Kevin Tokar's light bulb went off in the darkened confines of a television editing suite.
After four years of working as a sound editor for TV documentaries, he watched as yet another set of images flickered across his screen. But this time, he suddenly realized he was more interested in the stories on the screen than in his job of perfecting the sounds that accompanied them.
"I found myself wanting to be more involved with the people, places and problems presented on the screen in front of me than I could ever be from my comfy chair behind the sound mixing board," Mr. Tokar recalls.
It wasn't the first such twinge he had felt. Mr. Tokar often found his mind wandering on the job. And as he looked around, he couldn't help but notice colleagues were far more passionate about sound editing than he was. Moreover, he felt the job was far more technical, and far less creative or people-oriented, than he wanted in work.
Truth is, it had probably been the wrong job for him all along.
"I don't think I had outgrown that career. It wasn't really [ever]suited to what interested me," he reflects.
Mr. Tokar isn't the only person to look back and realize he or she had made the wrong career choice. More than one in 10 - 12 per cent - of Canadians figure they "definitely chose the wrong career," and another 24 per cent are "not sure" they made the right pick, according to a survey last year of 11,000 Canadians by temp agency Kelly Services Inc. That amounts to more than a third of Canadians not really being happy with the career they selected.
The figures are even higher in other parts of the world, where up to half of those asked figured they'd picked the wrong career, according to Kelly's global survey, which polled about 115,000 people in 33 countries.
In another more recent survey, 56 per cent of more than 2,100 U.S. workers polled by Adecco Group North America said they would pick a different career if they could choose all over again.
In this day and age, with so much career information available, why do so many people still continue to choose the wrong career? The reasons are many.
Blame the parents, for one. Since most people make their key career choice during high school or postsecondary studies, parental pressure plays an early and key role, says Jacquie Latham, the Midland, Ont.-based president of the Ontario School Counsellors Association (OSCA) .
Some just blindly follow in their parents' career footsteps. "Family and friends are large influences on anybody. So some students still have [the idea] 'My dad's a doctor or a lawyer, so I need to do that,' " Ms. Latham says.
Others succumb to what their parents think they should do, says Cecile Peterkin, president of Cosmic Coaching of Toronto.
Some enter a career that's not a good fit just to pay their bills or student loans, thinking they'll get into what they really want to do later. But once they get pay raises or promoted, "that two years [of temporary work in the wrong career]stretches into five or 10 years," Ms. Peterkin says.
"The older you get, the more you realize this is not the career [you]wanted to get into."
Some choose the wrong career based on their desire for social status or prestige, rather than playing to their own interests and skills, adds Maureen McCann, a career strategist who runs Ottawa-based ProMotion Career Solutions. "A lot of people feel that you are what you do. They think: 'If I'm not a financial adviser but a childcare worker instead, then for some reason that's not as valid.' "
Media images also factor in. Glamorizing some professions also steers people toward careers that don't really suit their personalities or abilities, says Lisa Nerman, an employment counsellor with the Women in Successful Employment (WISE) program, a career-resource service run by the non-profit agency JVS Toronto.
Mr. Tokar figures his ill-advised choice came out of pressure he felt to make a quick career pick right after finishing his BA degree.
"I think there is too much pressure on younger people to choose not only a career, but the right career, right away after entering university," he says. "And all of this happens way before we really get to experience much of life."
Under that pressure, he went for sound editing because it felt like it appealed to his interests in music and film.
How could he have made a more informed choice?
Mr. Tokar, for one, wishes he had taken a wider variety of subjects during his undergrad degree to expose his mind to more fields. He says he also believes travel would have opened up more options.
To ward off a wrong career choice right from the start, it pays to do some early self-assessment, focusing on factors like personality type, learning style and interests, rather than just skills and grades, Ms. Latham says.
"Are you a people person? Are you hands on? Do you like routine or do you want to do something different every day?" Answers to questions such as these can provide clues to steer younger people in the right career direction, she says.
