Where do I go from here?
How do I get unstuck?
What are my options?
Which one should I pursue?
If you’ve ever faced a career dilemma you can probably relate to these questions. There may be too many options, or not enough, or just no obvious front-runner: hence the stuckness.
My conversations with clients have helped me develop a framework for moving away from the stuckness, toward something meaningful and satisfying. I call it a “career reset.” (A quick note: These conversations are not only about work; they’re also about how to spend time during retirement, or where to volunteer, or how to define and move toward a life that feels more meaningful, at any age.)
In those “career reset” conversations I’ve noticed three themes that stand out as we’re trying to understand the stuckness and define a career path. I think of them as three needs for moving toward a meaningful career.
- The need for momentum
- The need for magic
- The need for a meaningful direction
They’re depicted in the chart below.
The need for momentum:
Taking action and having a helpful structure to provide energy and movement
The need for magic:
Allowing for and fostering unpredictable developments and opportunities
The need for a meaningful direction:
Identifying a direction that provides purpose and utilizes your skills and cherished qualities
I’m going to work backwards through this diagram, so that we can be guided by the desired career outcome or “meaningful direction.”
The need for a meaningful direction: Identifying a direction that provides purpose and utilizes your skills and cherished qualities
There are many ways to become stuck in one’s career, but they usually include a lack of direction, either because there is no obvious job or career objective, or because there are multiple options without a clear frontrunner. In either case it’s easy to feel trapped: On the one hand, forcing a choice when there is a lack of clarity seems hasty, but on the other hand, not choosing an option compounds the sense of being stuck.
It may take some time before a clear option emerges, but until then it’s important to know that you are “moving,” and that you are moving toward something. You need to be able to name a direction toward which to point your efforts: a direction that makes sense given your skills, interests and values; a direction that inspires and motivates you, that could lead to work you would feel proud of, and, of course, that could meet your financial needs.
Here are some questions that can help you describe your meaningful direction:
- What are the skills you already possess that you want to use in your work? By skills I mean the things you do well – solve problems, fix cars, help people who are hurting, listen, sing, garden, lead, write code, tell stories, invest, paint, make people feel comfortable, build furniture, help out during a crisis, bake. Identifying these skills helps to “ground” the vision or dream contained in your meaningful career direction. It’s as if you’re saying, “Yes, these are big dreams, but they are rooted in things I already know about myself and have demonstrated in my life.”
- What are the personality and character qualities that describe you at your best? What are the qualities you’ve seen in yourself that you hope can be most on display or most required in your work – qualities such as creativity, courage, tenacity, empathy, gentleness, honesty, intelligence, patience, and humor? As with skills, identifying these qualities helps you to “ground” the vision or dream contained in your meaningful career direction. It’s as if you’re saying, “Yes, these are big dreams, but I already have a history of being creative or tenacious or analytical, and those are exactly the kinds of qualities that will be needed in the career direction I’m heading.”
- What difference would you like to make in the world? What do you want to stand for? What do you value? Helping others, solving intractable problems, creating something beautiful, resolving conflicts, nurturing the environment, feeding people, being a friend, providing comfort, fixing things that are broken, or teaching valuable skills or ideas, can all help to make people’s lives better, and the world a better place. In several years, when you look back on the work you've done, what would you like to be able to say about the impact you’ve had?
- What difference would you like to make in your own life? One answer, of course, is to have a clearer sense of purpose, but there are many ways to answer this question: to provide for your family; to give your kids opportunities; to live up to your potential; to work in a way that is consistent with your values; to have a good reason to get up in the morning; to have an adventure; to feel fully engaged in work and life; to create or contribute to something you feel good about; to open new doors; to live with less worry and fear; to work closely with others who share your interests and values.
The need for magic: Allowing for and fostering unpredictable developments and opportunities
I assume that you’re not in complete control of making your meaningful direction or desired career happen – if you have that level of control, you may not need this article! In the next section we’ll look at some of the first steps you can take to help bring about your meaningful career, but in-between taking those steps and arriving at your meaningful career are some things you’ll need that are not completely in your control. I think of this in-between area as “magic.”
My theory of magic goes something like this: In most areas of life we don’t have complete control over creating an ideal outcome, but we can take steps to increase the chances that something magical can happen. For example, when we take a vacation, we may be able to choose our destination and have some control over the timing, but we can’t force it to be a special, life-changing experience. Or if we throw a dinner party, we can choose the guests and the menu and the music, but we can’t force everyone to have a memorable time. In these situations, something “else” has to happen, some spirit or dynamic has to emerge that can’t be forced, something playful or humorous or deep or moving or warm or connecting has to develop. We can set the stage, but we can’t force the magic.
In the case of a career, the magic could be in the form of an opportunity we didn’t know about, people that come into our lives, or conversations that lead to places or jobs we didn’t know about.
So how do we set the stage for magic? We create energy and momentum and foster opportunities, by naming a direction (as discussed previously) and taking steps that are within our control. And we pay attention so that we notice when something shifts, when a door opens (or closes), or when an opportunity arises.
The need for momentum: Taking action and having a helpful structure to provide energy and movement
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” says the proverb. It’s hard to sustain a dream if we don’t sense that we’re moving toward it. And because it’s not entirely within our control to create our desired careers, we need to know that, at the very least, we’re taking steps that are moving us in the right direction. I think of these steps as the tangible, “close-in” actions that are within our control, that move us toward something that is “farther away” and not entirely within our control.
