Career Selection: Answering the Four Questions

After shteiging for several years in kollel, it was time for Shmuel Basch to enter the workforce, but he had no clue where to begin. His father and father-in-law were both in klei kodesh, which Shmuel knew he wasn’t cut out for, and neither felt they had helpful advice to share. The world “out there” seemed so vast and confusing. Should he go into real estate? Accounting? Computers? Should he open a business? He’d spoken to some career advisers and course providers, but the guidance “on sale” there was pretty superficial.

How can he narrow down the options and find the ideal job?

Narrowing the Field

Deciding how to make a living can be confusing. When approached by friends and family looking for career guidance, I usually don’t have much to tell them either. People’s strengths, limitations, and preferences are difficult to quantify, so, especially when starting with a blank slate, it’s challenging to narrow down the unlimited potential career paths out there. I was gratified, therefore, to find this insightful diagram. The infographic cleverly highlights key factors of a good career and helps put a logical framework on the journey to a job.

What Are You Good At?

It’s sensible to play to your strengths. Even someone who never got paid for their innate skills may have a sense of what they’re good at. A handy fellow may lean toward the trades, while someone numerically inclined may go into fields stressing financial acumen. Any endeavor requires training and practice, but with an innate talent, progress along that road is definitely easier. It’s also likely that when someone is good at something, they will get paid more for their excellence and may enjoy their work more (more on this below).

What Do You Love?

But just because someone is good at something doesn’t mean they’ll enjoy doing it day in, day out. I know of a lawyer, a dentist, and even rebbe’im who discovered after years of training and experience that they just really disliked their jobs. Ideally, we would work at something that is inherent to our nature to an extent that we love that work. The Chovos Halevovos (Sha’ar Habitachon 3) says that one who has an inborn connection to a specific type of parnassah is clearly intended to pursue that hishtadlus, even if at times it doesn’t seem to be the most lucrative niche.

Work Is for Parnassah, Not Sipuk

This Chovos Halevovos is not as straightforward as some may assume, though. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Dei’ah 4:35–36) was skeptical of those who said they were cut out only to be doctors or engineers, professions that would supposedly bring them “sipuk hanefesh.” He said that many people who were pursuing those tracks were pursuing prestige, not their predestined professions. And he was puzzled by their equating careers with sipuk hanefesh, which only comes from ruchniyus endeavors, he writes. Clearly, there’s a difference between desiring a career for prestige or money, enjoying one’s work, and a deeper, spiritual satisfaction.

What Pays Well?

Even within the Chovos Halevavos’s guidelines, there still needs to be an hishtadlus angle to any parnassah. Talent and desire won’t help if they’re in a niche that no one pays for. It may seem silly, but there are gullible people being told to pursue solely what excites their passion—and those giving them this advice are often “self-help” promoters, colleges, or training programs that charge top dollar to teach about those “professions,” i.e., hobbies. A parnassah track must pay.

And it should preferably pay well. The Gemara in multiple places (eg. Pesachim 113A; Yevamos 63a) discusses industries that are especially lucrative, presumably encouraging people to consider pursuing them. We can theorize how these Gemaros fit with the Chovos Halevavos that says one should not switch careers to pursue more money because it’s all bashert anyway, but clearly, money matters for hishtadlus.

Aiming for the Win

The diagram pithily lays out some scenarios (in orange) for those who aren’t fortunate enough to hit the winning spot. Ideally, a career will intersect all three segments, being something the person is good at and enjoys doing, and pays well. In reality, though, the need to pursue parnassah is a klallah, and jobs often don’t work out that neatly. It’s wise to try and minimize that curse, but, especially at the outset, Shmuel will probably sweat quite a bit to bring home his bread. Still, by keeping the three-question framework in mind, he can hopefully navigate in the right direction.

The Crucial Fourth Dimension

The three-question framework described above is clever but leaves out the crucial fourth dimension: what Hashem wants. The Mishnah (Kiddushin 4:13–14) is very clear that people should avoid parnassah paths that, even if not forbidden, may lead them in the wrong direction. Whether this includes potential breaches of tznius or consistent temptations to steal and cheat, a frum person should seriously consider what lies in store, “Eizehu chacham haro’eh es hanolad (Tamid 32a).” A career path that offers material wealth and comfort at the expense of adherence to Yiddishkeit is a trap, not an opportunity.

Similarly, the Mishnah recommends careers that enhance ruchniyus by leaving time and focus for Torah. Obviously, klei kodesh, whether directly on the front lines or in the background, are an excellent choice for a frum Jew, if possible. Pursuing that path will definitely maximize the sipuk hanefesh R’ Moshe is referring to. Shmuel’s career path may bring him more material wealth than his father’s, but there’s a real trade-off there.

Want to dig deeper?

Try these related articles

Expanding Parnassah Options

Helping your Child Land their First Job

Sell What You Know

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