Do You Feel Lost on Your Career (or Life) Path?
Many people (possibly yourself, but definitely people around you) are going through life on autopilot.
They wake up, eat breakfast, and go to a job that they don’t feel particularly driven or motivated to do. All in exchange for a paycheck and hope of a nice weekend.
Others are in the pilot seat with a firm grip on the controls – actively making choices, but secretly wondering why they don’t feel better about their lives… Happier.
Possibly, without fully realizing it, this second group of people are actively working towards someone else’s definition of success.
Though these individuals may look outwardly successful to others, inside they might feel quite desperate. Or as the famous writer Thoreau put it, “quiet desperation.” [*] What I interpret to mean a sense of emptiness in their achievement of what they thought should have brought them fulfillment.
The Gallup organization does research about work satisfaction, and last spring, they found that 74% of the American workforce is disengaged at work. [*]
This can be for a variety of reasons… But for a lot of people, it’s because they feel their day-to-day lives’ lack a sense of purpose.
They feel like what they spend their time doing every day at work isn’t personally meaningful to them, and it’s also very possible they lack a feeling of connection to the people they serve, work with, or the organization they work for. For some people, they feel like their work doesn’t provide them the opportunity to learn or grow or develop and use their strengths.
Perhaps at some point, either consciously or unconsciously, they ended up doing a job that they may not even enjoy or like but feel stuck in that position or industry because it’s all they know and believe they are in some way trapped doing it.
Have I covered just about everyone’s reason for feeling disengaged at work or lost in their careers?
I want you to look around at your life, including your current job, and the job you are considering doing next, and I want you to ask yourself a few questions:
- Who designed or is designing my life?
- Was I the one that decided this is the path for me that I wanted to take (the path I’m moving forward on, right now)?
- If I could change my current job or create my next job, what would it have more of? What would it have less of?
- Is my work (the profession/job/industry I’ve chosen to be in) meaningful to me? WHY?
- What motivates me to do my job every day? What motivates me to even get out of bed?
- What would make my work MORE meaningful and satisfying to me?
- Does the work I do align with what I value at my core?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how engaged at work am I on any given day?
- What would make me feel more engaged?
I once listened to an interview done with a famous singer/songwriter, India Arie. She had been really successful in getting everything she had set out to do – an incredibly successful first album, an abundant saving account, and owned “her” dream home.
I put “her” in quotes like that because that was the irony of “her” life.
In this interview, she described how one day she woke up and realized that everything in her life was not what she wanted but was the physical manifestation of what someone else had led her to believe she wanted.
From the car she was driving, to the way she gave away her creative opinion to the people who were producing her music, everything about her life reflected what someone else had dreamed up and wanted for her – not what she had wanted for herself.
Sometimes in our lives, we get so caught up in what “we” think we want; when in reality, if we were to trace the pathway back on that desire, we find its origin to be a source outside of ourselves, not from within.
I’m writing about this today because it is a problem that I’ve personally had.
I started out my career as an accountant and really didn’t enjoy it. It took me additional trial, error, more time, and tuition dollars towards another degree to fully realize that I had made a lot of the career and educational choices I had, up until that point in my life, in an effort to please someone else – to live someone else’s dream of what success should look like for me.
“If Ryan is ‘successful’ his life will ______________, _________________, and _________________.”
Living to fulfill someone else’s expectations for you is a sure-fire way to get lost in this life. It’s also a sure-fire way to completely muffle and drown out your own inner voice!
And whether you agree or not, I believe each of us has an inner, guiding voice that acts as a compass for us – constantly helping direct us on or towards the path that will bring more fulfillment. No one can take the role of your inner voice, but other people can help you hear it more clearly!
So, what did India Arie do when she realized that she couldn’t hear her own inner, guiding voice? Well for one, she saw that it was taking a toll on her health. She began to be physically unwell.
