What was your childhood dream?
A recent Forbes article asked kids what to be when they grow up. The imaginative responses ranged from “a dinosaur” to “a superhero” to “a princess” and my personal favorite – “taller.”
In all that amusement and wonder over how young minds work, one bit gave me pause. It was this chart right here:
There it was, number two and three on the list: “I don’t know.”
How interesting, I thought, that children have no trouble admitting what so many of adults won’t – that they have no idea what they want to be when they grow up. Perhaps as we get older, there comes a point when it is no longer OK to not know. It works out just fine for those of us who naturally select a path of interest that guides them to a fulfilling best-fit career. But what about the rest of us?
This dilemma can be particularly difficult for professionals who have followed an education and a career track towards a reliable job, just to discover that it brings them no joy and does not align with their temperament or natural talents.
I know quite a few professionals who studied programming in college because it was the hot field. By senior year, it was clear that they didn’t like it. They thought they had gone too far to change course with student debt and graduation looming – so they got jobs as programmers. As I see it, they are begrudgingly employed.
If that sounds like you, you are in good company. According to Gallup, over 67 percent of the American workforce is either not engaged or actively disengaged at work. What can you do to bring that spark back? Short of walking up to your boss right now and quitting, I encourage you to reflect on a possible career change and what’s possible for you in your next professional opportunity. Here are some questions to guide the career change process.
1. What are your core skills and talents?
When considering skills and talents, it is critical to think outside your job description and industry. You are not trying to write a “wanted” ad! Go beyond what you can do (reconcile cash accounts, answer the phone) and identify your underlying abilities.
Are you amazing at diffusing tense situations with irate customers by actively looking for a win-win solution? Can you put small details together into a big picture that tells a story and highlights patterns? Do you naturally and easily inspire the team to make that last bit of effort when everyone is discouraged and tired?
Some of us have a difficult time seeing talents and superpowers inside ourselves, and that can make thinking about a career change seem impossible. If that is the case for you, ask people you trust what they think you are great at. You may also consider taking an assessment like StrengthsFinder to identify your themes of talent.
2. What were your childhood passions and dreams?
Think back to when you were young. Before you were limited by what was rational and practical, you had a dream. What was it?
Now, you may come back with a dream of “wearing dinosaur costumes in Japanese monster movies” or “an administrative assistant.” Reflect on what those meant to you as a child. Did you connect to the fun of creating make-believe worlds? Your desire to help others? A flair for showmanship and drama? What is inside this package of a childhood dream that reflects who you are?
A way to clarify your thinking is by completing this sentence: “As a child, I wanted to be someone who…” Perhaps you wanted to be someone who puts a smile on other people’s faces. Think about the impact you want to make – whether in a technical field or in the lives of others.
3. Who in your possible field intrigues you?
After you have identified your talents and strengths, and have connected to the core of who you want to be, chances are a few possible career paths are standing out for you.
Before you enroll in a training course or dramatically start looking for a new career, do your due diligence. My rule of thumb is spend time before you spend money. Dig through your personal network and connect with at least five people who work in that field. Set up phone calls or face-to-face meetings, and get their thoughts on what their professional lives are like.
How did they get to their current position? What advice do they have for the younger version of themselves? What do they love about their jobs, and what is their least favorite thing? What challenges should someone like you expect on the path, and what is the best way to deal with those challenges? What pay can you count on in the beginning?
Your goal is to play detective and pick up on the small details that Google won’t mention to you.
Don’t limit yourself to just one or two conversations – with your future on the line, you want to benefit from as many perspectives as possible. If what you learn is exciting and a little terrifying, you have some good early signs to keep investigating that direction. If you discover that the real-life version of the intriguing career is nothing like the brochure and you have a difficult time getting excited about it – switch your focus.
4. Can you map out at least 5 ways to get there?
In the early stages of the career change discovery process, it is best to keep your judgments out of your thinking. Sure, your logical mind might pipe in with all sorts of helpful tips, such as “But you don’t have the degree for this!” or “You could never break into that field!” or “You are too old to start this.” Do your best to ignore it for the time being. There will be a time for the feasibility analysis, but that time is not in the beginning.
Challenge yourself to imagine at least five ways (more is better) of how you could find yourself working in your field of interest. The scenarios could range from totally logical to far-fetched. What you want is many possibilities. They may not play out exactly as you imagine, but I want for you to see that there are multiple ways to get what you want.
5. What is the smallest next step you could take in the direction that is calling to you?
With your mind and imagination primed, you are ready for your next step in a possible career change. In my experience, it is best to make it small. There are people who manage to close the gap in a single leap, but for most of us change happens gradually. So, what is the smallest action you could take today to get closer to what you want?
It does not have to be involved, expensive or dramatic. Perhaps you love flowers and want to be someone who puts a smile on other people’s faces. How about picking up a weekend shift at a local florist’s shop, or volunteering to do flower arrangements for a friend’s baby shower? Or maybe you are pulled towards writing more, and your next step is to launch a blog. Do you think that being a yoga teacher is your calling? How about making a commitment to go to at least four yoga classes next week?
In closing, remember that these steps are just the beginnings of a possible new path and career change for you. Try to focus on what you truly want. Follow your core build of temperament and talents. That is the key to creating a life that’s sustainable and satisfying. Stay open to possibility, and let your journey evolve. It is OK to not know where this road will take you – the commitment of walking a few steps every day is enough.
Which brings me to my closing point: no matter what anyone tells you, a dream job does not equal easy work with no challenges. In my experience, the reason you had not followed this path in the first place is because it is difficult. Paraphrasing Seth Godin, the difficulty of the path is precisely the reason why those who succeed are valued and rewarded. Check your commitment and grit before you uproot your life.
Would you like a few resources to guide your discovery and light your way? Here are some that I like.
“The Dip” by Seth Godin
Barbara Sher’s I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was
Emilie Wapnick’s TEDx talk on why some of us don’t have one true calling.
Laura Berman Fortgang’s book “Now What?”
Larry Smith’s TEDx talk on why you will fail to have a great career.
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