Sometimes, knowing what you don’t want in your career is easier than figuring out what you DO want.

After you’ve decided your current job is no longer right for you, how do you even begin to tackle the question of what should come next?

Maybe you’re in a situation where you’re actually good at what you do, but have gotten a little bored with it all. Or a reorg at work has made you question where you really belong? Or you just have this sinking feeling that something better out there awaits you, but you just can’t quite put your finger on it.

The paradox of choice

George Becker
Choice is a funny thing. On the one hand, choice is incredibly liberating. Having choices is a privilege. You can have the freedom to choose what you want for your career, for your life.

But on the other hand, too much choice can leave you feeling paralyzed.

Should you continue down the same career path you’ve been on but just make a tweak? Should you pivot toward something else that’s always interested you?

There’s a great book out there called The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, where Schwartz talks about how having lots of choice actually leads to anxiety.

I’ve definitely been there. When I was trying to decide what to do after I walked away from my planned career in medicine, I felt so overwhelmed by exactly what I could and should do next. I thought about becoming a dentist, pursuing a career in technology, heading to business school, going into medical research, even heading back to a different medical school. There’re so many directions I could take my life, and need process of narrowing it down to one single choice let me feeling fairly paralysed.

After walking away from a phase in m career that didn’t exactly go as I had hoped, I was feeling especially nervous about what to do next for a few reasons.

  1. First, because I wondered if my professional judgement itself just wasn’t that sound. After all, if I had been astute at what my career should be in the first place, I wouldn’t have ended up in a situation where I was unhappy, right?
  2. Second, I was very nervous about making another mistake. Leaving my medical career behind was incredibly disruptive, and I didn’t know if I could stomach making another wrong move that might result in another disappointing disruption.
  3. Finally, and most of all, I was struggling to figure out what I DID want to do instead. I knew what DIDN’T feel right, but I didn’t know how I could tell what would actually make me happy.

Start by figuring out what matters

When I was feeling confused, first re-grounding myself in what really mattered to me was very super useful. I decided I needed to talk with someone completely objective who did not know me. So I started seeing a career counselor, and during our biweekly sessions, I eventually came to a point where I got very clear on what really mattered to me—my values, my principles, my priorities.

Amongst other things, I decided that entrepreneurship, having a healthy lifestyle, and making a positive contribution to people were key values of mine. Knowing what mattered to me help me figure out what would be right for my career. My values gave me criteria against which I could evaluate the various options I was considering. So instead of haphazardly looking at every option out there, I only considered those options that aligned with my values, those that would allow me to serve my values. When you force yourself to prioritize what matters most, it can help narrow the options.

Throughout my career, I’ve always made my best decisions when I first clarified what mattered most to me.

Taking one example from my own life, after business school, my priority was to establish some corporate credibility and experience, which I knew would serve me well in my career and also provide me with some concrete knowledge I would leverage when eventually coaching others in the corporate world. So I went and worked for one of the largest consumer packaged goods companies in the US. Now, I didn’t exactly grow up aspiring to market trash bags or drain opener for a living, but during this chapter in my career, I was able to learn the dynamics of what it’s like to work in a larger organization and also develop some functional marketing expertise along the way.

The question you must ask yourself

Iván S. Pasarín
If you’re about to make a career change, before you do anything, you really owe it to yourself to start your journey by first asking yourself a very important question:

What’s the most important thing for me to have during the next chapter of my career?

Let’s break that down into two parts.

The first part is getting clear on what’s most important to you is all about prioritizing. We all want careers that make us happy. That could be driven by many factors.  For example, working on projects you care about. In function you find stimulating.  At a reputable company. With a great culture. And a good salary. In a role that makes the most of your skills. In a city with a nice climate. That’s affordable. And close to family. Oh, and . . .

You get the point.

Every career decision you make will involve trade-offs. It’s hard to have everything.  They have to find a way of prioritizing what single factor matters most to you.

In talking with many people who have navigated a career change, I’ve noticed what people find most important is often a reaction to some aspect of their last job they found especially dissatisfying. In  our most recent job, if you felt like you were working excessive hours, maybe finding a job that offers you better worklife balance is the most important factor. If you felt underpaid or undervalued, earning a fair salary might be what matters most.

The second part of that question is recognizing that you’re not making a decision for the next 50 years of your life. You’re making a decision about what your NEXT move is going to be about.  I understand that every career decision has a domino effect. But sometimes, your career still happens in chapters. Yes, those chapters are interconnected and interrelated, but it’s okay to allow yourself to focus on different priorities during the different chapters in your career.

What this means for you

Putting this all together, deciding what matters most for the next chapter of your career is the first step toward finding work that leaves you feeling truly satisfied.

If you decide that work-life balance is the most important thing for you to have in this particular chapter of your life and career, maybe you need to be okay with taking a role with a lower salary but a better lifestyle.  If you decide that beefing up your credibility is most important right now, maybe you take that role at the blue-chip Fortune 500 Corporation that may not allow you to live your life passion, but certainly allows you to build up your reputation within your industry.

At some point, you have to be willing to make some tradeoffs. And you also have to be willing to invest the time in clarifying what unmet need you now want to fill in your career.  This way, even if you don’t manage to get everything you want during the next stage of your career, you can at least know you took a step in the right direction to address what matters most.

Define what matters most to inform your next career move

If you’re struggling to figure out where to take your career, start by defining what matters most to you. Download your free “Define My Professional Priorities” worksheet to clarify which professional components matter the most to you during the next chapter of your career.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.

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