Why It’s So Hard To Narrow Down Your Career Choice (And How To Make It Easier!)

I’ve been in the career field for two decades and have witnessed many changes in how individuals search for jobs. However, the part of the process that’s changed the most, and subsequently has become the hardest, might surprise you.

If you’ve been in the professional world for a while, you’ve likely noticed few significant changes in the format of resumes or the general interview process, perhaps with the exception of how they’re created or conducted, respectively. And technology and personal websites have just extended how we express and communicate our expertise.

Networking as an effective search strategy is likely the most stable in the process, having earned its place as a front runner in the 1970’s with Granovetter’s pioneering work on the spread of information in social networks. If anything, networking has become infinitely easier with the invention of social media and tech-based communication tools.

What’s become much harder, is figuring out what you want to do.

The age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” appears deceptively innocent. But for many who’ve been on the receiving end of this inquiry, it instills a sense of anxiety and confusion, especially if you haven’t quite figured it out or are ready for a change and don’t know where to begin.

Here’s why it’s so tough to answer, and what you can do to start formulating a response you feel good about:

  • Traditional paths have been obliterated. Upon retiring with 40 years of service from the local power company, my father was given an engraved lamp built with spare machine parts. So, although odd retirement gifts aren’t the reason professionals don’t stick with one company anymore, I can’t say it wasn’t a contributing factor. But seriously, it’s common today to change roles 10 or more times throughout a career span. It’s even becoming rare for someone to stay in the same industry or function for more than a decade now. New markets, hybrid roles, portfolio careers and side hustles have created opportunities for professionals to completely change trajectories, create mixed sources of income and test out emerging fields. And while having more options is exciting, it’s also confusing and overwhelming. Make it easier: Stop looking at titles. Many people start here, but titles aren’t uniform or specific enough to really help narrow down your choice. A “Director” at one company may be equivalent to a “Manager” at another. “Business Development” can mean sales in one firm and marketing strategy at another. Instead, break down roles into projects, skill sets, and competencies so you can understand the actual work and make a clear decision based on what you’ll be doing day-to-day. O’NET Online is a free tool that helps you research work activities, abilities, educational requirements and general tasks for thousands of job families and roles. Plus, you can sort your search in a variety of useful ways including what industries have a bright outlook in the current market.
  • We’ve been fed some outdated advice. While there’s wisdom in the tip “follow your passion,” taken at face value, that phrase loses some of its effectiveness. Most people have multiple passions, and sometimes activities you’re passionate about aren’t ideal careers. When encouraged to discover your passion, it puts undue pressure to find the right choice, when in reality, there are many great career choices and very few true career mistakes. Everything you do is a chance to expand your network and broaden your experience. Make it easier: Follow your professional energy instead. Think of a work project or task you look forward to doing or jump to when you’re avoiding less desirable work activities. Or maybe there’s an accomplishment you’re proud of that gets you energized when you share the story with others? Your answer likely lies within these examples, so examine what aspects make these interesting to you. Perhaps you love solving an impossible problem or partnering with a collaborative team. Or maybe you enjoy being up against a tight deadline, or digging into data to find the underlying story. Once you discover the thread, look for roles that engage these skills.
  • The market is shifting at warp speed. In many ways, the world has changed more in the last six months than in the last six years. Even if you discovered your life’s true vocation early on and never waivered on your choice, chances are technology advances, global needs, market demands and customer preferences will cause significant disruption to your daily tasks, making it tough to remain in one profession your entire life. But with traditional paths decreasing, and options becoming almost limitless, it can be paralyzing to move forward. Make it easier: Not even career coaches or recruiters can keep up with the influx of new job families that are cropping up almost daily. So, instead of focusing on what you want to be, ask yourself, “What challenge do I want to solve in the world?” Read what’s happening in the market in areas that interest you and look for roles in organizations that are tackling those problems. Identify your professional superpower, align it with your values and interests and then learn how to wield that superpower to the changing needs of the market.
  • A reactive process is becoming less viable. In early 2000, applying to jobs online was all the rage (as was saying, “all the rage”). Since the internet has become oversaturated, it’s harder to trust what’s online, and data show it’s only a slice of what’s actually available in the job market. So, if you’re bored or fed up with your current career, looking on big job boards can give you some general ideas, but it’s not likely going to solve your problem. Some look to vocational assessments for the answer. Although these can be helpful to understand your strengths, interests, values and preferences, the information you receive is only a piece of the puzzle, not the total solution. Others decide to return to school, which can be valuable if you’ve already made a clear career choice and have confirmed additional education is necessary to attain your goal (note: often it’s not). Make it easier: Create an experiment or research project for yourself where you reach out to people doing interesting work. Ask how they got into the field (you may be surprised to hear their path was more of a zigzag than a direct line). Reach out broadly, even to people who work in fields you’ve never considered. They may share stories of how their organization functions internally or partners with vendors that can open up new ideas. And don’t limit yourself to standard full-time roles. Consider side hustles, a portfolio career or even short-term contracting gigs to create the mix of activities you’d like to explore. Even if you ultimately decide a full-time role is more to your liking, clarity comes through action. It’s important to try things on for size versus just allowing various pieces of information to bounce around in your brain.
  • Outside influences are strong. It’s common to rely on loved ones for advice. The great news is they usually have our best interest at heart. The not so great news is they likely aren’t the best career coaches because it’s hard for someone you know well to be fully objective. People we know often advise based on their own values (e.g., so if status or wealth are important to them, they may see your choice to pursue a role based on altruistic values as unwise). Make it easier: Have a different exploration conversation with those you know. Instead of asking about your career, ask what you’re “known” for and what unique qualities they see in you, which may help you to better understand your professional superpower and abilities. Also, stop comparing yourself to others. This is demoralizing and prohibitive. While it’s great to have role models and mentors, remember everyone is on their own path. Lastly, reach out to people able to be direct and objective. This could be weaker ties (e.g., 2nd level contacts) in your network, or a career coach. Although others won’t have your answer, they can certainly help by asking deep questions, offering fresh insights and enabling you to see yourself differently.
  • Identity clinging is strong. When pondering a new career choice after working for a period of time, it can be challenging to see ourselves in a different way. Our career becomes part of our core identity with our title, company or profession often being one of the first things we share with someone we meet. So, if you desire something different, often professionals start with assessing how their current role can extend into their next career because they cling to the identity they’ve built. But ironically, this often keeps us stuck in a place we’re trying to exit. Also, humans hate ambiguity and often feel like trial and error are a waste of time. Make it easier: First, stop asking yourself the question, “What do people in my role usually do next?” during your exploration. This may lead to some simple answers, but will limit your total options and may convince you a compete switch isn’t doable (hint: it is!). Next, recognize jumping off your career ladder to try something new won’t be catastrophic if it doesn’t work out, and unexpected career detours are usually surprisingly valuable to your marketability. So stop looking for guarantees when there are none. And although many skills are transferable, actively keeping one foot in your old career may prevent you from truly getting to where you really want to be. So, if you can shed your title or professional label and start looking at yourself as the value you add to the market, you’ll see yourself as incredibly versatile professionally.

What you may have gathered if you read the article versus skimming the bullets is that figuring out your next career still takes work. But, you can make the effort you put forth meaningful and productive by following these steps so it’s not harder than it needs to be.

Happy hunting!

Reposted from: Forbes.com

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