How To Figure Out What Job You Actually Want

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Whether you’re a recent grad, about to re-enter the workforce, or just ready for a change, trying to pinpoint what job to pursue is never an easy task. We all arrive at a phase in our job hunt where we need to work through this process. It can be overwhelming, but these four exercises will help you get there.

1. Visualize

Now is the time to think of your life and career from a 10,000-foot view. Where do you want to be in six months, one year, five years? Visualizing works because, although your goals might change, the very process of investing time and effort into thinking about your goals is invaluable. Regardless of how many times you change your mind about what you want to do and where you want to go, the simple act of visualizing an optimal future and setting goals accordingly will keep you moving forward.

If you feel like you need some real-world inspiration, job-shadowing, volunteering, and informational interviews are all non-committal ways of getting a valuable glimpse into life in a certain profession. Reach out to your internal network or a specific company to ask about job-shadowing. Volunteering is a great way to learn new skills as well as strengthen the skills you already have. And informational interviews, unlike job interviews, don’t have your future on the line, so you can truly relax and converse openly about a new career with a seasoned professional. Use all of the information and experience you gather from these kinds of opportunities to inform your own career goals, which you can outline in your visualization exercise.

To get started, take a sheet of paper and fold it into 3 columns, or use a spreadsheet. On the far left column, write “Where I Am Today?” Answer as specifically as possible: include your current employment or education situation, elements of your daily routine, where you live, what kind of environment you work in, and perhaps even your skills and ongoing projects. On the far right column, write “Where I Want To Be.” Again, answer as specifically as possible. Now, the middle column is your space to write down any and all roadblocks (from small, pesky challenges to seemingly insurmountable obstacles) that are keeping you from getting to the far right column. Here’s an example

Where I Am Today?

– College sophomore
– Business major
– University of Washington
– Living in Seattle
– Enjoy writing case studies

Roadblocks

– No coding experience
– No funds to move to San Francisco
– No relevant internships / work experience

Where I Want To Be

– Working at a tech company in the social sector
– Working on a product team
– Living in San Francisco

The goal of this visualization exercise is to get an idea of exactly where you are, where you want to be, and what’s in your way. The next step is to use this exercise to create an action plan. This action plan will create a clear outline of where and how you should be actively spending your effort to make progress toward the right-hand column.

2. Create an action plan

For every item in the “Roadblocks” column, think of three different ways you can conquer that item, and add them to a list. For instance, “no coding experience” can be addressed by enrolling in a Computer Science class at your university, signing up for one of the many free online learn-to-code courses, or taking a coding course.

List three strategies for every roadblock. Now, you should have a long list of potential action items; go through this list and circle the combination of strategies (one per roadblock) that make the most sense for you in terms of time, proficiency level, and money.

You should have a final list of action items that will take you from the left column to the right column. Schedule out your timeline for accomplishing these items (don’t forget to set small, feasible goals along the way).

3. Take a shot!

Even when you’re armed with a detailed action plan, it’s tough to just take the leap and try something, especially if it’s a new or potentially difficult activity. One of the challenges I faced when trying to figure out what I wanted to do was deciding on a starting point. I got anxious about committing to the wrong thing, and a second dose of anxiety when I felt like I was falling behind by not committing. I was mentally paralyzed. What I’ve learned, however, is that it’s always a good idea to take a shot at new experiences; it isn’t by any means easy, but the returns of just getting out there and going for it are invaluable. Start checking items off your action plan list.

4. Break expectations

If you look at most people’s career paths, you’ll notice that almost none of them started working in their “dream job” on day one. And some who thought they started in their dream job ended up hating it. The universe is fun like that. The secret formula for finding your dream job is really just about expanding your realm of knowledge and experiences, and distilling that information into concrete, achievable goals. Many people who now love their jobs stumbled around in the beginning, trying different things, and figuring out what they were good at — and eventually ended up in a field or job they might not have predicted. Often times a dream job comes from the timely alignment of a multitude of factors: discovering something you excel at, enjoying the people and/or company, and experiencing a good lifestyle fit.

Lauren McGoodwin is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief for Career Contessa, a collection of informational interviews with women across a variety of occupations that provide career inspiration, direction and information.