A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding a Career You Love
Do you ever find yourself winding down on a Sunday evening—still buzzing from a busy weekend of friends, family, and fun—only to have a looming Monday morning hit you like a load of bricks?
Job discontent is tricky. For self-aware people, the answer feels like it should come from within. Individuals who believe happiness is a choice are left to wonder—why can’t I just be happy? For those who’ve spent years of effort working toward one professional goal—becoming a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher—the inclination is, again, to be self-critical. This is everything I ever wanted. Why don’t I feel fulfilled? Does anyone get real fulfillment from their job? Am I chasing something that just doesn’t exist?
A career changer myself, I questioned my work ethic. Was I lazy? Maybe I’d be dissatisfied no matter what my role because I just didn’t want to do work.
You are not alone. The fact is—lonely and isolating though it may feel—job unhappiness is the norm. Gallup’s State of the American Workplace 2014 reveals that a mere 31.5% of people feel truly engaged in their work. This data point is sadly optimistic, as the highest measure since they began tracking this performance statistic in 2000.
Yes, it’s important to be self-critical, but the real question we should be asking ourselves is:
What am I doing to change this?
How do you join the 31.5%? It isn’t easy, but the worst thing you can do is nothing. Like most things that matter, career love takes… well, work. Follow these seven steps* to discover a career you love.
*Note: this isn’t a checklist. These seven will require constant reevaluation and optimization throughout your career.
How to find a career you love:
Start with introspection
If you're saying to yourself I need a new career, stop to reflect on what it is that’s keeping you in your current rut? Can you envision a scenario in which your current job might work for you? Is that scenario a realistic possibility? If you enjoy your role, but you butt heads with your manager, you may not need a full-on career overhaul—a lateral move may do the trick. If your discontent is rooted in your industry or your specific job function, you’ll need to be proactive about identifying what type of role or organization may make a better fit.
Ask yourself these questions:
- If money weren’t an issue, what would I do?
- What type of role or mission would I be excited to tell my friends and family about?
- What makes me most curious?
- What do I do best?
- What am I most passionate about?
- What projects (paid, volunteer, or school-oriented) have I most enjoyed working on and why?
- What kind of work environment do I thrive in? (Collaborative or autonomous? Do I need clear structure, or can I be scrappy in an ambiguous environment?)
Whatever you do, don’t let a lack of clarity paralyze you from moving forward. The key is to make an educated guess about what jobs you may enjoy, and then seek out activities and conversations that will teach you more about those roles. If you don’t find these activities and conversations engaging, you go on and try something else.
To learn more about what kind of work environments you’ll thrive in, read Corporate or Startup: Where Should You Start Your Career?
Figure out what motivates you
This ties to #1. Chances are, if you were unhappy in your last job, your greatest motivating factors in that job were emotional pressure (disappointment, guilt, shame, fear), economic pressure (the money was good), or inertia (you kept doing it because you’d been doing it for so long).
According to The Reasons We Work by Shane Parrish (based on a book by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor), direct motivators—motives that tie directly to the work itself—typically bring out our best performance. The closer our reason for working is to our actual job, the more engaged we’ll be.
There are three direct motivators:
Play: We engage in the activity simply because we enjoy doing it. The “work” is a reward in itself.
- Purpose: One step further away from the actual work is purpose, because our motive isn’t the work itself, but it’s outcome. We feel the purpose motive in the workplace when our values align with the impact of our work.
- Potential: Another step further away is potential—we work because it will eventually lead to something we believe is important, such as a long-term career goal.
As you explore career opportunities, keep these three P’s in mind. Will this job function tap into your passions and curiosity? Will the mission align with your own sense of purpose? Will the role set you on a path toward your career goals?
If you accept a job for the fourth “P”—paycheck—you’re likely to end up where you started: disenchanted.
Develop your personal brand
Your personal brand is your professional identity and how you package it. This is an important part of positioning yourself to find a career you love. Just as a company’s brand identity encompasses everything from their logo and messaging to their customer service, your personal brand is the sum total of your interests and expertise, what it’s like to work with you, your digital presence, and more.