There’s a straightforward, practical benefit to naming and taking such steps: As you do so, you’re learning more about your meaningful career direction, getting better at the skills required for it, and making more connections with others. You’re making yourself more desirable as an employee, a more qualified worker, a better practitioner. You’re strengthening your resume, building a network, and learning about opportunities. And there are two crucial side benefits.
The first benefit is positive energy – steps lead to more steps, and the self-reinforcing knowledge that you’re doing something that matters (or moving toward something that matters). The second benefit is that as you take these steps you’re able to reflect on your career options from different perspectives. As you practice skills, read, talk, explore, write, and reflect, you have the repeated opportunity to look at your future from changing vantage points: “What do I think of my career path now?” “What seems possible now?” “Do my recent experiences have me thinking differently about my meaningful career direction?”
And, in order to help us keep up our momentum, to not lose heart, we need a time-frame and a (full) schedule. If I look back on my career, I’ve always been the most productive and done my best work when I’ve had real deadlines and when my plate was full enough that I had no time to waste. And I’ve been the least productive when I’ve had plenty of extra time to accomplish a task or no real due date. Having a full schedule helps me use my time well and stay focused. Practically speaking, for the career reset, this means establishing a time period, or time-frame, within which to take the steps you’ve identified. The time-frame provides a structure within which you can plan: “If I want to read that book, make those contacts, and add to that skill by six weeks from now, then I better follow this schedule.”
Some of us work best when such schedules are set out in great detail, while others work best with a looser structure but clear deadlines. Either way, it’s helpful to have a date “out there” (one week, three weeks, three months) when you will pause and re-assess: “Where am I now, what have I done, and what difference has it made? And what’s next?” And, if possible, it’s great to have due dates that are legitimately required by others: the meeting to prepare for, the resume to submit, the information interview that is scheduled a week from today.
Time-frames and schedules also provide us with the reassurance of self-accountability: “I’m taking these steps, and although I don’t know exactly where they’re leading, I trust that they’ll be helpful, and I’ll pause soon to ask, ‘Where am I now?’ and ‘Where do I go from here?’ But for now, I can put those questions on hold, and just keep moving in a meaningful direction, and help make it more likely that some career magic can happen.”
A Final Note
As a narrative therapist I’m always thinking about the stories we find ourselves in and the stories we’re developing. From a narrative perspective I’d say that this article is about identifying a compelling story for our career (naming a meaningful direction or purpose that connects with our experiences, skills, personal qualities, and values), and building or thickening that story by taking practical steps which lead us to unexpected opportunities.
It occurs to me that although I’ve laid out a strategy or process for getting unstuck in one’s career, I haven’t talked about the emotions involved: emotions like fear, as we try to take steps that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable; like worry, as we try to hang in there with a lot of unknowns and uncertainties; painful emotions that can grow out of the self-doubt we may encounter along the way; the odd emotional challenges of dealing with joy and optimism (“This is too good to be true.” “I’m afraid I’ll mess up this great opportunity … or jinx it by getting too excited or too confident”); or just how discouraging it can be to keep taking steps that don’t seem to be leading anywhere.
In most cases, we have to find a way to accept, endure, and even grow from the emotional ups and downs of the career reset. Knowing that intense emotions await us on this journey, that they’re an expected part of the process, can help considerably. And the anticipation of these emotional challenges is a good reminder to keep our Meaningful Career Direction, and all the reasons it matters, front-and-center in our mind – it gives us strength for the journey.
The exercise below provides a guide to help you build your career story. Have fun!
EXERCISE: MY MEANINGFUL DIRECTION
Start describing your meaningful career direction by writing down a few words in each of these categories:
- I would see my future career as meaningful if I were able to use these skills (skills I already possess or ones that I am developing):
- I would see my future career as meaningful if it drew on the following character or personality qualities (ones I’ve seen in myself and want to build on):
- I would see my future career as meaningful if it made this kind of difference in others’ lives:
- I would see my future career as meaningful if it made this kind of difference in my life:
EXERCISE: TAKING STEPS TOWARD MY MEANINGFUL DIRECTION (AND ALLOWING MORE OPPORTUNITIES FOR MAGIC)
Newton's law of inertia seems quite relevant here. It's commonly stated like this: "A body in motion tends to stay in motion; a body at rest tends to stay at rest." For many of us, the hardest part of the career change or career search, is getting "in motion"; but the promise is that once we get "in motion" we're likely to keep moving. So, what are some VERY SMALL, VERY DO-ABLE STEPS you can take, to start moving in the meaningful direction you've described above?
- What's a very small step I can take that will help me learn more about this meaningful direction?
- What's a very small step I can take that will help me connect with people who might be relevant to this meaningful direction?
- What's a very small step I can take that will add to, or strengthen, my set of skills and abilities associated with this meaningful direction?
- What's a very small habit I can practice (daily/weekly) that is supportive of this meaningful direction?
- What's a story I can build and tell myself (perhaps I can write it down) that will help me articulate what this meaningful direction is and why it matters to me?
- When I stumble, get discouraged, want to give up, or feel lost, who are the people I want to turn to that can help encourage me, or give me perspective, or help me sort through the choices I want to make? (These people can be present in your life now, or you might imagine historical figures or people you don't know, with whom you could have conversations - real or imagined.)