BY ERIN EWART
Do you feel like you’ve never quite figured out what you want to be when you grow up? Do you find yourself jealous of those people who seem to have it all figured out and go from one job to the next in a perfectly logical, linear fashion?
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: there are fewer of those people than it seems, and many of them are not all that happy with the path they’ve chosen. From the outside, their careers may look perfect, but there are many reasons they may have chosen a direction that doesn’t actually suit their skills and interests: family or societal pressures, financial need, or simply the inability to figure out what they really want to do.
According to some new research from LinkedIn, nearly half of mid-career professionals say they aren’t sure what their career path should look like even after 10+ years in the workforce, and almost a quarter are what they call “career sleepwalking,” meaning they fell in to their job rather than actively choosing it.
Are you a multipotentialite?
Of course, some people do land on a great-fit profession early in life and stick with it their whole careers, but for many of us, figuring out what we should do is more of a lifelong quest. I spent so much of my early career grappling with this question, and it always seemed like it would be so much easier if I could just figure out that “one” thing that I should do.
But then I realized something: how incredibly bored I would be doing one thing for my entire career. I embraced the idea of having multiple “mini-careers” throughout my life that reflect my different skills and interests. After doing more research, I’ve realized that I – and many of my clients – are what’s known as “multipotentialites”: people with many interests and creative pursuits, who have no one true calling.
It’s a similar concept to the idea of being a generalist or jack/jill of all trades, but with a more nuanced and positive framing. If you’re curious to learn more, in addition to watching the TED talk linked above, I recommend picking up the book “How to Be Everything” which goes into much more detail on this topic.
What to do when you’re not sure what’s next
While it’s great to embrace your multi-potentiality, it definitely has some practical implications for your career, including the often overwhelming process of deciding what to do next when there’s no clear path.
In my last post I shared some of the lessons I learned during my own career transition, when I left my last job not knowing what I’d do next, and I’m following up today with some tactical steps you can take to move forward if you find yourself in the same boat.
Step 1: Tune into what you’re good at and what you enjoy
You have to start here. It sounds basic, but it actually takes a lot of intentional thinking and experimentation to figure these things out. This kind of introspection can be tough and time-consuming, and too often people skip this step and try to charge forward into figuring out what’s next without doing any reflection on what brings them energy or satisfaction, or what their core strengths are. But it’s a very worthwhile investment to spend some time dialing into these things, especially if you’ve never done it or it’s been a while.
There are three key ways to get clarity on your top skills and strengths:
- Start with self-reflection: take out a blank piece of paper and make a timeline of your life and career up to this point. Note down the really pivotal points: your most meaningful experiences (at work or outside), jobs and volunteer roles, key career transition points, etc. Then do some freewriting about these experiences: what made them especially rewarding? What were you doing and what skills were you using during those times? What kinds of environments were you in? And which experiences did you not enjoy, and why? This will help you uncover key themes about what’s made you happy in the past, and the unique skills and strengths you should aim to use in your next role. If you’re currently employed, you can also keep a daily log for a few weeks, noting down what’s energizing and draining you in your current day to day.
- Take assessments: they’re fun to take and can give you a helpful external perspective on your strengths. My favorite is the Clifton StrengthsFinder Top 5 Assessment, which you can take online for just $20. You’ll get instant results and a load of insights and vocabulary that will help you hone in on your top strengths.
- Ask other people: one of the hardest parts of this process is stepping outside your own perspective to understand how others perceive you. Asking friends, family, and colleagues for insights on your strengths is a great way to get clarity on this and to understand the unique value you offer in both a personal and work context. Try asking a cross-section of personal and professional contacts to describe when they’ve seen you at your best or what words they’d use to describe you.
As you go through all three steps, compare the information you’re getting and see what themes emerge. You should begin to see several jumping out that you can use to fuel the next stage in the process.
Step 2: Generate a few options to explore
Often when clients first come to me, they say they want to explore their options and “see what’s out there” before committing to any next steps. And while that’s great, it can also be paralyzing. There’s literally no way you can ever possibly explore every option, so the key is to narrow down the field to a few possibilities, dig into those, and then adjust your course as you go.
Based on the reflection you’ve done in step one, do some brainstorming on ways the skills you want to use could be beneficial to the types of organizations you want to work for. Brainstorm as many options as you can, then narrow them down to two or three that you want to explore first.
The key here is to bring a “design mindset” to the process, moving away from the idea of any one set answer and thinking creatively about possibilities. (I wrote more about using design thinking in your job search last year.) Try not to be intimidated by this and have fun with it! Use some of the tools and structures below to guide you through the process, and don’t censor your ideas.
My client Ashley took a mid-career break to figure out her next steps and ultimately transitioned from nonprofit work to a role in the private sector. Her advice: “Lean into the uncomfortable. Push yourself to explore the things that usually make you feel the most scared, anxious, or intimidated and think outside the box in your approach. I read a variety of career books to look for the similarities in approaches, tools, and methodologies. I came away with a better understanding of what I was naturally passionate about and good at – and it’s from here that you’re at your strongest to make a successful pivot.”
Here are some tools and resources to get you started on this step:
- Read about career design: some of my favorite books on this topic are Designing Your Life and Pivot and Ashley also recommends The Artist’s Way to help bring out your creative side. They include their own activities and exercises that will help you to think about new possibilities and then narrow in on a few potential options.
- Do some mind mapping to generate ideas: this is a great process that forces you to think creatively and non-linearly. Get a big sheet of paper and start by writing down some of the strengths and themes you identified in step one. Then start brainstorming ideas that relate to each of those, and continue doing that until you have several levels of ideas. Then pull out a few that are most interesting to explore. See here for a more thorough explanation and example of this process.