I once read an account of a life coach, Martha Beck, who went through a similar experience. She didn’t like being a university professor (the career “she” had chosen for herself) and it began manifesting in her physical health. She actually thought she was dying at one point because she had so little energy… Turns out it was because she was trying to force herself to want something she really didn’t want: to be a professor.
In Martha’s case (if I’m remembering correctly) when she finally had the courage to leave her job and do something new, her health sprung back.
India Arie had to do something similar. She ended up “retiring.” She went away for a while (I get it; that’s a luxury few of us have – just take a few months or years off work to figure ourselves out!) but she made a huge discovery by going inward and getting away from all the external voices that were telling her what she wanted.
She realized she still wanted to be a musician, but what she really wanted was to do it 100% on her own terms – no one telling her what the song is supposed to be about or changing the meaning or lyrics of what she had written.
In her own words: “‘In 2009 I let go,’ Arie told her label imprint Soulbird. ‘I realized I had to seize the chance to make the career and life I wanted, not accepting what others wanted me to do. So, I decided to retire, asking God to show me where I am supposed to be.’ Arie decided that she no longer wanted to perform to fit into the music industry. She let go of others’ expectations and started to write for herself again.” [*]
Now here’s the thing, I get it! Whatever job you currently have or are trying to find next, the odds that some boss is going to let you do it entirely on your own terms – NOT LIKELY. But there is such a thing as using your unique strengths, gifts, and talents to create a life and career that aligns with what you value, that feels meaningful to you personally, and will engage you.
As Oprah Winfrey once cautioned, “Your job is not always going to fulfill you” because the “PERFECT” job/career DOESN’T exist; let me repeat that – the perfect job DOESN’T exist, but the job that allows you to contribute to this planet, unique to you, does. She was speaking to a room full of journalism and communication grads when she said that. Here is a bit more of what she said, “There will be some days that you just might be bored. Other days, you may not feel like going to work at all—go anyway… The number one lesson I can offer you is…to become so skilled, so vigilant, so flat-out fantastic at what you do that your talent cannot be dismissed.” [*]
Deep satisfaction can be found in all kinds of work if it aligns with what you value and meets your core needs. And “that” job may be later down your path in life, but you can get there – with sufficient introspection, conscious decision making, and HARK WORK.
There are many paths you could choose to take for your life and career – not just ONE right one. Unless you feel “called,” that your vocation is to be something very specific or to serve a very specific group of people, as long as you pick a “good cause,” one you know you can be engaged in and work hard at it – of your choosing – good things will come of it. Things like more self-knowledge; increased skills and ability to service society; a better income; more joy, meaning, and fulfillment in what you do and who you get to be because of your work.
Don’t wait for a magical epiphany to tell you what to do!
I’m going to give you a few tools now that can serve at helping you get back in touch with your inner voice – the compass that wants to help you get “un” lost.
These are a few simple activities to help you find a truer sense of direction – point yourself towards A path (yes, there is more than one path you could choose!) that will assist you in creating a career and life full of meaning and purpose, specific to you!
Caution: these are activities that have been designed to reveal information. What you do with the information is then up to you, but self-knowledge is essential for creating a more fulfilling future. You are a creator, and my advice is that you find a mentor to help you take this information and turn it into an action plan – a vision for yourself of where you want to go – with actionable steps you can follow to become a rockstar at what you chose/set out to do.
Determine Your Core Values: What is Most Important to You
Ever get super mad, sad, or down about something happening at work or in your personal life and not realize where your reaction is coming from?
It’s probably a value that you have that is being violated or mistreated – a need you didn’t realize you have that is not being met. For example, you value open communication and find out that a policy at work that is going to affect you, just started. Everyone was told about this policy except for you. Suddenly, your automatic reaction of getting angry makes a lot more sense. You value a supervisor that keeps you in the loop – you value open communication.
This may be a small example, but there is a ripple effect in our lives happening everyday full of examples of how our values are respected or disregarded by ourselves or other people.
