If I were to distill my five years of working as a career coach into one simple lesson, it would be this: The knowledge of your best career path will not magically drop into your brain one day in a blazing flash of insight. Instead, it's something you will discover incrementally, over time, through a process of trial and error.
In fact, many times it is the "errors" we make with our career choices that can be the most informative. They guide us forward on our career paths, and help us figure out what does—and doesn't—fulfill us professionally.
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I often counsel my clients to think of every position that they take as a way of testing out a career path hypothesis. For example, you might make a hypothesis at graduation that working as a tax accountant would be a great fit. After surviving your first few busy seasons, it's normal to revise your initial hypothesis based on your new level of knowledge and experience. Maybe you now know for sure that you love working in tax. Or, you may sense that being an auditor would be a better fit.
Much like a science experiment, not every hypothesis will turn out the way you expected. Wondering whether it's time for a new experiment? Look to these three indicators to figure out if a change is in order.
Sign #1: Energy Depletion and Boredom
Most of us have mornings where we drag a bit on our way to work, aren't fascinated by every task that comes our way and feel worn out and tired at the end of the day.
However, my client Adam’s* experience was more than just the regular ups and downs of a week. For this 34-year-old, just getting out of bed and going to work as an insurance adjuster involved an intense exercise of willpower. He found the travel and paperwork tedious, and his energy was totally depleted at the end of the day. He reported that his work doldrums were spilling over into other areas of his life, affecting his relationships with friends and family.
When work feels like a drag before, during and after each day, it’s a clear sign that one of your work variables could use a change.
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What to Do if This Is You
If you feel exhausted and bored all of the time, you need to figure out what exactly is doing the damage by breaking your job down into different components. Which aspect is most draining to you? Is it the subject matter that you’re working on? The long commute? Are your co-workers wearing you out? Getting specific about what’s not working will tell you exactly what it is you need to change.
Consider whether your dissatisfaction is core to the job itself, like your day-to-day work activities, or environmental, like annoying co-workers, an overly demanding boss or a lengthy commute. An environmental factor could be remedied with less extreme measures, like moving closer to work, seeking a different team to be a part of or even switching to a similar position with a different company. If it is the job itself that is draining your energy, that is a clear sign of a need for a change.
"Identify the activities, people and environments that give you an energy boost during your day—whether or not you're actually at work. What topics do you find fascinating? When do you most frequently lose track of time?"
Now, do the opposite: Identify the activities, people and environments that give you an energy boost during your day—whether or not you're actually at work. What topics do you find fascinating? When do you most frequently lose track of time? What are you interested in learning or becoming better at?
See if you can extrapolate a few common themes in your interests—then ask yourself why you enjoy them. Do you enjoy writing music because it allows for creativity or accounting because there's always a definite number at the end of the tunnel? While you might not want to be a composer or accountant, you'll want to keep these themes in mind when pursuing a new opportunity.
Adam, for instance, noticed that he was most energized by anything that involved food. His father had worked as an insurance adjustor and had pressured his son into entering the field, but in his free time Adam frequently hosted elaborate dinners for friends, read cookbooks for fun and loved nothing more than trying a new recipe. He successfully maneuvered into the restaurant industry as a line cook and, as a result, his energy and engagement with his work have increased dramatically. Now, when he comes home from work he’s tired but satisfied with how he has spent his day.
Sign #2: Apathy
Have you ever had a day at work where your heart is not quite in it? This can happen to the best of us, and many times a good night’s sleep or talking things over with a friend is all that’s needed to get your head back in the game.
But when your feelings of apathy have skewed toward checking out, operating on autopilot and constantly wishing you were somewhere else, it’s a definite sign that a change is in order.
My client Hannah*, 29, had been at her consulting job for a number of years. When she first took her position she had given it her best, offering up her many ideas to her superiors. But her firm was more interested in having her follow protocol than in innovation and discouraged her extra efforts. After being shot down time after time, she was no longer invested in her work. At all. By the time I met Hannah, she functioned at her job well enough, but she didn’t care about what she was doing anymore.
What to Do if This Is You
If you feel like you're just going through the motions, you need to first get clear about what you would care about—also known as your values that you wish to experience in your day-to-day work, like autonomy, community, working toward a larger cause or regularly facing challenges.
In Hannah’s case, her actual work was something that she enjoyed, but the rigid culture of the firm where she worked was a real drag to her creative spirit. We noted that the times Hannah had been most fulfilled in school and in other work experiences was when she had been given more creative license. Hannah didn’t need a total career change. After all, many consulting firms encourage innovation. She just needed to find an environment where this was the case.
Hannah began researching the cultures of other consulting firms and eventually landed a job with a consulting company that shared her value of outside the box thinking. As a result, she found her care and attention for her work increase dramatically.
Sign #3: Jealousy
We often think of jealousy as something to be avoided, but it can actually be a key directional signal.
My 27-year-old client Juliet* began working with me just as she was finishing up her graduate studies in chemistry. When she veered off from our discussion of her research projects and coursework onto a tangent about a close friend’s work as a policy analyst, bitterness crept into her voice. It became apparent that Juliet became highly charged anytime we ventured toward the topic of public policy.
“Do you feel jealous of your friend and her work?” I asked Juliet.
She took a moment and then said, “Honestly, yes.” Just like that we had a clear clue as to what Juliet truly wanted to be doing with her career, and it didn’t have anything to do with chemistry. She had initially pursued her graduate studies in chemistry for lack of a clearer path—a Ph.D. sounded prestigious and let her put off making a career decision for years. In hindsight, there had been signs of her interest in public policy all along, from late-night discussions of current affairs to volunteering during a presidential election.
What to Do if This Is You
Before making any changes, you need to identify what "triggers" your jealousy: Do you light up whenever you hear someone say they're a landscape designer? See green if you meet a friend of a friend who's a patent attorney over happy hour drinks? Next, you need to break down the components of the job: What exactly is making you jealous? Is it that, for instance, landscape designers spend their days outdoors? Is it that patent attorneys get an inside look into the newest technology and advances in industry? What aspect of the job would you find really rewarding?
Now: Is there a way to infuse what you already do with more of the jealousy-inducing aspects from other jobs? If you feel like you couldn't possibly incorporate desirable qualities into your job, it might be time for a major change.
After listening to her jealousy, Juliet highlighted her transferable analytical skills and kicked her networking into high gear to help her bridge the gap between her education and her desired field. She became involved in policy associations in her area, conducted informational interviews with people who worked specifically on the topic of children’s welfare and even beefed up her resume with more volunteer experience relating to her target population of young children. With a few years of policy work under her belt, she no longer feels jealous.
Not every slow day or jealous twinge should be taken as an imperative to overhaul your career. Studies show that something as simple as spending your lunch hour the way you want can have a dramatic impact on how you feel about your day. It's only when you notice a chronic case of feeling exhausted, apathetic, or, well, bitter, about someone else's career accomplishments that you might want to think about making a change.
*Names have been changed.
Alison Elissa Cardy is a career coach who specializes in helping people figure out their career direction. She is currently offering a free telecourse called “Creating a Winning Career Plan,” on her website, as well as free weekly tips on navigating your career.