If you’ve been out of the job market for a while or working in an industry that’s late-in-coming to digital trends, you may need to dust the cobwebs off of your your brand by tightening up your LinkedIn profile, launching a website or blog, or joining the Twittersphere.
Identify a “board of advisors”
Some would tell you to seek out a mentor, but you should never rely on only one person for all career advice. Also, if you approach this one person for counsel on every challenge, you risk burning them out.
Instead, curate a group of people with a variety of perspectives. Choose people who you trust and respect, and who are more advanced in their careers (i.e. not your peers). These may be senior coworkers, but you should also pursue people beyond your company and job function. Don’t expect a new connection to become your advisor overnight, and don’t force the relationship. Nurture your relationships to see how they develop.
Reach out to these people for advice during key challenges and crossroads (don’t ping any one of them too frequently). Share your answers to the questions above, and listen carefully (and critically) to what they have to say. Above all, be sure to close the feedback loop. Say thank you, and follow up with the people who helped you to let them know how things turn out. These people will only continue to share advice if they are also get value from the relationship, and knowing that their insights haven’t disappeared into your inbox abyss is a huge part of that value.
Build your network
A powerful network is key to finding the right opportunity. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics report that at least 70% of jobs are found through networking. Why? More often than not, company leadership, hiring managers, and recruiters will rely heavily on their networks and past interactions; preferring to find what they need organically before ever posting the job.
A strong network will allow you to:
- Gather intel about job opportunities
- Get face-time with the people looking to hire
- Build your personal brand
- Connect with key players in your industry
- Learn how to grow your career and skill sets
As you seek a more fulfilling career path, begin by prioritizing learning about other industries, companies, and job functions over finding actual job openings. Do your homework. Talk to people. When you meet someone doing something interesting, dig in to learn more.
Above all, be human. Strong and sustainable relationships are two-way streets. Offer to help others wherever you can.
Fine-tune your elevator pitch
Develop a 30-second elevator pitch so that, when it comes time to talk about yourself, you can help people help you. Share your strengths and passions. If you know what type of role you’re looking for, say so. This way, your connection will have you in mind if a relevant opportunity comes up.
Remember: there are lots of ways to tell your story. You need to find the way that best positions you for the roles and companies you want to attract. Try different narratives on for size and observe peoples' interest and reactions as you speak. In your elevator pitch, connect the dots for your audience, demonstrating how your previous experience and career has led you to want to explore this new path. Above all keep it positive—focus on where you're headed, and what excites you.
These articles can help you to craft the perfect elevator pitch:
- How to Pitch Your Value: Dissecting the Elevator Pitch
- Elevator Pitch Tips that Will Get You Hired
- How to Tell a Story that Will Deeply Impact Your Career
Gain relevant experience and skills
The purpose here is two-fold. This will, of course, beef up your resume—especially important for career changers who are trying to reposition themselves for a new job or industry. While your work experience may tell a niche narrative, additional volunteer experience, freelance work, career skills trainings, or active membership in a meetup group will broaden that story.
Of equal or more importance, stepping outside of your usual wheelhouse to try new things is an opportunity to test the hypotheses you made in step #1. While you’re out building your network, find people who are doing the jobs that you think you may be into, and ask them what other events you should attend or if there’s a project that you can help them with. The closer you can get to the actual roles you're interested in, the better sense you’ll have for them.
Finally, don’t compromise (or, know what you can compromise on).
Truly committing yourself to each of these steps requires a massive investment of emotional and mental energy. If you’ve put that work in (and remember, the work is never done), you’re already ahead of the curve and on your way to finding a career you love.
The daily grind in a job you hate can be torturous. Unemployment is torturous as well (I know, I’ve been there). It can be tempting to take the first offer you’re given.
To whatever extent you can afford it—don’t compromise.
You know what interests you, you know what motivates you, and you have the skills and resources you need to find your perfect career. Persevere, and aim to land among that 31.5%.