A key to getting on the right path in life (and especially your career) is identifying what is most important to you at your core.
You can do this by doing a “value identifying activity.” I’ve done a few over the course of my life and can tell you up front, not all of them are created equal. Hands down, one of the best I’ve ever taken the time to do was designed by a coach named Scott Jeffery. If you've never done a values activity before, I’d recommend beginning with his: 7 Steps to Discover Your Personal Core Values.
Once you know your core values, take the current job you are doing and see how well it actually aligns with what truly matters to you. Is it meeting or supporting your core values?
What type of jobs would best align with and support your core values? If you value self-expression and creativity but your job is very procedural, you either need to consider a significant change of career paths or figure out how to make sure your life outside of work is adequately meeting your needs in those areas of your life/well-being.
Reflect on Your Younger Self and Previous Career Ambitions
What you wanted to be when you grew up is NOT important – sorry to offend your second-grade teacher when I say that!
But… What is important is consciously identifying and knowing WHY you wanted to be that! See, the thing is this, if you wanted to be Indiana Jones, I doubt it was because you wanted to grow up to dig in the dirt all day with other archaeologists... The likelihood is you were attracted to the idea of getting to travel and have new experiences regularly. The notion of making discoveries sounded cool to you.
Great. Now analyze for a minute WHY that is? What part of yourself would feel fulfilled if you got to do this? Are you naturally a deeply curious person? Do you tend to want to get to the core of things – figure out how and why they work?
You need to “excavate” some of your natural abilities and affinities, and one of the quickest and easiest ways to do this is reflect on what you were like at a younger age, before the adults taught you how to silence your inner voice in pursuit of conformity and mediocrity. Because the truth is, a lot of us forget how to use our imagination and honor these parts of ourselves. [*]
Some of us had hard childhoods and dreaming wasn’t really something we did. Don’t worry, there are still ways to plug into these things in adulthood! We’ll get into those ways in a minute.
First, a great Tedx Talk on this topic: Find Your Dream Job Without Ever Looking at Your Resume, by Career Coach Laura Berman Fortgang. My favorite lines from her Tedx Talk, “So, the formula seems to be: something from the past, whether it has come true or not, re-examined for its true significance, married with your skill set of today, equals a satisfying new chapter.” “...career satisfaction doesn't come from what you do. It comes from who you get to be while you're doing it.”
The goal of doing all this reflection is to understand your true motivation: the reason behind why you do what you do, or reason for having wanted to do something.
Outline your Ikigai
Have you ever heard of Ikigai? It’s a Japanese word that essentially translates to “reason for being.” We’ve kind of westernized the concept by making it mainly about career, but the actual activity is very insightful/helpful.
Here is a copy of the activity. Feel free to draw out these four circles on a piece of paper or print this off and fill it out. When you do this activity, I want you to do it in this order:
- Write out everything you love (don’t just think about “things you love in a job” but think about your life as a whole).
- Write out everything you are great/good at.
- Have conversations with people -- who know you well -- about what else you should have included.
- Look for the overlap. On most ikigai diagrams they write “passion” as the title for the area of overlap… I don’t. Below is *my reason why.
- Take in this truth: there are a lot of ways you can serve the world and get paid for it by doing things you are good at and that interest you. That’s why I recommend doing the last two circles LAST.
- Go ahead and fill out the rest of the diagram as you see fit but recognize that you probably aren’t even yet fully aware of some of the ways in which people are willing to pay you for help with things they need that are within your reach of developing further skills at.
[*The reason I call this overlap section “interests” instead of “passion” is because most people who are lost in life probably haven’t taken enough time to try out enough things that are interesting to them and developed those interests sufficiently so that they can naturally morph into “passions.”
I actually think that people who go out and tell you to find your passion are full of bullsh*t, pardon my language! And have no place helping people with their career paths!
