For most career destinations, there's at least one existing path. For example, let’s talk about how to become an astronaut.

Lots of people want to be astronauts—so many, in fact, that NASA has shared the job requirements on its website. If you’re a US citizen who wants to be an astronaut, here’s what you need:

  1. A master's degree in a STEM field, like engineering, biology, chemistry, physics, computer science or mathematics.
  2. Two years of work experience in that STEM field or 1,000 pilot hours on jet aircraft.
  3. A passing grade on NASA's long-duration flight astronaut physical.

In short, astronauts tend to be former Navy test pilots with graduate degrees in physics who are unusually psychologically stable and in exceptionally good shape. For the aspiring astronauts among us, the path to astronaut-hood is right there in black and white. No mystery.

You probably don’t want to be an astronaut, but you likely have career goals. Nearly all jobs have a set of requirements, but because they’re rarely laid out this clearly, it’s tempting to believe that we (and should) craft our own path to a given job. This is often not true. Like a novice hiker trying to cut their own trail up a well-traveled mountain, we're likely to find that the existing trails are there for a reason.

We’re unique people, and in the final analysis, our careers will each turn out to be unique as well. But when it comes to reaching the next step in our careers, a unique path is overrated. We’re better off starting down the same trail others have taken.