What Do I Actually Want?
Reflect: Understanding Yourself
The old rule: You graduated from high school, got into college, and chose a major that led to a specific career path. If, for example, you were an English major in college, you would go into book or magazine publishing, journalism, or teaching, or apply to law school. If you were an econ major, you more than likely planned on a job in finance. End of story.
The new rule: Your education taught you skills and gave you experiences that brought you to where you are today—but now your past is a platform to spring forward from, not a ball and chain. Plus, your career path can be plotted from not only your education, but also your strengths, innate talents, personal interests, and core values. Maybe you’ll use the communication skills you picked up as an English major, your attention to detail, and your love for creativity and design to land a job in event planning. Or social media and community management. Or as a museum curator. The choice is yours.
The Keys to Your Kingdom
In the old world of work, the decisions you made at age seventeen or eighteen years old—like choosing a college and a major—dictated not only your first job but likely your entire career path (just think about how crazy that is!). Moreover, the trajectory of that path was assumed to be linear: that as time passed, you would naturally get promoted, sometimes move between companies, and eventually reach a high position from which you would someday retire. You probably followed that path blindly; since it so clearly dictated your direction, you didn’t need to stop and think about what you wanted. As a result, there were few opportunities to change or adjust course based on your unique values, skills, and aspirations. Like in kindergarten, you were assigned a seat, and you were required to sit there for the rest of the year.
It seems pretty clear that that concept of a predetermined career path has outlived its relevance. Some years ago, it was briefly challenged by an overly expansive (and somewhat ungrounded) “follow your star” approach, where people were advised to “live their dreams and the money will follow.” There was a sense that instead of a rigid, cookie-cutter plan, you didn’t need any plan; that over time, as you moved from job to job, you would gain more and more self-knowledge, culminating in steady promotions and raises, and one day, the holy grail: comfortable retirement.
If only that always worked out.
The New Rules ask us to answer alternate questions that stem from a radically different point of view. Instead of assuming the path is preordained or that it will appear miraculously by simply wanting it to do so, we need to understand—and accept—that we are in charge of our own path. No major, no degree, no parental connections, no industry, company, or proverbial north star is going to determine or decide where we are going. It’s up to us to choose the destination that is right for us and then design the path that will make it happen. Unlike in kindergarten, if we don’t like the seat we’ve been assigned, we can get up and move to another. In fact, we can even pick up and switch to a new classroom or school altogether. We’re in charge of ourselves.
And this is great: What freedom! What possibility! What self-empowerment! But we also know that with all of this potential for great success and happiness comes something else: What terror! What pressure! What stress! What if we make a mistake? A wrong move, a poor choice, a stupid decision? We’ll be destined to wallow in a career we hate forever, right?
Wrong. Because here’s another great thing about the New Rules: we live in a culture where the world of work will continue to change rapidly. That’s why we think of career planning as a series of two-to-five-year steps, to make thoughtfully and one at a time. So you are here now, trying to figure out your path for just the next two to five years. Not for the rest of your life. Sure, if you have long-term plans, we will help you tailor your Now Plan to your Big Plan, but in general, the advice in this book is going to be focused on that two-to-five-year horizon; on getting you ready to make the most of what you are doing today and for the next few years. The best part is, you can return to it again and again—the practices and thought exercises we’re doing here will serve you not only now, but next time you’re ready for another step, shift, or reinvention in your career.
Who Are You Now?
Of course, it’s hard to shake off the urge to try to determine your life as soon as you graduate from college. We get it, because we’ve been there. Take Kathryn, for example. After majoring in international relations and French, she always dreamed that she would end up in foreign service or become a diplomat. Her interest in travel, her love of languages, and her natural inclination to jump in and solve problems seemed to fit exactly with the career she had imagined for herself. Yet a few weeks into what had seemed like a dream position working at the US embassy in Cyprus, Kathryn felt that interest wane. The problems her team was tackling were important, but solutions moved the needle by inches and progress could sometimes take years, requiring unbelievable patience. When colleagues noticed her penchant for offering to roll up her sleeves and get to work right away, they would laugh and suggest she consider a different field where she could make an impact more quickly. Kathryn’s expectations ran smack into the realities of working in the foreign service, and she suddenly realized it might not be such a solid long-term fit after all.
It was as if a tether to her mental image of career satisfaction had been severed and she was totally adrift. “It was incredibly frustrating,” she remembers. “I thought I had it all figured out, and suddenly I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing for the next year, let alone for the rest of my life. I’d invested so much in a career path I was about to walk away from. It’s funny to look back and remember how much I was worried I’d ‘wasted’ that time. But now I realize that those years were anything but. They were useful—time to test myself—and I’m not sure I’d be where I am today without them.”
Alex had a similar experience. Growing up in France, a country where your high school choices still guide much of your career opportunity, she was forced to pick a direction at the age of fifteen. Between the sciences, literature, and economics, she picked the sciences. She was good at them, and they were valued highly in the French education system. Two years later, she again had to choose, this time between math, physics, and biology for her senior-year specialization. Alex chose biology and started learning about genetics by mating strains of fruit flies. She applied to college in the United States and moved across the Atlantic to start her studies, where she declared a major of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology (a fancy term for genetics). But after many long hours spent toiling in the lab her freshman year, Alex realized that as much as she loved learning about genetics, she didn’t enjoy the day-to-day lab work that would be a big part of her job if she continued down this road. Genetics was an interest, yes, but not the right career for her. Facing this fact was hard, but it was also a pivotal moment that forced Alex to question her assumptions and embark on a journey of exploration and learning that brought her to the consulting company where she met Kathryn. Without these two diverging paths and the twists and turns we took, The Muse might never have come to be.