Passion is real – but people work at it backwards… They claim you need a passion before you can pick a profession, whereas, if you were to look at areas that you feel interested and natural curious about, and then put forth energy and effort towards them – learning about them, trying them out, a passion would naturally occur over time, and you could end up finding that you have MANY passions, not just ONE! A good podcast on this topic: The Perils of Following Your Career Passion by Adam Grant, organizational psychologist.]
What to do with this information
Try things out. Maybe you married the job you are currently doing too soon in life, without trying out other areas of potential interest. I love telling people to hop on Udemy and look up random courses that interest them, whether it relates directly or indirectly to their current job or not.
Why not take one or two of these courses, even just for the fun of it! If it does relate to your job, get the certificate, throw it on your LinkedIn profile as a credential, and ask at work to do a project around it and see if you aren’t closer to finding more fulfilling work because you’ve taken some time to diversify yourself and skills.
Find a Mentor
Mentors exist in all shapes and sizes and according to every budget.
To grow my business over the last 15 years, I’ve had multiple coaches and mentors help me. They are experts at what they do, so when I describe a problem, even though it’s a new and foreign problem TO ME, they’ve typically dealt with the same (or very similar) issue before with another client and can help guide me through to the possible solutions from their own experience.
It’s hard to put into words just how helpful this has been over the years. I attribute so much of the growth my company has been able to do directly to my ability to get good help solving my hardest problems.
We can do a lot of great things on our own, but we all have blind spots. Mentors and coaches can subjectively help you see yours as well as bring to light solutions you might have never considered or thought of.
Not every coach is worth the money, but if you can find a good one, they are worth every penny.
So, what about if you don’t have any extra pennies?
Books, podcasts, caring family, and friends.
First, there are so many incredibly helpful people who have put their best advice out there as books or podcasts. They can teach you skills to get into different professions as well as help you with all sorts of roadblocks and problems that stand in your way. If money is really tight, get their book at the library or borrow it. There are great free podcasts online and incredible tutorials through YouTube.
We underestimate that there are people already in our lives that if we told them what we needed, they would be willing to listen and help. Turn to your best friend, an old work colleague, your sibling, etc., ask for help talking through your career choices and roadblocks.
Finding a caring party (mentor in whatever form you can afford) to help you create a vision for yourself about the next 3-5 years and defining the steps you need to take to create and make these things happen!
Pick a Career Spirit Animal and model your path after them!
Reinvent Yourself Again and Again
Important note: No game plan that you come up with for yourself and your life is set in stone. BUT, I do tell people you have to be committed enough to an idea or pathway that once you’ve landed on an avenue that sounds promising and resonates with you, you need to start planning out your steps with a 3–5-year time commitment in mind. If you genuinely dislike a particular job after a year or so of doing it, definitely don’t commit any more time, but the truth is that most paths can’t unfold adequately without about a three-year time commitment.
What sounds interesting for the next three years? Where would you like to be by the end of those three years? Now get the skills and mastery to be incredibly marketable at doing that, give it your all – your best effort, then re-evaluate as the end of that chapter is approaching.
I have a friend that has an Ouroboros tattoo. It’s a symbol that fewer people in our culture are familiar with. He explained to me the meaning of it; essentially, it’s a snake that appears to be in a perfect circle, but when you get closer, you realize it is eating its own tail.
To a lot of people, this symbol means that we are constantly meant to be evolving. That we are to take what we learn from an experience and use it to create what we want next. We are in a process of regularly reinventing (recreating) of ourselves and redefining what we want out of our lives and careers.
What you discover about yourself TODAY, may lead you down an entirely new path TOMORROW, but in no way defines what you have to do at another chapter in time. Allow life and its experiences to teach you more of what you want and how to get less of what you don’t.
I was having a conversation with one of my employees about what the word “purpose” means to her, and this is how she responded: “Purpose [to me] is having meaning and direction in my life and living according to it every day.”
I hope this post finds you HOPEFUL. Let me know what you think! Comment in the Refer Facebook Group if you want to carry on this discussion!
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