Getting Clear About Your Career

confused woman
Photo Credit: Helga Weber (Flickr)

For most of my life, I thought I was going to grow up to be a teacher. All through elementary, middle, and high school, I envisioned myself at the head of the classroom, teaching students about history, government, and civics. It wasn’t until I got to college to actually pursue this career path, that I had second thoughts. With a whole world of possibilities in front of me, why was I limiting myself? Over the next four years, I explored a number of fields, eventually landing on political science, which ultimately led me to law school and a career as an attorney.

Within the first year of practicing law, I knew I was in the wrong place. While I enjoyed making a difference in my clients’ lives, I hated the adversarial nature of the job, the constant pressure, and the endless labyrinth of rules. But, if I wasn’t practicing law, what was I supposed to be doing? After all, I had just spent over $120,000 on my law degree. To not use it felt like a massive waste of time and money. So, I sucked it up, all the while dreaming of a different life.

I did eventually leave my law firm for a nonpracticing role. Unfortunately, leaving that job didn’t give me the career clarity I had hoped for. While I liked my new gig, I knew deep down that it wasn’t the right fit either. And this is when the anxiety really started to kick in. I had no idea what I wanted to or what would make me truly happy. I felt utterly lost.

After I had my son, I knew it was time to get serious about my career. If I was going to be spending 8-10 hours a day away from my baby boy, I was going to do it for something that mattered to me. I am grateful every day that I made the decision to focus on getting career clarity because for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m finally where I’m supposed to be. Here are the two things that helped me get clear about my career.

Identifying What Matters. I’ve always been someone who is interested in lots of different things. I love children, the law, politics, journalism, fashion, hospitality, travel, food, media. At my most confused, I considered all of these as career paths and actively applied to jobs in all of these industries. But, I realized that just because I love something doesn’t mean it’s what I should do for my career. I had to really sit down and think about what it is that moved me. Instead of writing down possible jobs, I took a step back and wrote down the values that mattered to me.

In thinking about your values, think about the things that really drive you. Is it financial success? Is it flexibility? Is it leadership? Is it freedom to be creative? How do you like to work? How important are each of these to you and how do they rank against each other? Also, remember to not only think about what you love, but also what you’re good at (and not so good at). Asking yourself these questions and doing an honest self-assessment is the first step toward understanding what it is you want out of your career.

After I had mapped out my values, I came up with a single sentence that summarized my goals and became my north star: “I want to do something that makes a meaningful and direct contribution to causes that advance justice and access to opportunity.” Once I was clear on this, I was able to narrow my focus to the fields that served this objective.

Creating an Action Plan. Once I cleared some of the clutter in my mind, I started to develop a plan. This part is important. Creating clear, actionable steps that I could achieve within a particular time frame empowered me to take an active role in my life and in shaping the career I wanted. I was no longer along for the ride. I was driving the bus.

Everyone’s plan will look different, but it can include things like updating your resume and social media profiles, reaching out to connections in your industry for informational interviews, reading professional trade articles to beef up your current awareness around the hot topics affecting your industry, attending a conference, or taking a course to fill any knowledge or technical skill gaps.

Of course, there are lots of twists and turns in between thinking about what you want and actually arriving there, but being intentional about what you want and where you want to be can help to give you career clarity when everything feels fuzzy and opaque. It can also provide a critical lifeline when you feel like you’re drowning in confusion.

If you’ve landed on what you want to do, what were some things that helped you get there?

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