The point is: often what we think we want in our heads is actually very different from what we can learn we want in the day-to-day experience of actually living our careers. So even if you think you have your dream career all figured out, it’s really important to go through the steps outlined in the next few chapters. The goal is to dig deep enough to have a clear understanding of what kind of job or career will make you truly happy.
What’s different about today’s rules is that they are all premised on your having a much keener, more concrete, and more nuanced understanding of your values, interests, and motivations. This requires not only understanding what you enjoy and what you’re good at, but also how these interests and skills stack up against other important personal priorities. How much money do you need to live comfortably? How much flexibility do you want in your weekly schedule? How important is your job title, the name of your company, the size of your office? What kind of impact do you want to have on the world? We’re going to help you zero in on all of these variables so that you can not only succeed at defining your path, but enjoy getting to know yourself a bit better in the process!
Knowing yourself in this way is a huge part of finding the right job, by which we mean, the right job for you, right now. So in this chapter we’ll address the first of what we call the Three R’s: Reflect. And by the time you complete the exercises and steps in this chapter, you will feel much more confident in your understanding of what you are looking for in a career or job. Even if you have absolutely no idea what you want to do with your life, these tools can help point you in the right direction. Of course, if you’ve picked up this book already knowing who you are and what kind of job you are looking for, that’s fine, too. You will still benefit from the exercises, as the reflection will only serve to underscore your confidence and sharpen your drive. Wherever you are, we’re here to take you forward.
It’s time to develop a special kind of self-awareness: you are going to come to know yourself in an introspective yet objective way. We are big believers in looking inward before you can expect to create the outward success you aspire to.
To start figuring out what you want in a job or in life, it helps to start by reflecting on who you are today. One of the early steps of this process is being brutally honest with how you are feeling (frazzled and fearful, confident and competent, muddled but also excited?) and where you are (in a current job that you despise, in a current job that’s fine but not quite right, out of a job, living with your parents and unable to pay rent on your own place, in between a rock and a hard place?). You’re going to ask yourself a couple of hard questions, but trust us, it’ll be worth it.
Question 1: What Do You Value?
Back in the 1970s, a few social scientists came up with a way for people to deepen their understanding of themselves by “clarifying their values.” You can probably hear a bit of that seventies vibe in the language alone. But they were onto something: clarifying our values really helps when we are trying to figure out what we want in our lives.
In the context of creating a successful career plan, the word values refers to what in your work provides you with meaning and purpose. That might be a deep sense of creativity, or it might be making a positive contribution to society. In many ways, your values are more important than the type of work you’re actually doing; in fact, numerous studies have shown that most people who pursue work that aligns with their values feel more satisfied and successful in their careers.
When it comes to charting a professional path, clarifying our own values can feel confusing. There are so many outside voices and perspectives that can clutter this very personal process: parents’ expectations and advice, friends’ choices, society’s collective ideas about the “right” path. It’s time to shut all those out. Remember, we’re talking about your life—and your values—not your well-meaning mom’s or dad’s, not your favorite professor’s, not your brilliant roommate’s. They’re yours, and yours alone.
The following exercise can help. We’ve created a list of personal values that often accompany work life; assign each value a number from 1 to 4.
1: Absolutely essential to me
2: Desirable, but not essential
3: Of neutral value—neither important nor unimportant to me
4: Not of value to me; I would prefer to avoid
Don’t worry about spreading the numbers out evenly among the different categories—this isn’t an exact science—but do try to keep the number of 1’s to around three (which will help you with an exercise we’ll walk you through later on!). Most important, though, just be honest and candid with yourself.
Mission and Impact
___Social change: I want to make a contribution to society at large.
___Service: I want to be directly involved in helping individuals.
___Influence: I want my work to shape and influence the thinking of others.
___Decision making: I want to have a meaningful role in deciding direction and policy in my field.
___Ethics: I want my work to connect directly with my own principles and morals.
___Community: I want my work to be of direct benefit to the community in which I live.
Social Interaction, Collaboration, and Teamwork
___Sociability: I want to engage regularly with people as part of my daily work.
___Solitude: I want to work alone or mostly alone, without substantial engagement with others.
___Teamwork: I want to work as part of a collaborative team on projects and assignments.
___Management: I want to lead and directly supervise the work of others.
___Autonomy: I want to work independently, with minimal direction or supervision.
___Deadlines: I want to work under time-sensitive conditions, where there is pressure to deliver.
___Variation: I want my tasks and responsibilities to vary regularly.
___Consistency: I want a routine of tasks and responsibilities that remains largely the same.
___Detail: I want to engage in work where attention to detail, precision, and/or accuracy matter a great deal.
___Flexibility: I want the ability to influence my schedule in a way that works for me.
___Travel: I want to travel regularly for work, experiencing new places.
___Acknowledgment: I want to receive public acknowledgment for my professional accomplishments.
___Compensation: I want my work to deliver significant financial reward.
___Security: I want a position and a salary that are likely to remain secure.
___Prestige: I want to work in a role or at a company that is valued by others.
Copyright © 2017 by Alexandra Cavoulacos. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.