Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"But I Don't Know What I Want to Do!"

I've heard these words a lot in my roles as an educator and career development adviser, typically during an initial meeting with a student early in their academic experience in response to a question I raise about their plans after completing school. Sadly, I also hear some variation of these words expressed after graduation. And they're very familiar sentiments, as during different stages in my career I've been known to have communicated them with varying degrees of angst.

So I know how frustrating it is to not know what you want in terms of a job, much less a career. I've also seen how the lack of such focus can be debilitating, as there's a tendency to concentrate on the lack of clarity, often at the expense of one's mental well being. In other words, one can get easily get mired in not knowing. And then there's the related challenge of struggling what to tell friends, colleagues, and others about what you seek in terms of meaningful employment. As a result, there's a tendency to respond to genuine inquiries with some vague notion of what you think you want that inevitably yields little by way of useful insight much less opportunities for work.

I've learned three valuable lessons over the years related to this state of affairs and how to overcome it, as follows:

* It's perfectly fine to not know what you want to do in terms of a job, much less a career. Embrace that uncertainty, and with it the humility that every foray into personal career exploration demands. Most people go through this process at least once during their working lives.

* Thinking and talking about not knowing what you want to do in terms of work doesn't help you get clear about what you want. Living in the problem only helps to perpetuate the problem, in other words.

* Action helps you gain clarity about what you want. That means engaging in appropriate self-reflection by directed study and/or by working with a competent career coach or counselor; arranging informational interviews with individuals who do the kind of work you think interests you, people who've crafted careers that appeal to you, and/or people whose professional background mirrors your own. Finally, it means seeking out volunteer opportunities, internships, consulting, and other experiential learning activities so you can apply skills and interests and identify critical success factors for you in the workplace.

Your goal is to find the job (and, ultimately, a career) that's an excellent fit for you in terms of role, function, and organizational culture. Such opportunities, to paraphrase John Houseman's famous 1979 commercial for Smith Barney, don't fall into your lap. You have to earn them. And that starts with taking all necessary actions to get clear about what you want. Proclaiming "I don't know what I want to do!" will not suffice.

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