First, what are the core elements of a fulfilling career? We need to know what we are actually searching for, and it turns out that there are three essential ingredients: meaning, flow and freedom.
For instance, should we prefer a career that offers great pay and social status over working for a cause we believe in, with the prospect of making a difference? Should we aspire to be a high achiever in a specialized field, or a ‘wide achiever’ across several fields? And how can we balance our career ambitions with the demands of being a parent, or with a longing for more free time in our lives?
What is your current work doing to you as a person – to your mind, character and relationships?
We get so worried about regretting making a bad choice that we may end up making no decision at all, and remain frozen in our current unfulfilling career.
Are there any solutions for dealing with the choice overload that afflicts modern society? Schwartz makes two main suggestions.
First, we should try to limit our options. So when we go shopping for new clothes, we could make a personal rule that we only visit two shops, rather than endlessly hunting for a better design or a better bargain.
Second, we should ‘satisfice more and maximize less’. What he means is that instead of aiming to buy the perfect pair of jeans, we should buy a pair that is ‘good enough’.
In other words, by lowering our expectations, we can avoid much of the angst and time-wasting that arises from having an excessive choice.
What we really need to do is narrow down the choices by thinking more deeply about the core elements of a fulfilling career, and then devise concrete ways of testing out which of them best suit our aspirations.
The upshot is that we can find ourselves in a constant struggle with our pasts, unable to make a decision to try something new because of an allegiance to the person we have been, rather than to the person we hope to become.
The philosopher A.C. Grayling has come to a similar conclusion: ‘If there is anything worth fearing in the world, it is living in such a way that gives one cause for regret in the end.’
What were the key moments in your education that shaped the direction of your career?
What are the three main reasons why you are feeling confused about where to go next?
What are your three greatest fears about changing careers?
What are the three biggest practical challenges you face?
The most terrible punishment for any human being, wrote Dostoyevsky, would be if they were condemned to a lifetime of work that was ‘completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning’.
Who do you imagine is judging your status – perhaps family, old friends or colleagues? Do you want to grant them that power?
Even if you’ve only ever held one job, try mapping out what drew you into it.
Having created your artwork, now spend another ten minutes looking at it and thinking about these three questions.
What does your map reveal about your overall approach to your working life so far? There may be general patterns you can see, such as the way you never stay in a position for more than a couple of years, or that you seem to have fallen into most jobs rather than really choosing them.
Which of the following motivations have you given the greatest priority to in your career choices: money, status, respect, passions, talents or making a difference? (rank them from greatest to least priority)
Which two of the motivations mentioned above do you most want to shape your career choices in the future, and why?
Imagine five parallel universes, in each of which you could have a whole year off to pursue absolutely any career you desired. Now think of five different jobs you might want to try out in each of these universes.
The concept behind this task is the opposite of a standard career search: imagine that newspapers didn’t advertise jobs, but rather advertised people who were looking for jobs.
You do it in two steps. First, write a half-page job advertisement that tells the world who you are and what you care about in life. Put down your talents (e.g. you speak Mongolian, can play the bass guitar), your passions (e.g. ikebana, scuba diving), and the core values and causes you believe in (e.g. wildlife preservation, women’s rights). Include your personal qualities (e.g. you are quick-witted, impatient, lacking self-confidence). And record anything else that is important to you – a minimum salary or that you want to work abroad. Make sure you don’t include any particular job you are keen on, or your educational qualifications or career background. Keep it at the level of underlying motivations and interests.
Make a list of ten people you know from different walks of life and who have a range of careers – may be a policeman uncle or a cartoonist friend – and email them your Personal Job Advertisement, asking them to recommend two or three careers that might fit with what you have written.
‘If the diver always thought of the shark, he would never lay hands on the pearl,’ said Sa’di, a Persian poet from the thirteenth century.
The only way to create change is to put our possible identities into practice, working and crafting them until they are sufficiently grounded in experience to guide more decisive steps…We learn who we are by testing reality, not by looking inside…Reflection best comes later, when we have some momentum and when there is something new to reflect on.
‘Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety,’ wrote Benjamin Franklin, ‘deserve neither liberty nor safety.’