Is Your Career In Your Genes?

“I have absolutely no idea what I want to be.” If I had an angry employee for every time I heard a student say that, I’d be Marissa Mayer. The thing is, I’m not buying it. OK, sure, you don’t know exactly how to use your talents and interests to create a career that affords more than a steady diet of Taco Bell. I get that. But don’t tell me you have no clue what your abilities and tendencies are. You've known them since you were a little kid. They're right there in your genes.

We often hear dramatic tales of identical twins reared apart who discover one another and realize they've been living parallel lives. Like the pair of New Jersey volunteer firefighters who both used to work for lawn companies before earning their livings selling fire-related equipment. In reality, cases like this are rare; identical twins don't usually share the exact same careers, regardless of whether they were raised apart or together.

That said, career choice does seem to be "in our genes," at least to some extent. Researchers estimate that genetics explain about one-third of our variability in career choice. And while identical twins raised separately don't usually have the same job, they do tend to pick jobs that are similar in:

  • —  Complexity levels
  • —  Motor skills
  • —  Physical demands

In addition, about half of our variation in interests is due to genes. In other words, why do you detest Justin Bieber while your friend loves him? It's about half genetically determined. And half good taste.

Finally, whether a person decides to engage in tasks that are entrepreneurial, artistic or conventional also seems to be largely determined by our biological makeup.

Diane Arbus photograph, Identical Twins, Rosel...

This suggests that if we want to have a fulfilling career, we should follow our inner yearnings. In fact, about 30% of our job satisfaction itself is attributable to genes. Twin researcher and author of the blog Twofold, Nancy Segal, explains these findings by saying, "People in general may better understand their level of job satisfaction in terms of how well their abilities and opportunities coincide.” In other words, if you use your innate abilities in your occupation, you're likely to have greater job satisfaction.

Even more of a head scratcher is the finding that our tendency to switch jobs and careers may also be partly genetic. According to twin research, about 36% of job change tendencies and 26% of career change tendencies are due to what's inside us. In other words, if you're a job hopper, it might not be your jobs that are the issue. It may be you. (There's a tidy fact to keep from the rents...)

I think it makes sense that career choice may be partly genetic, from an evolutionary perspective. Our species is most likely to survive and flourish if we have individuals suited for the many tasks survival requires. If everyone is great at self-promotion but lacks the problem-solving skills to investigate whether a dead battery is in a broken flashlight, we're in big trouble. I mean, what would we do with a society full of The Situations running around? It's no wonder our genes are varied, causing some of us to be inclined to create companies while others of us are content to be worker bees.

So modern society, with its push toward high status, high income careers - "Be a doctor! Be a lawyer! Be an insanely overpaid bank executive!" - is undermining the natural order of things. For our species to thrive, we should each be what we're meant to be. Lo and behold, Civil Rights advocate Benjamin Mays - who I profiled in a previous post - was actually speaking like a geneticist and evolutionary psychologist when he said, "Every man and woman is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive and if he or she does not do it, it will never be done."

Of course "genes are not destiny" and there's a whole lot of room for environmental influences on our career choices. There's also no "career gene," of course; like all complex traits, career-related characteristics are polygenic. That said, during the career search, it can't hurt to pause to consider the interests, skill sets, and inclinations that are as much a part of you as your hair color and height. Who knows, you might just glance at your designer genes and get Lucky.

What do you think:  can you identify some interests, abilities and desires that have been present since you were young? Do you believe these are a part of your genetic makeup?

Good Read:

Born Together—Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study by Nancy L. Segal Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012.

Betsworth, D. G., Bouchard, T. J. Jr., Cooper, C. R., Grotevant, H. D., Hansen, J. C, Scarr, S., & Weinberg, R. A. (1994). Genetic and environmental influences on vocational interests assessed using adoptive and biological families and twins reared apart and together. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 44, 263-278.


Moloney, D. P., Bouchard, T. J., Jr., & Segal, N. L. (1991). A genetic and environmental analysis of the vocational interests of monozygotic and dizygotic twins reared apart. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 39, 76-109.


Segal, N. L. (1999). Twin Studies Show...The Career of Dreams May Be the Career of Your Genes. Psychology Today, 54-70.

Mirror career choice too? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)