Close your eyes. Think about where you’d like to be in your career a year from now … five years from now … ten years from now. If you have trouble envisioning your career trajectory, you’re not alone. Not knowing where you want to be is a common reason for feeling stuck.
It’s a cultural norm to ask young children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But sometime during the preteen to teenage years, the focus shifts to questions about college (what school will they attend; what major will they choose?) … And then, the questions stop. By the time you are a grown-up, most people (including you) assume that your chosen career is the obvious answer. But what if it’s not the right answer? And where do you go from here?
While you can’t snap your fingers and expect that vision to appear, there are several steps you can take to facilitate clarity around your career path:
1. Gather data on yourself
If you really don’t know where you’d like to see your future professional self, one of the most prudent ways to start the process is to start fact-finding: Who are you? What makes you tick?
Aptitude testing provides objective, highly reliable data about your innate abilities. One of the best aptitude tests out there is the Highlands Ability Battery; it’s one we’ve used for years because of its reliability and consistency over time. (According to an independent study, the HAB meets or exceeds professionally developed standards for reliability in the 80-83 percent range.)
Unlike personality assessments, the HAB provides deep insights into your natural abilities, including how you approach cognitive challenges. There’s no way to cheat on this test, and you can’t inject unintended (or intended) biases because it 18 of the 19 work samples are completely objective.
The HAB is comprised of a series of timed exercises (that you take online); some will be very easy for you, while others will be harder — maybe downright frustrating. The beauty of this battery is that your scores come back as degrees on a spectrum, from “high” to “low”— but high isn’t always best, and low isn’t always worst. In your debrief session, your JMA coach (who has been certified as an HAB consultant) will help you digest the 40+ pages of intimate insights into your unique abilities, including a list of the top careers that closely align with those abilities.
The mistake I see so many people make is in assuming that they’re in the right career. Whether that assumption is based on external factors (e.g., family expectations or legacies), misguided connections (“I loved debate; law seemed like the obvious choice for me”) or myriad other perceptions that guide career choice, more often than not, it’s wrong: Gallup’s data on employee engagement consistently shows that only one third of the U.S. workforce is engaged.
2. Take a (different kind of) trip down Memory Lane
Clues around your ideal career path show up far earlier than most people realize. There is a high correlation between the activities you engaged in as an early child (starting at around 18 months old through age seven) and your best career fit. So get out the old photo albums, home movies and dig into your earliest memories. (Asking a parent or older sibling can help fill in the blanks!)
What did you love doing? Did you like puzzles, or pretending? What types of “play” were most appealing to you? Were you able to bide time on your own, or did you crave the company of friends? Did you use your creativity and imagination? Were you a builder, an artist, a teacher … and why do you think those roles appealed to your interests back then?
These reflections will provide clues into your purest likes and dislikes — before peer, parental and other external influences shaped your opinions. When you’re four years old and pretending to be a superhero, you don’t think about the hours, the pay, the benefits, the competition or the opportunities for advancement.
The answers won’t likely be crystal clear; you’ll have to do some association through a very flexible lens. But once you dig deeper, you might be astounded at the revelations — and the profound implications for your career aspirations.
3. Conduct career research
If you’re working in a career that you love, you’re probably already aware of the opportunities for advancement in your field. But most people’s career paths aren’t linear, and many of those opportunities involve thinking outside of the box — or at least beyond the confines of your current employer.
One of the best ways to learn about related or tangential opportunities is to talk to other people. The sky is the limit … Talk to people both at and above your level. Talk to people who work for your current company and for companies that pique your interest. Talk to people who live and work near you and to people in other cities, states and even countries. Talk to vendors. Talk to clients. Invite new contacts out for a cup of coffee; initiate online conversations through platforms like LinkedIn. Everyone brings a different perspective, and just one conversation may spark an idea that you hadn’t previously considered.
If you decide that you are, in fact, in the right career, focus your research on ways to increase your visibility — whether at your current company, or within the industry. Examine your skill gaps, including any blind spots. Moving into leadership or executive positions requires a different type of skillset than those that lead to success as an industry or subject matter expert. Emotional intelligence becomes even more important than IQ or technical skills as you move into higher leadership positions where your role requires that you impact, influence and inspire others.
This process is worth the time and effort. Only 29 percent of Americans spend one day or more in their right career fit, leaving an astounding 71 percent in the wrong profession. When you’re in the right career, it’s effortless, energizing, inspirational. You look forward to Mondays™.
Most importantly, breathe. It is so easy to get anxious and overwhelmed at various points in this process. Keep your eyes focused on the big picture. Do the right work. Ask the right questions. Get the right support to increase the probability of success. You’ll get there!