing something of value, but with people you don’t connect with/care about (per say).

Passion Projects vs. Passion Profession

Another important thing to remember while doing this kind of introspective work: We can be passionate about something until we’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can (or should) turn that into a profession - or that someone will pay you to. People are usually able to answer “what are you passionate about” much easier than “what are you really good at?” I think people are sometimes too humble for their own good, but this is one of those mental and emotional intersections you’re seeking out in life: what are you good at and what do you love? Where those two things intersect is where you want to aim.   

Unfortunately, passions are sometimes only sustainable when you can fold them into your life outside of work – and that’s okay. If anything, it can help balance your week and provide you with an outlet to de-stress. If you CAN find that job that provides you a perfect balance between what you love and what you’re good at – than that’s amazing. That being said, I think the most important thing someone who is exploring a career transition can do, is set appropriate expectations and understand that it’s usually a journey.

As a journalism major in college, I can attest to this one first-hand. I love writing, but the moment I stepped into an internship at a daily newspaper, I realized very quickly that the day-to-day was so different than what I had pictured in my mind growing up. Firstly, the actual writing piece was not as frequent as I thought (90% of your day is hunting for the story or chasing down sources). Secondly, the type of writing I had to do in order to “contribute” to the overall mission of the paper was not always stuff that interested me. (Sorry, but if I ever have to cover another zoning board meeting, it will be too soon.) I’m thankful though, because that experience made me realize that writing was only a passion of mine when it was happening on my own terms.  

So while it may seem like my WHO and my HOW connect through my writing and my own desire to help people discover their most meaningful work-selves, believe me, it was NOT planned. I fell backwards into the employment sector. (I went into a temp agency at 22 looking for a writing gig and left with a follow-up interview for an Admin position internally. Fate? Maybe. But trust me when I tell you that it was a journey full of trial and error – and figuring out what you don’t want to do is half the battle.)

At the end of the day, amazing things can happen if you do some honest soul searching around discovering your WHO and understanding your HOW. Talk to everyone you possibly can that might connect you with a contact, a company, or even an idea – because hey, all it takes is one spark to light that fire. Lastly, don’t stop hunting for that intersection of “good-at” and “love to” just because there are a few twists and turns along the way. Sometimes you just have to keep re-calibrating until it feels right. You’ll eventually get there, and every mini-experience along the way will only contribute to your perspective and make you better at what you do.

Krystal Hicks