Careers are often formed more by luck than design, but even the best-laid plans can leave us unsatisfied at work. How do you find a career that fits?
A funny thing happened in the UK earlier this year. A government minister suggested people who’d lost their job thanks to COVID-19 should retrain, leading many to try the government’s ‘ideal job’ quiz. They posted their often strangely niche results (think boxer, microbrewer or fairground worker) on social media, to much bewildered laughter.
This amusing diversion no doubt raised serious questions for some. Or perhaps the questions have arisen because you’ve been made redundant or told your job is at risk from the pandemic. Am I in the right career? And what’s the best way to change career?
I was always told, “find a career you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” But it turns out even the job you’re best suited to will have you hiding under the bed covers some mornings. We only live once though, so any old career won’t do.
When discussing the people shortages and the lack of women in cybersecurity, one fact that often comes through is that people don’t end up in their career purely because of a free choice based on personal strengths. We’re influenced by many things. If we get a chance to see and hear from people like us in the career, we’re more likely to pursue it. If we get to try out that career’s skills and activities, we’re more likely to be interested in it.
If exposure could have influenced your career path more than your suitability for it, it makes sense to ask yourselves if there might be paths that would suit you better – even if you’ve been in your game for a while.
Should you look for an enjoyable career?
In his 2012 book, So good they can’t ignore you, Computer Science Professor Cal Newport argues seeking a career based on what you enjoy, or are passionate about, puts the cart before the horse, ironically leading to a lack of career passion. Instead, he demonstrates that enthusiasm flows from working out what you’re good at and deliberately practicing a rare skill. (For examples of rare skills, take a look at Labor market analysts Burning Glass recent reported on the most in-demand skills in cybersecurity.)
Daniel Coyle describes what it means to ‘deliberately’ (and successfully) practice a skill in his book, The Talent Code. In it, he takes on a concept so widely accepted that we rarely consider it: The idea some people are ‘naturally talented.’ He runs through research that shows those we call talented, in fact, practice skills differently – breaking up their task into small sections and repeating these until they are perfect. He also argues seeking to ‘enjoy’ practicing is the wrong goal: Enjoyment comes from mastery.
Is it me, or the career?
If you’re finding your job less satisfying than you’d like, your first instinct might be to ask whether there’s something about yourself you can change to make your work more fulfilling. Coyle’s assertion ‘natural talent’ doesn’t exist, and Newport’s that enjoyment comes from perfecting skills, open potential for finding more meaning in any career. There may be no perfect person for your role, but perhaps you could become that ideal.
Consider whether your learning and development at work has addressed all the skills you might need, especially in ‘soft skills’ like communication, empathy and negotiation. Soft skills are vital at all levels but are rarely directly taught or assessed in formal education, so many arrive in a career having had little chance to develop or practice them.
If you tend to have troubled workplace relationships, transactional analysis may help. This form of psychoanalysis is built around the idea that without realizing, we slot ourselves into one of three roles when we interact with others, and our role choice can lead to dysfunction in the relationship. Transactional analysis teaches you to recognize these roles and practice using more effective roles for each situation.
On the other hand, there’s every chance if you’re dissatisfied at work, it’s the career, not you.
Signs you should change your career
1. You want to feel more positive and confident at work
I asked author of Career grease: How to get unstuck and pivot your career and career coach Alison Cardy how to tell if the problem is how you’re going about your work, or your career. Her advice: “When your work is a fit for you, you likely feel positive about going to work, even when you have areas to improve. When it isn’t a fit, emotions can range from dread to boredom to loss of confidence.”
Cardy suggests the solution is more likely to lie outside yourself:
Many internalize a bad career fit as if something’s wrong with them. You likely have many strengths and interests that aren’t being put to use in your current role, which is why it isn’t feeling good.
Alison Cardy, Careers author and coach
2. When friends talk of their careers, you want to be them
Cardy also points to feeling envy when you hear about others’ career wins as a sign you may not be getting what you need from yours. Considering why you feel envious will help you with a direction to head in. What is it about the achievement you want? If your friend is a game designer, envying their career may not necessarily mean you’d be more fulfilled doing it. It may be the creativity or strategic thinking that appeals to you, which can be found in many careers.
3. Your ethics or values don’t align with the career
Author of Find your sweet spot, Karen Elizaga, recommends paying attention if you “strongly disagree with the moral or political values of [your] career.”
If you’re new to your career and your company, it may be challenging to identify whether the values mismatch is with the company or the career. Employment Advisor Kat Boogaard suggests a path to follow when you’re not fitting with how the company does things.
If your moral objection is to bad behavior by your company rather than the career itself, consider whether blowing the whistle may be a better option than quitting. It might even benefit the business – research suggests companies with whistleblowers are more effective.
So you’re in the wrong career. What next?
Alison Cardy – who, full disclosure, is a career coach – makes a good case for consulting a career coach. “When you’re clarifying your career, it’s easy to get stalled. You’re more likely to get swayed by others’ opinions and advice. Because you’re trying to solve this problem on top of your job, it’s easy to set it on the backburner and get stuck in an unproductive loop of not liking what you’re doing and not doing anything about it. A coach can help you prioritize your career change and clarify your goals and strengths. They’ll keep you moving when you’re unsure what to do next.”
Cardy notes some things to avoid on your path to changing your career too. “Three common trip-ups are going back to study without a clear career goal, only exploring in your industry instead of broadening your search and following career advice that goes against your gut.”
The perceived difficulty of changing career can loom unduly large, notes Katie Douthwaite Wolf, who changed from a career in management to content marketing. Wolf emphasizes it’s something of a myth that you’ll have to start from the bottom, and changing careers is far from unusual. A recent survey in Australia suggested a young person starting their first job today can expect to have five different careers, and 17 jobs, during their working life.
Having had previous careers is an asset when you enter a new one, giving you experiences and insight your colleagues won’t likely have. Many companies are aware of the value of a ‘polymath:’ Someone with a deep knowledge of several fields – a common quality among many ground-breaking innovators.
Many were told to look for a career they love but ironically ended up dissatisfied. There are other ways to choose a career that might hold more promise, such as developing rare skills in an area you’re already good at. Bear in mind that if your career feels unsatisfying, it may be because of something you can fix.
If you see signs you’re in the wrong career, consider why you feel as you do and focus on the work experiences and values you want. Use professional expertise to explore your skills, what opportunities might fit them and seek advice to help you stay on track when the going gets tough. But don’t sweat it – people successfully change careers all the time, and so can you.