How to Figure Out What You Want Next in Your Career

How to Figure Out What You Want Next in Your Career

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Whether you’re making a complete career change or want to refocus your current role on what feels most meaningful to you, pivots can feel dizzying. However, drafting a simple scorecard of what you do and don’t want can change the process into one that’s energizing and meaningful rather than daunting. Finding an employer and role that are value-aligned can reveal opportunities that you might not have thought about or even noticed before. The author presents three areas of focus to help you assess your values and several questions to help you assess value alignment with potential employers — or your current one.

During the pandemic, many of us have found ourselves in a cycle of overwhelm and anxiety in both our personal and professional lives. When things feel outside of our control, we often try to retreat into a place of seeming safety within a small, controlled comfort zone.

While this is a common coping mechanism, it actually exacerbates the feelings we’re trying to avoid. When we attempt to reduce stress by stripping our to-do lists down to only the things we know we can do well with minimal effort, we also remove worthwhile challenges and lose the resulting triumphs that fill our lives with meaning. This leaves us feeling underutilized, anxious, and hamstrung. To regain purpose and control, we need to make a 180-degree turn and seek out meaningful challenges that will pull us forward.

Overwhelm and burnout aren’t just a result of pace and pressure. For example, when I worked at Amazon and Google during the early 2000s, 80-plus-hour work weeks weren’t uncommon. I saw some employees thrive and some crumble, even though the environment, pace, opportunities, pressure, and expectations were applied consistently. I found that a major differentiator in both longevity and joy at work is value alignment.

Reminding ourselves of what we value most in our lives and careers can illuminate empowering opportunities that would otherwise go unnoticed. We can actually engineer our own luck simply by knowing what we’re looking for and seeking it out. This doesn’t need to take much time, but it does need to be purposeful. Value realignment rarely happens passively.

I had a career conversation last week with a friend, David, whom I’ve known well for over 20 years. He was being recruited away from his current role as a VP of a global organization to a CEO role of a private, more narrowly focused company. It was a tough decision that only became more confusing when weighing out the differences in titles and compensation.

We took a step back and focused on the unique challenges and growth opportunities each job offered. We crafted what became a value-alignment scorecard for how he could choose his next professional challenge. This included:

  1. What he wanted to learn and contribute in this next phase of his career
  2. Whom he wanted to serve and how
  3. The pace at which he wanted to achieve his milestone goals

The right decision become clear to him almost immediately. David decided to decline the CEO role and proactively seek out projects and challenges aligned with his values within his current company. He felt empowered and back in the driver’s seat, where previously he had felt drained and underutilized.

Whether you’re making a complete career change or want to refocus your current role on what feels most meaningful to you, pivots can feel dizzying. However, drafting a simple scorecard of what you do and don’t want can change the process into one that’s energizing and meaningful rather than daunting. To do that, focus on the three Ps: purpose, people, and pace.

Purpose

Defining your life and work’s purpose can sound overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Purpose, at its core, comes down to two things: knowing whom you want to serve and empower and by what method.

A shortcut to uncovering your driving purpose can be recalling when you last ended a long day feeling energized and proud of what you had just done, even if you were still far away from the project’s finish line. This happens when the cause itself propels you forward and gives you energy rather than draining it. These moments are when you are fully value- and mission-aligned. This is your flow state.

Ask yourself:

  • Which causes capture your attention and call you to action?
  • How do you want to spend your time, money, and influence in service of your core values?
  • What actions, expertise, and contributions make up your ideal legacy?

Notice that these questions aren’t about your core skillset, experience, or competencies. That’s because value-aligned work naturally develops your required skillset and not the other way around. The most miserable people I know are those who design a career for what their family, society, or social pressures tell them is ideal and prestigious. The happiest and most successful people I know are honest and aligned with what they feel called to do and at their ideal pace and scale.

People

Whom we work with is an often overlooked indicator of our individual development potential and career direction. The people on your immediate team inform the expertise you’ll gain, the leadership attributes you’ll inherit, and the growth experiences you’ll have. Look for teams of people whom you not only enjoy, but those you want to be like and who bring out the best in you in alignment with your personal values. Ask yourself:

  • What circle of people embody your ideals for ambition, balance, expertise, and priorities?
  • What are the names of leaders (in your company, community, and the world) who have the skills and reputation you hope to develop?
  • What mentors and sponsors do you need in place to create accountability and opportunities?

How can you spend more time with this group of peers who inspire, raise you up, and open doors of opportunity for you? Consider if you’re motivated by a team that’s competitive or collaborative. If your current team doesn’t match your ideal, seek out mentors and collaborations within the larger organization, in your community, or in an online community.

Pace

Your desired pace is determined by your goals and current life circumstances, so your ideal role might change over time. Frustrations come when professional and personal demands are mismatched. To try to find the right balance, ask yourself:

  • How frequently do you want to be expected to up-level your skills and expertise during this phase of your career?
  • What is your ideal timeline for progression? Are you in a sprint or marathon stage of your career?
  • What role do you want to play in making changes and contributions? Do you want to lead from the front or play a supportive role?

Consider if your current environment is in alignment with these answers. Do you long for the adventure and pressure of an early-stage startup, or the established progression and routine of a legacy company?

Remember that the difference between burnout and fulfillment usually isn’t in the tasks, but in the meaning behind your efforts and an alignment of performance expectations.

How to assess value alignment with career opportunities

Choosing your next career move is an empowering experience once you know exactly what you do and do not want out of your next role. This allows you to align your work with your priorities and values and avoid being swayed by money, titles, or other factors that don’t bring satisfaction in and of themselves.

Whether you’re in a formal interview process for a role at a new company or simply doing a value-alignment assessment of your current role, here are some questions to help you measure alignment on values, motivations, and contributions when assessing future opportunities:

Purpose (culture)

  • What passions and purpose aligns the team members outside of their work responsibilities?
  • What goals drive top performers at this company?
  • What legacy is this company/team aimed at creating?

People (motivation and incentives)

  • What employee attributes are most effective in this organization?
  • In what ways does this team/company invest in the development and education of employees long term?
  • What are the short- and long-term priorities for performance in this role?

Pace (leadership and vision)

  • How and when are key results incentivized and measured on this team?
  • How does management react to teammates who are underperforming and struggling?
  • How are super performers guided toward advancement and away from burnout?

Empowered career moves

Those who don’t take the time to evaluate their own values and find alignment with teams and employers who are on the same path are those who become stagnant, prime to be disrupted by industry evolution, and end up burned out or passed over for promotion.

Finding an employer and role that are value-aligned can reveal opportunities that you might not have thought about or even noticed before. You might consider taking a job with a different title than you’ve had before because of the contributions you would be making and the expertise you would gain, as well as the quality of teammates and opportunities for advancement toward where you truly want to be in life. This is how you seize opportunities that otherwise would have passed you by unnoticed.

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