Our careers can feel similar to driving a car down a road, where you can control the speed, pull over to rest when you want, or take a detour when you feel like it. However, more often than not, our careers are more like being on a fast-moving train. As a passenger on that train, you know you’re going somewhere. You can feel the forward progress. You can feel yourself whizzing by the trees outside.
But have you ever been on a train, happily riding along and assuming you’re headed in the right direction, only to arrive at the wrong station?
The same can happen in your career. You might set a goal, then put your head down and focus all your energies on achieving that goal. However, if you forget to periodically look up and double-check where you’re headed, you might end up in a job that doesn’t bring you happiness.
Taking the time to double-check your motivations can help ensure you’re pursuing the right professional goals.
Your Career Can Become Like A Bullet Train
Momentum naturally builds in your career as you progress toward achieving your professional ambitions. You decide what you want to be when you grow up. You study a certain subject in school. You earn your degree. You land your dream job. You work hard. You get promoted. You then get promoted again. You land in the corner office. You get a fancy job title, e.g., partner, director, CEO, etc.
Creating momentum in your career can feel encouraging but can also be blinding. Momentum can prevent you from keeping your eyes open to other opportunities that deviate from that initial career path. And the more invested you become in one specific career path, the less likely you are to consider other options.
Intrinsic & Extrinsic Factors Fuel Career Choices
Your decision to pursue a specific career path can be driven by a wide range of factors. Intrinsically, you may pursue a career that aligns with your values and natural interests. Your personality traits and preferences can sway you to seek out certain working environments. Your skills or strengths can lead you down certain paths that enable you to utilize your abilities.
On the other hand, extrinsic forces can disproportionately sway you to pursue certain career paths even when they aren’t fully aligned with your actual preferences. Family expectations may create certain pressures to enter a certain profession. Socioeconomic constraints may limit your choices. Cultural influences may lead you to consider only those professions considered reputable in the eyes of your broader community.
My Initial Choice To Pursue Medicine Was Misguided
Just to share a personal anecdote, early on in my life, I thought I wanted to become a doctor. As an Asian-American, contrary to popular belief, my parents did not pressure me do to this . . . far from it. Yes, doctors are highly esteemed in the eyes of many Asian immigrant parents, including mine, but somewhat surprisingly, they never pushed me to pursue medicine.
So why did I want to become a doctor? At the time, I thought my main motivation was to help people. I’ll admit, I liked the idea of working in a highly respected profession. I also had a natural inclination for math and science.
However, I eventually came to realize my main motivation for pursuing this career path was my desire to bring closure to a narrative I had created early on in my life—to right a wrong.
Our Career Narratives Begin Early
When I was in high school, I played tennis for our high school’s varsity team. Tennis meant everything to me at the time, and I had high hopes for my final tennis season during my senior year there.
In the middle of one match early in the season, out of nowhere, I suddenly felt like I had the wind knocked out of me and struggled to breathe. I went to see our family doctor, and he quickly diagnosed it as an inflamed sternum. He gave me some ibuprofen, and I went back to playing tennis.
But my lung capacity never quite came back, and I began to feel some sharp pains in my chest during my matches. I returned to that same doctor a couple more times that month, and he repeatedly sent me away, telling me it was just my sternum acting up again.
A couple more weeks passed. By this point in time, I’d been doing my own reading about what I was experiencing and was convinced I had a collapsed lung. I went to see another doctor and asked him specifically whether I might have a collapsed lung. He did a chest X-Ray but sent me home, saying everything looked normal.
I took it upon myself to insist on having another doctor repeat the chest X-ray, which this time, revealed I did have a collapsed lung. My condition had somehow been repeatedly misdiagnosed multiple times. Because several weeks had passed, the collapse had worsened to a point that necessitated a painful, emergency chest surgery to reinflate my lung rather than a less invasive procedure.
One Trigger Can Become Your Primary Narrative
I eventually made a full recovery, but it ended my high school tennis prospects that season due to the long recovery time. While I now understand doctors can make mistakes, at the time, I resented those doctors whom I felt had dismissed what I was trying to tell them as a patient.
Rather than simply move on, I began to create a narrative. I decided this was a sign. That this all happened as a way for me to have this direct experience as a patient so I could one day be a doctor who really listens to his patients.
I’m sharing this story because it illustrates how we can sometimes quickly create a narrative that drives our actions and choices. In this case, I wanted to prove I could be a better doctor compared to the doctors I had during this one-off experience. To right this wrong. And this resentment and anger fuelled me for many years as I plowed toward this goal of becoming a doctor even though it didn’t truly make me happy.
Pause And Ask Why You’ve Made Certain Choices
It took me many years to eventually realize that my pursuit of medicine was built around proving a point. It eclipsed what really mattered to me—things like work-life balance, entrepreneurship, and creativity. After years of investing effort into pursuing medicine, I ended up dropping out of medical school after two weeks and eventually pursuing a career in marketing instead.
I wish I’d more critically evaluated my motivations earlier on. These days, now as a career change consultant and speaker who talks about this topic of changing careers, I often cross paths with people who share a specific career goal with me, like ones I’ve set myself in my own life, that hasn’t been fully vetted or re-evaluated.
I recall someone telling me, “I want to become a CEO one day.” My immediate response back was to ask why this was so important to her. She responded by saying she liked the idea of the prestige and visibility. I then asked her why prestige and visibility were so important to her, to which she did not have a response. It reminded me of the days when someone would ask me why I wanted to become a doctor, and I couldn’t quite pinpoint why.
Your Career Motivations Are Critical
Make sure you’re paying attention to what factors have fuelled your career choices. Stop, think, and decide what truly matters to you. Then, go one step further. Ask yourself why this matters to you so much. And keep asking “why” so you can at least be 100% clear on what’s fueling your motivations.
If you’re happy with the reasons behind your career choices, continue on the path you’ve chosen. However, if you find yourself questioning whether your original motivations are still valid in the context of who you are and what’s important to you now in your career and life, you owe it to yourself to reconsider where you’re headed.
The good news is that career momentum is something you can control. If it serves you, continue riding the train. But if it doesn’t, you always have the choice to grab your things and step off when the moment feels right so you can head in a different direction.