Needless to say, you, not your parents, should be the main decision-maker in career choice, Ms. Nerman adds.
And your decisions should be based on what you've learned about yourself, not pleasing your family, where you think the hot jobs are, or where you'll earn the most money, says Carole Kanchier, a Calgary-based psychologist, career counsellor and author of Dare to Change Your Job and Your Life.
You also shouldn't rush, Ms. Latham says. It's okay to take some time off to learn more about yourself, get some experience and "try before you buy" - from volunteering to internships to apprenticeships to travel - to help to make wiser career decisions, she says.
Mr. Tokar, for one, righted his wrong career choice.
Three years ago, he decided to leave TV for a new career in international development policy. He headed back to school for a masters degree in international affairs, then spent a year in Haiti as a volunteer logistics specialist with the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders.
Now on a five-month stint with the World Health Organization in the Middle East as a logistics officer, Mr. Tokar, 33, says that redirecting his career path involved a lot of research and soul-searching, and a "great boss" at his TV job who let him work part-time while he went back to school.
"It's unlikely, I think, that I'll be kept up at night any time soon wondering if I made the right career choice," he says.
"It's not something I think about any more."
IT'S NOT TOO LATE
What to do if you're already in a career and suspect it's wrong?
First, make sure that's indeed what's behind your unhappiness, not something situational, such as a bad-tempered boss, toxic office environment or long commute, which can all be resolved by changing positions, companies or workplaces rather than switching careers entirely, says Ottawa career strategist Maureen McCann, who runs ProMotion Career Solutions.
Next, take an "interest inventory" of your dreams, passions, goals, lifestyle preferences, communication style and personality type, suggests employment counsellor Lisa Nerman.
Along with the dreams and passions must come the reality check. Ms. Nerman says you should assess your skills and abilities and be honest with yourself about whether they're strong enough to the match the new career you're eyeing.
Once you've explored yourself, then explore career options that could be better suited to you. Don't restrict research to books and the Internet; visit companies and call people in that line to learn what the job is like day-to-day, Ms. Nerman suggests.
Don't forget to look at various jobs within an industry. If you love restaurants but can't cook, find out if being a manager, host or marketing specialist within the hospitality sector would fit you better, suggests Jacquie Latham, president of the Ontario School Counsellors Association.
GETTING IT RIGHT
Signs you've made
the wrong career choice:
You've changed companies or workplaces within the same career several times but the type of work you're doing still makes you unhappy.
You don't feel excited despite landing an interview for a higher-level, better-paid position in the same career.
You realize everything in your life makes you happy - except your job.
Your gut tells you: Your job seems to be causing chronic stomach problems and other ailments like headaches, muscle pain and even panic attacks.
You feel trapped by the "golden handcuffs": The pay and prestige feel like the only redeeming or motivating factors in your work.
Money isn't enough: You feel as if almost no amount of salary hike would be enough to make you happy or keep you in your current job.
Tips to avoid making the wrong career choice:
Choose a career for yourself, not to please your family.
Think about more than money.
Consider non-university career paths like college, skilled trades, the military or entrepreneurship.
Explore yourself before exploring careers. Assess your own interests, values, personality type, communication style, lifestyle desires and personal goals, then research careers that may fit.
Be honest about your shortcomings. Even if a career matches your interests, it won't be a good fit if you lack the core skills, abilities or aptitude it requires.
Don't rush. Take time after high school, college or university to get work experience, travel or find out more about yourself and a career you're leaning toward.
Get as much practical experience and information as you can through co-op placements, volunteering, internships, apprenticeships, job shadowing, and interviewing people in that field about their jobs.
Give yourself a break. If you do make the wrong choice, you can always work toward making the right choice later.
Get professional help. From personality tests and skills assessments to career coaches and résumé wizards, there is plenty of expert assistance.
Expect to go through this all over again. Some career experts advise people to reassess their career fit every five to 10 years as their life circumstances change.