Last year, I watched a CreativeMornings talk by James Greig, a graphic designer, who discussed his experience with burnout, taking a break, and rebuilding his career. Many of the feelings he expressed were ones I, too, had experienced: exhaustion, confusion, emotional overload.
In college, I was not the person who knew what they were going to do from day one. I thought I wanted to be a neuroscientist, a psychologist, and a journalist all at different times. As my career unfolded, it also took a circuitous path from education to library science and archives to startup tech. I knew I had some skills and some rough ideas of what I liked and didn’t like, but I didn’t know how to make the pieces fit.
How does one find meaningful work?
If you feel the same way, let me reassure you: this sentiment is actually quite common. Few college students know what they want to be upon graduation. It’s rare to find people who have a linear career path. Even when people make a pivot, they can feel unsure of the next step and may need to course correct when one option doesn’t work out. Given the complexity of the human brain, this vagueness is not surprising. How can we expect to know what feels meaningful when we barely know ourselves? The answers are locked inside of us, but with some introspective digging, we can tease them out.
You need to put in the time and you need to activate your brain. But if you set aside 30 digital and distraction-free minutes a day, you’re more likely to uncover these hidden insights than if you wait for something to happen. Actively engaging with tough questions can accelerate the process.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Did you dream of being an astronaut? The president? A basketball player? Your youthful aspirations may have been passionately consistent or ever-changing and loosely fleshed out. When you’re young, you frequently learn through play and by example what careers are available to you. Some children might want to be multi-hyphenates in disparate fields; no one’s yet articulated to them the difficulties of being both a ballerina and a marine biologist so they’re free to live in a world where they can be both. But as you get older, you become more aware of the difficulties and limitations associated with any career path. In addition, what you want out of life and how you want to spend your time evolves.
So why is it so hard to figure out a career that fits our skill sets and lifestyle preferences?
1. We expect more fulfillment from our careers than we did in the past.
The idea of “meaningful work” only began gaining traction very recently. Before, a job was widely accepted as a means to an end, a way to pay the bills. Today, more people see a correlation between what they do and who they are.
While meaningful work is a luxury not afforded to all, those privileged enough to enjoy its benefits have come to expect a lot. We’re looking for roles that tap into our talents, provide a service to others, and create a visible impact. Any incongruity between our job title and who we believe ourselves to be now feels like more of a discomfort because we’ve inextricably linked the two. That’s a lot of pressure to put on finding the right job.
2. While we expect more from our careers, we have not become better at articulating what we need to fulfill those expectations.
In school, we learn how to write analytical essays, examine the political motivations of long-dead kings and queens, and interpret the actions of literary heroes. And yet we don’t ever receive specialized instruction on how to assess our own thoughts and preferences to get to know ourselves. As humans, we want to be happy but we’re not inherently good at pinpointing what specific conditions and day-to-day activities create that happiness. If we don’t practice listening to our inner voice and tapping into our tastes, it’s very easy for them to be drowned out–particularly when financial fears creep in and we feel pressure to make a choice.
3. The options can feel overwhelming.
Twenty years ago, the role of social media manager wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Blockchain was not a thing. AI was but a glimmer on the horizon. Whole industries and titles that we now take as commonplace didn’t exist back then. Compare this landscape to the guild system of the Middle Ages: you learned one of a handful of trades, most likely the one your father learned, and you performed it for your whole life. In that era, both the number of available vocations and also the sorts of people allowed to participate in the workforce were incredibly limited.
While that lack of variety may not feel particularly inspiring, the sheer volume of choices we have today can sometimes paralyze us into not picking anything. What if we choose wrong? It’s not a surprise that with hundreds of thousands of potential existing roles and new ones being created every day that we feel a sense of decision paralysis, a mental burnout that is unfathomable to older generations.
So what do we do?
Designate a time to think
When I was in the midst of a career transition, I asked my hero, Jocelyn K. Glei, for advice. She responded:
“For the moment, I would say just try to carve out some space for thinking. Like, just get up 30 minutes earlier and use that time to sit at a local coffee shop with a notebook and zero agenda. (No earbuds, no podcasts, no social media, no books.) And just track what comes up. And just do that for two to three days a week until you start to see some ideas start to pop. Pointing arrows and intuitions and next steps will gradually start to emerge.”
In order to chip away at the problem of decision paralysis, you first must make time to think about it on a daily basis. What doesn’t go on the calendar doesn’t get done. We’ll do a deep dive into how to set aside time and identify your priorities in the next section.
Dig into the question
Start by reflecting on your past and current roles. What were you passionate about 10 years ago? How has it changed? Can you identify any patterns in your work history? What do you like the most about your current role? What’s missing that you’d like to add? What’s not working that you’d like to subtract?
Once you know what’s working and what isn’t, use that information to sketch out your future vision. What excites you most? What are you most proud of? What problems do you think are most engaging? What’s your vision of a great workday? How do you want to spend most of your time?
Talk to other people whose jobs interest you to see if the details of their day match your ideal vision. Jot down your reflections on these conversations until some possibilities fall into focus. You may realize that you don’t need to leave your current firm; sometimes, it’s possible to identify another role at the company that’s a better fit.
Experiment with small steps forward
Looking for a bigger change, like a new role or industry? Talking to other folks will only get you so far. To truly get a feel for a new career, you have to test it out. But that doesn’t mean you need to quit your job and dive into uncharted territory. Instead, look for ways to try on the role for size. Maybe there’s an organization in your neighborhood that needs a volunteer to help with their online presence; why not dip a toe into your future web development career and offer to build them a website? Start a side project to showcase your copy writing and social media skills. Volunteer to help a non-profit with a fundraiser to test out your project management and event planning chops. Not only will you be assessing the fit of the role, but you’ll also be building a portfolio of work illustrating that you can do the job.
It’s an illusion that we’ll suddenly be struck by our calling, like a bolt from the blue. People who know what they want to do from a young age are lucky, not the norm. When we forget this, we create a dangerous dynamic that eliminates our own agency and power. Don’t tap out, numb yourself to the frustration, or succumb to the anxiety. An accountability buddy or coach can do wonders to help support you through the process and keep you on track. Yes, figuring out what you want to do takes time and energy, but it is possible. You got this.
This post is an excerpt from Meg’s forthcoming book, Find Your Way Forward: A Step-By-Step Guide to Uncovering Career Insights and Charting Your Own Next Move. The book launches April 14th, 2020 on Amazon.