There is probably worse career advice than "you can do anything you set your mind to." But it's still pretty bad.
What if you set your mind to being a concert pianist but you have no musical talent? What if you have a big mortgage to pay and you set your mind to being a baker? (It's among the lowest paying jobs in the U.S., according to USA Today). What if you set your mind to becoming a lawyer but have no passion for it -- instead you find law excruciatingly boring or detest everyone who works in your law office?
So if you can't -- or shouldn't -- do anything you set your mind to, what should you do instead? I think you should do work that passes these four tests:
1. There is a meaningful market for the work.
If you need to make money to pay your bills -- which almost everyone does -- then you need to find a career that will pay you enough money to cover your financial obligations.
Therefore, you should decide whether you will want to spend huge amounts of money during your life or live frugally. And you should then figure out how much different career options are likely to pay you and steer clear of any options that don't pay enough for you to cover your obligations.
This was helpful when I was a freshman in college and told my family that I wanted to be a poet. My father suggested that I look up poet in the Yellow Pages (a printed book of business phone numbers in case you don't know). I could not find any listings for poets so I decided to pursue other options.
2. Your skill level is high relative to the competition.
Let's say you have your mind set on a field that pays considerably more than a poet -- say architecture or medicine. It's obvious that those career paths have the potential to pay more than poetry -- though if you set your mind on medicine it would probably be a better bet than architecture.
But setting your mind on a relatively lucrative career might not work for you. Neither of those were good fits for me because I lacked enough talent in either field to even have a shot at either career.
For example, I took a Career Discovery program at Harvard's School of Design at which I discovered that my talent for architecture was probably middling at best. And with a thought of a possible career in medicine I took college courses in Biology and Chemistry -- only to struggle to barely keep my head above water.
In short, if you pick a career that pays well and you are at the top of your class in the majors that feed talent into those fields, you are likely to be heading in the right direction. Otherwise, try something else.
3. You love doing the work.
Even if you pick a field that you love and excel at the work, it still might not be the right thing for you. I know many people for example, who graduated from the top of their class at Harvard and Yale Law Schools who practiced law for a while and bolted out of it because they found the practice of law a bore.
So it's crucially important that you love doing the work as well. I ultimately decided that I wanted to do management consulting -- specifically focusing on helping technology companies develop strategies that would help them grow faster.
I joined a consulting firm that then led the world in strategy consulting. I was good enough to get promoted quickly to a manager -- coordinating the work of other consultants and liaising with client executives. But I had no control over my schedule and saw no way to get that control. So I left.
Five years later I started my own consulting firm. And things finally clicked. I did projects that appealed to me, worked mostly from home, and visited the client only to deliver my final report and answer questions. It enabled a great work/family balance.
4. You respect and and enjoy working with your colleagues.
Another thing that can make or break a career is how you feel about the people in your organization. If you have your own company, you ought be able to pick people you like working with. If you're not the boss and you excel at the work, odds are pretty good that you fit within the culture and you like working with the people. But if not, you should definitely find a place where you do enjoy your coworkers.
If your career satisfies these four tests, you're on the right path. Otherwise find a new one.