Have you ever felt lost in your career? I suspect most of us have answered “yes” to this question at some point. Even those of us who are mid-career have stopped and wondered if we are on the right path.
If you are truly unsure about what career path to follow, it is time to do some homework and reflection and gear up to have a career conversation with your boss, friend, mentor, skip-level manager, coach, or even your parents. Any of these people can be the right person to hold a career conversation with.
These conversations take courage to have, by the way, along with lots of trust. You should come prepared to have a conversation. It can be difficult to answer questions about your path on the fly without any forethought.
It is difficult to provide a formula around career conversations because they are so personal, but the areas of focus to help you craft your direction are the same. A career may not be a straight shot up a vertical ladder but navigating a spiderweb of up, across, backward, over, and up again.
A career coach’s job is to help people figure out what skills, knowledge, experience, and attitudes can be transferable across their career webs. While everyone’s web is unique, there are four questions or cornerstones every career seeker should spend time contemplating: Values, Strengths, Energy, and Belief.
What are your values?
Values are the most critical component when thinking about our careers. We should all seek to understand if our values align with the organization, our boss, and our job responsibilities. If you are in business for yourself, ensuring your mission, value proposition, and how you work with customers needs to be in alignment.
To live or work out of alignment with your values will create conflict that will force you to be stressed, angry, sad, depressed, or just grumpy. You won't be productive or motivated. It is nearly impossible to live in harmony and feel good if we live in conflict.
I worked for a start-up for a bit when I was much younger. I thought I would love it. It was a fast, entrepreneurial, free-flowing, a kind of “make it up as we go” experience. It was a little too loose as the organization lasted from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
I may have had fun outside of work with my colleagues but I was not aligned with the work. There was no tangible business plan, no desire to set up processes, no focus, no real vision people could get behind, and very little trust and respect. All these things mattered more to me than having a foosball table in the conference room or sitting in swanky offices with cool decor.
My values were not in sync and neither was my job satisfaction.
To help think about your values, reflect on what are table stakes for you. Find a list of values (a Google search will reveal many) and circle your top ten. What can you not live without? Trust? Stability? Freedom? Autonomy? Creativity? Structure? Fairness? Innovation? Predictability? Speed? Steadiness? Honesty? Flexibility? It is important to identify these dealbreakers for yourself because being out of sync with your values, will cause great angst.
What are your strengths?
A second part of focusing on your career desires is to understand your strengths. This is probably not new news to you.
Strengths are those skills or attributes we are not only good at but that we like doing. Some of us excel at specific things that we don’t care to do. For me, it is math. I was an advanced math student, but I hated doing math. I shudder when I have to use algebra or deal with fractions. Thank goodness trigonometry and calculus don’t show up in my daily life! I consistently scored well in math but never enjoyed it.
I know people who are very good at budgeting but dislike managing budgets. I have colleagues who are pretty good at delivering presentations but cannot stand delivering them often. I know people who are excellent people managers but prefer to be individual contributors.
Strengths are those skills and characteristics at the center of “good at” and “like to do.” So, think about this intersection when you are identifying your strengths. Knowing your strengths will only help you identify possible career paths and judge whether a current or new position will leverage your strengths.
For example, if a job you are considering is very administrative, focusing on processes, budgets, and analytics, and you are a people person who prefers to build relationships and deliver presentations, this may not be the best fit. Conversely, if you love process mapping (and good for you, by the way!) or enjoy managing programs behind the scenes, a position in sales or customer success may not be the best fit.
Find those skills and abilities you want to mentor or share with others, feel good doing them, and practice them all the time. These are your strengths.
What gives you energy (or drains it from you)?
This is a great two-sided question to ask yourself. When I talk about energy related to your career, I am not necessarily talking about physical energy from exercise and sleep, although that does help, I am talking about mental energy. Mental energy is not just about our mood but about the “ability or willingness to engage in work.”
When I think about energy, it is 100 percent about “engagement.” When we feel engaged, we light up, feel excited to face the day, and look forward to work. I cite energy as the number one reason people leave their jobs today. They have none as they derive none from their jobs. They are looking to be inspired and looking for that internal light again.
How do you know what is driving you, what lights you up or shuts you down? I recommend recording your daily thoughts.
Simply draw two columns on a sheet of paper or sketch on your tablet — Energy-Booster / Energy-Drainer. Record what gives you energy and what took it away every day for a week, if not a month, and see what the patterns are. I will guarantee themes will emerge.
I did this for myself a few years ago. This exercise led me to identify values I didn’t know I had and strengths I had ignored. It helped me see what to change about my present situation to avoid having my energy drained.
Maybe you get energized when you deliver a presentation and drained when saddled with spreadsheets. Maybe you are the exact opposite. Maybe you love the buzz and commotion of a crowded office or you may want to be completely isolated to focus. Find out by journaling and align your career choice with what gives you energy.
What actions or skills make you believe in yourself?
We all have strengths, but what makes us truly believe in ourselves? We may feel we are good at strategy and even enjoy doing it but do we believe that we excel at this? Are we so confident that we tell others and add “strategy” as a skill to our profile?
People can get caught in a condition called imposter syndrome. This is where we may think we are good at something but lack the confidence to say so or truly believe it internally. We may start to ask ourselves a series of questions, such as: “Why would anyone talk to me about that strategy?” “Am I good enough to contribute to that meeting?” “Am I smart enough to analyze that data?” “Am I persuasive enough to influence their way of thinking?”
Imposter syndrome can rob us of opportunity. It is self-limiting thinking that can shake us to our cores if we believe the questions and statements that tend to center around….am I enough — smart enough, insightful enough, analytical enough, strong enough, valuable enough, etc.
We are enough. We are enough in whatever we do, but we are especially enough when we think about what makes us confident. This is not to say that you shouldn’t pursue an area where you are not confident. I truly believe that confidence can be developed through practice, experience, and the proper mindset. Confidence comes more from action than from thinking.
I have an important note about confidence and that sneaky imposter syndrome. Who we interact with and what our environment is like can significantly influence the confidence we have (or don’t have) in ourselves. Going back to our values, making sure you are operating within a team and organization that aligns with your values is critical to ensuring your sense of confidence is shored up and not torn down.
I have worked in environments where I started to doubt myself and my abilities. No amount of journaling or inspirational videos made me feel any better. This happens, more than likely, when you are living and working outside of your value system. We soar when we are aligned; we fall when we are mismatched. Values and beliefs work hand in hand; it is essential to watch these factors.
If you don’t know what you are confident in, record your successes or achievements for a week. These can be small (and should be small): I lost two pounds, I worked out 4 times this week, I meditated twice, I made my deadlines, I helped a friend, I facilitated a great meeting, I produced a report with 100% accuracy, I closed a new deal. Whatever your successes are, write them down and reflect after a few weeks. Patterns will emerge. Things people consider to be successes will breed confidence and belief in their abilities. It is important to note what inspires them to believe in themselves.
As you can tell, I think journaling for a period with specific prompts and questions is the best way to help get to know yourself. You can’t know where to take your career if you don’t know yourself and what matters most to you. We are in sync with our careers when we are in sync with ourselves and what matters to us. Start with four key areas: Values, Strengths, Energy, and Belief.
Starting this week, take 30 days and journal what give you energy and what drains it. Write down what you love to do and what you are good at. Think broadly and ask others for their input. After 30 days, you will start to see what matters to you in your career emerge!