From Career Confusion to Clarity in 5 Steps
If you’re unsure where your career should go next, you’re not the only one.
A recent survey by Randstad UK found that almost 25% of UK workers were planning on changing jobs in the next few months. But a lot of people are struggling to find direction in their careers, and risk moving from one unsatisfactory job to another.
With so much advice available and so many choices, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and worried about making the wrong move.
But all these feelings of restlessness are really the result of one problem: Uncertainty.
Uncertainty is simply ignorance of the future, and it’s a source of anxiety for our minds. Research shows that having a 50% chance of getting a mild electric shock is more stressful than knowing for sure you’ll get one. The same technologies that are supposed to help reduce uncertainty also overload us with options and far more information than we can possibly process.
Resolving uncertainty about the future seems so tantalizingly close, yet always just beyond your reach.
The result is you simply spin the wheels, wait for someone else to make decisions for you, or deny the need to make any decision at all.
In fact, some uncertainty is good for you – it is the source of opportunity.
As the author Eckhart Tolle said, “When you become comfortable with uncertainty, Infinite Possibilities open up in your life.”
But how to get positive about uncertainty so you find a direction and take control of your future? I have been guiding people in their lives and careers based on these basic steps.
Step 1: Identify Signals of Significance
What’s important to you? For many people, the answer doesn’t come easily. But if you did suddenly think of something, WRITE IT DOWN!
Far too often, we aren’t clear about what’s important to us, because we’re bombarded by messages about what SHOULD be important to us, from parents, friends, and social media.
When I lived in Singapore, I saw a lot of expats with big houses and cars and maids walking their dogs. I thought for a while I wanted those things and that kind of life, but the closer I got to it, the more I realised that wasn’t what I wanted.
In fact, for many of them it wasn’t even what they wanted. If there’s one thing worse than chasing a false dream, it’s chasing someone else’s false dream.
So while it SEEMS like you know what you want, it often isn’t. Here’s how you can learn more about what’s important to YOU.
- Write down all the jobs you’ve had.
- For each one, write down what you liked about it at any point. Try to boil down each reason to a single word – the core.
- For each job, what was missing? Again, try to come up with single words.
- Keep going until you get 20-30 words.
- Choose the top three. These are your values.
“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” Roy E. Disney
Step 2: Find Your Edge
What kind of person are you? It’s easy to focus on trying to fix “development areas,” but what if you focused instead on your strengths? Enhancing and adapting the unique powers you already possess is easier than creating something from nothing.
When I talk to investment bankers about their careers, they often talk about how to address their weaknesses. I say: Why bother? Far easier to adapt the strengths to new purposes. Deeper analysis sometimes uncovers hidden talents – skills developed at an early age that weren’t valued early in a career. These supressed capabilities can even be the inspiration for a career. Some I’ve spoken to aspire to be architects, art fund managers or surf shop owners.
Appreciating all your attributes will allow you to capitalize on them, saving you wasted time trying to get good at something you’re weak at.
- What are you good at?
- What else are you good at, even though you don’t like it?
- What have other people praised you for?
- At school, what were you good at?
- What do you think you could get good at?
- Rank the top three. These are your Superpowers.
“Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses.” Marylin vos Savant, at one time the Guinness world record holder for highest IQ
Step 3: Get a Feel for Your Future
This is the fun part. And the most difficult, because it’s where you have to stare down uncertainty.
I see a lot of people quite lazy about analysing the driving forces shaping their futures, and very lazy about imagining the possibilities they could create. That result is they don’t really form an opinion about the future, and decisions default to the status quo.
In February last year, I posted a slide with four very basic scenarios about how the pandemic (before it was a pandemic) might play out. It was based on a handful of articles that I found on the Internet. I compiled it simply because the implications of pretty much everything I read were that, no matter what happened in the long term, the short term would suck. I could take action based on that insight into the future.
The post attracted very little attention apart from a comment asking what a psychologist knew about epidemiology. My reply was: Very little, but what did an epidemiologist know about my life?
The future is impossible to predict. But that doesn’t mean we should just wait for it to happen to us. Nor can we wait for people to make decisions for us, even epidemiologists.
The more you can understand about the future, the more informed your opinions about it can be. The bottom line: better decisions.
There are a lot of tools to help you see more clearly into murky futures. A simple set of scenarios is a good place to start:
- Set a specific date in the future, eg. June 4, 2026.
- Get a pen and paper.
Scenario A: If things keep going as they have been, where will you be in your career? Describe what you’re doing on this day in the future. How does it feel?
Scenario B: If current trends go south, where will you be? Describe what is happening and how you feel about it?
Scenario C: What is the worst situation you can be in on that date? Look into the abyss and describe what you see.
Scenario D: What’s the best situation you could be in? Spend a bit of time on this and indulge in your fantasy.
Scenarios A and B are two versions of the default where you basically go with the flow. C is the doomsday scenario – you want to take action to avoid this. Scenario D is what you want to work on, by breaking it down and making it more feasible.
If you’re not working toward this aspirational goal, what are you doing?
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein.
Step 4: Work Backwards
It’s commonly thought that just visualising a particular future will help to make it happen. This is because of the idea of “neurons that fire together wire together” – what previously seemed impossible to our brains gradually becomes feasible. However, recent research suggests that our minds are more complicated than this.
That’s because simply visualising yourself doing something awesome in the future won’t necessarily motivate you to get there. In fact, your brain may start believing you’ve already achieved it.
More effective is to imagine the future AND overcoming the challenges you’ll encounter along the way. Want to write a book? Sure, imagine yourself in a bookshop signing copies of your book for fans queueing out the door. But also visualise the lonely, cold mornings sitting in front of a blank page, and how you’re going to deal with that.
Your brain naturally likes to plan, albeit not very far ahead. So capitalise on this by stretching its capacity in working back IN DETAIL from what you want to achieve.
- Get a pen and paper
- State the timeframe and the goal, in detail.
- Split the time between now and then into five periods.
- What needs to happen in the period before achieving the goal? Write down what needs to happen, and the resources that will take (people, money, time, etc.). What could go wrong?
- Then move back one period. What needs to happen during this period for the activities in the subsequent period to be possible? What resources will be needed? What are the challenges, and how will you deal with them?
- Do the same for each period until you get back to today.
- You now have a plan to get to a better place.
Step 5: Commit and Accomplish
You now know:
- What’s important to you
- Your strengths
- What your future COULD be
- What it will take to make that future happen
Now it’s time to take a step back and try it all on for size. If the future you’re looking at doesn’t excite you, something’s off. You should try going through the process again, and perhaps bouncing some ideas off someone else.
But if you feel drawn to what you see in front of you, you need to commit to moving in that direction from today KNOWING there is still a lot you don’t know about the future, and reality will almost certainly land you up somewhere else.
And that’s fine. Because you’re either in control of your life and moving toward somewhere better, or you’re drifting out of control. That means that this is not a one-off project, but rather an ongoing process of discovery and rejuvenation. It’s a process of getting comfortable with the uncertainty.
Want to know more? Don't be afraid - set up a call with me and we'll take the first step toward reinventing your career. If you don't like what you get, simply walk away. Whether our futures involve each other or not, we're both going to be just fine.