How to Find Your Career Path

Whether you’re new to the workforce or a seasoned professional, use these exercises to clarify your job goals. 

Q: I graduated college with a degree in finance in 2001.  After graduation I started a construction company which I am currently still running. I am looking for a career change and don’t know which direction to go in. – Dan K. from Michigan

A: Many people talk about ending up in a line of work that “found” them – they fell into their career paths. They may not have sought the opportunity out, but it ultimately led them down a career path they now love. Take Steve Jobs, for example. His passion may have become technology, but if you look at his college years, this was not necessarily a path he chose for himself early on.

Some people know exactly what they want to do with their lives from the time they’re in college – or earlier – while others pursue a string of different occupations earlier on in their careers, still trying to figure out what is the right path for them.

For those of you who are still looking for the right career path, whether you’re just finishing college or you’re many years into your career, it can be frustrating to not know what you truly want to do with the rest of your life. You know you’re unhappy in your current job, but you don’t know where to go next.

I’m dedicating this week’s article to those of you still on the hunt for your career path. I’d like to share with you some exercises I’ve learned from other career coaches and HR professionals over the years that I think might be useful during your exploration.

Before you jump ship at your current job, ask yourself why you are unhappy. Is it:

    • the commute?
    • the company culture ?
    • the leadership or, specifically, your relationship with your supervisor?
    • the work itself?

Or is something unpleasant in your personal life affecting your work?

The answers to these questions will help you decide the appropriate next step for you.

Billboard Top Hits

Adapted from The Five O’Clock Club ® “Seven Stories” exercise

Whenever you’re trying to fine-tune your job goals, I recommend first taking an inventory of your key strengths and passions. Ask yourself honestly:

    • What am I great at?
    • What am I not so great at?
    • What am I excellent at but unexcited by?
    • What do I excel at and become passionate about?

If you’re having difficulty answering the last question, then this exercise is for you. Think back to your most rewarding and satisfying accomplishments over the course of your career. Brainstorm at least 10 accomplishments, and then choose which 5 you are most proud of.

Answer the following questions for each of your top 5 accomplishments:

    • Why were these accomplishments most important to me? What about them did I enjoy most?
    • What was my involvement? Was I tasked with the project, or did I initiate it on my own?
    • What was my key motivation? (Personal or social recognition; large-scale, companywide recognition, etc.)
    • What was the environment like? Was it entrepreneurial and fast-paced? Slower but controlled?
    • What was the focus of the project? (The arts, new program development, social consciousness, etc.)
    • What core values drove my work during this project? (Collaboration, empowerment, accountability, innovation, efficiency, diversity, service excellence, etc.)

This exercise will help you identify the key skills, core values and ideal work environment where you thrive the best. Use this information to brainstorm possible career paths and associated job goals.

9 Lives

Adapted from Karen James Chopra, LPC, MCC, NCC of Chopra Careers )

This exercise is very useful for those who like to think very creatively, or have no idea what they want to do next. The 9 Lives exercise is pretty simple:

    • You have 9 different lives. You must work in all 9 lives.
    • You will not win the lottery, marry rich, or receive a huge inheritance.
    • Whatever skill set or experience you need to do the job, you have it.
    • However much money you need to make to be happy, you make it.
    • Every job has equal prestige.
    • What 9 jobs would you hold?

The great thing about this exercise is that it removes all the barriers – all the “But, …” statements are gone, so you’re free to choose professions that truly interest you.

Once you’ve written out your list of jobs, take a step back and review it. What do you see? What don’t you see? Are there any themes (i.e., nature lover, autonomous worker, creative, corporate setting – or lack thereof)? What don’t you see? The absence of certain jobs is just as telling as what you chose to put down.

Career Run-Down

Adapted from Karen James Chopra, LPC, MCC, NCC of Chopra Careers )

This exercise is best suited for the more pragmatic professionals who find the “9 Lives” approach too open-ended or idealistic. To do a “Career Run-Down”, take a piece of paper and make 3 columns:

    • Column 1: Make a list of every job you’ve held (just job titles/company names) in your career.
    • Column 2: List (in nitty-gritty detail) what youlikedabout each of those jobs. Be as specific as possible.
    • Column 3: List (in nitty-gritty detail) what youdislikedabout each of those jobs. Be as specific as possible.

You can also mark up a copy of your resume and perform the same exercise. Similar to the 9 Lives challenge, take a step back and look for themes in what you’ve loved and been passionate about, and what type of work or working environment you did not enjoy.

I don’t expect you to do each of these activities – find the one that makes the most sense for you, given your current situation and needs, and leave the other exercises alone. The key is to find the right exercise that will help you brainstorm the next direction in your career.

These are great exercises to do with a couple friends or family members. Share your responses and brainstorm as a group what opportunities might make sense for you to explore. I recommend checking out WetFeet’s careers and industry profiles to learn more about different career tracks within specific industries or functions.

Once you have a few ideas, do your research. Do a little Googling to find some popular publications that specialize in the line of work or industry you’re interested in. Explore face-to-face and online networking opportunities to learn more about the work, and connect with people that could be great candidates for an informational interview. If you’re very eager to learn about a new career track you’ve recently discovered, consider attending a trade show to meet more people in the industry and learn more about its inner workings.

Transitioning to a new career is never an easy process. Keep in mind that you may have to take a few “leapfrog” opportunities along the way before you reach your ideal job. However, it’s a price worth paying if you ultimately end up in a career that you truly enjoy.