- Identify two to three possible paths: the authors of Designing Your Life suggest creating three different plans for your life and career based on the ideas you’ve generated. Since you can only reasonably explore two to three options at a time, this will give you a basis to go into the next step, and you can always come back to some of your other ideas later in the process.
Step 3: Gather information about your potential paths
As you go through this process, it helps to put yourself in a position where you can explore: either saving up so you can take some time off between jobs, or perhaps purposefully taking on a role that’s less intense so you have more time for this process. But even if that’s not an option, you must make time to learn more about your top options, primarily through talking to other people who are already doing that work. Yup, this is the part where networking comes in!
Your goal here is to learn as much as you can about the possible paths you’ve identified, in low-risk ways. In design terminology, this step is known as “prototyping,” and it allows you to test out some of your ideas to get a sense of whether they will actually work for you, without fully committing to a career shift (yet).
While informational interviewing is a key part of this process, there are lots of other ways to prototype potential career paths: volunteering, internships or project work, job shadowing, and taking short classes, to name a few. But you can’t escape talking to people. It’s a critical part of this process that will give you inside information and help shape your next steps.
As you execute this step, it will introduce a lot of new information that will likely shift your thinking. You’ll learn that some of the options you were excited about aren’t actually a great fit, and others that weren’t on your radar will start to emerge. And that’s the whole idea! Take time periodically to synthesize and reflect on what you’ve learned, and adjust your goals and next steps accordingly.
And as you talk to people, be sure to connect the dots between where you’ve been and where you’re going. As Ashley shares, “It’s easy to feel during a transition that you don’t know enough about where you’re going, don’t have a strong enough network, or don’t have the right experience. Don’t let that stop you. Find the things that interest you, then work creatively to show the connections between where you’re coming from and where you’re going. The more I found the similarities and adapted my lingo to the industry/role where I wanted to go, the more I was able to show that I was equipped for the job. It’s all about the framing!”
- Talk to people: find people doing work aligned with paths you’ve identified, and ask them for a brief informational conversation. Do your research in advance, and come with a short list of questions for them and an open mind about what you’ll learn. Aim to talk with three to five people in each of the paths you’re considering, and then evaluate what you’ve learned. Most likely your initial contacts will be willing to introduce you to others in their field, helping you build your network in the places you’re looking to go.
- Get hands on experience: find opportunities like those mentioned above (volunteering, project work, job shadowing, etc.) to actually do some of the work you’re exploring. By “trying on” the work in bite-sized ways, you’ll quickly learn whether it’s a fit. Here’s a great example to help you think about what this could look like.
- Learn the language: even if you’re new to an area, it’s important to start picking up on the language and terminology people are using in that field. Read industry news and publications, follow people and organizations you’re interested in on social media, and pay close attention to the language people use during your informational conversations. This will all be extremely valuable as you narrow in on your next step and conduct a more targeted job search.
Step 4: Make a decision and move forward
As someone who counts “deliberative” as one of my top five strengths, I know firsthand that making decisions is much easier said than done. I’m also what’s known as a maximizer: someone who wants to know about all the options before making a decision. But in most things in life, and especially in your career, that’s just not possible.
So if you struggle to make decisions, how can you approach big decisions like what career path to pursue? The first thing to remember is that there’s really no bad or wrong decision. All you can do is make the best decision you can based on the information you have at hand. You will learn something new no matter what you choose to do, and you’ll be adding skills and knowledge to your toolkit.
And remember too that career decisions aren’t forever. When you decide on a direction to pursue, you’re not committing for life, just trying this out as the next step in your career journey. With the way careers are going these days, it’s likely you’ll be shifting to a new role or organization again within three to five years, perhaps even sooner.
Use these tools to help in your decision making process:
- Trust your instincts: what have you continued to gravitate to throughout this process? When you sum up all that you’ve learned, where does it point you? What are you just plain excited about? After you’ve done all your research, trust that you’ve internalized all that you’ve learned and follow the path that you’re most drawn to.
- Use the 10/10/10 rule: this framework helps you get important perspective by asking yourself how you’ll feel about your decision in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years. This can help you see beyond immediate emotional reactions and overcome some of the fears that inevitably accompany making a change.
- What would you tell a friend to do?: we’re often really good at giving other people advice, and pretty terrible about applying it to ourselves. Imagine a good friend came to you with the decision you’re facing and asked for your advice. What would you tell them? Now turn around and give that same advice to yourself.
Wrapping up: embracing uncertainty
I hope these steps give you a roadmap as you navigate the uncertainty of your career transition. I know how unsettling it can be: for 15 years I struggled to figure out what I was supposed to do, until I finally realized there was no right answer to that question.
Beyond the steps above, the best advice I can give you is to be open to new opportunities that excite you, even if they don’t look like what you imagined. Five years ago I had no idea that I’d end up as a career coach, and it was experimentation and an openness to trying new things that interested me that helped me land here.
Remember that none of us, even those who may feel sure about what they want to do, really know what lies ahead. The best we can do to overcome the fear of not knowing is to embrace uncertainty as a means to express our multipotentialite selves.
I’ll leave you with a quote that really resonates for me, from an article called The Benefits of Wandering: “The panic we feel when we are lost shouldn’t be avoided. It should be embraced, because it’s in that wandering that we find what we want to do. Succumbing to the pressure of what others expect of you just delays the inevitable. It takes time to answer the big questions like: ‘What kind of impact do I want to make?’ Finding your place in the world takes time. It’s a long-term play that often has some short-term pains.”
Good luck as you navigate your career transition, and please reach out if we can support you along the way!
If you’d like support as you navigate your own career transition, please reach out about our individual or group coaching programs for social impact job seekers.