Where To Start When You Have Too Many Career Ideas

Hundreds of possibilities buzzing around in your head? Finding it hard to focus and narrow down on the right option for you? It's overwhelming and disheartening, and if this sounds familiar, you're not alone. Natasha shares some core principles to calm your mind and set you on the path to clarity.

It's a unique blend of pleasure and discomfort.

There's so much that excites and interests you, so many things you think you might want to do with your life.

For the people who have no idea what they want, you seem like one of the lucky ones – like a kid in a sweet shop with the world at your feet.

But there's a flipside to being one of the over-inspired and easily enchanted, isn't there? An uncomfortable, guilty itch.

It's not actually that great to feel flooded with ideas; to have wispy, feather-light possibilities floating around all over the place, leaving you inspired and excited for a few seconds before your head is quickly turned by something new.

You feel fickle and flighty, even a little guilty or ashamed for not being able to focus and stick at one thing.

And it can leave you paralysed by indecision and uncertainty.

You're intrigued by a whole host of different areas – where should you begin? None of your ideas feel particularly solid ("Maybe something to do with writing, or with interiors."). Some of them are more lifestyle oriented than career oriented ("I want to work outside."), and some of them are just plain fluffy ("I want to work with nice people.").

How do you start narrowing down your possibilities? And if you do choose something to focus your efforts on… what if you miss out on something great down a different path?

Remember that ‘broad is beautiful’

The first thing to get your head around is the fact that having a lot of ideas is the best possible position you can be in when you're making a career change.

In fact, at Careershifters we actively encourage the people we work with to come up with as many options as possible at the start of the process.

Why?

It's the same reason you (probably) didn't marry your first boyfriend or girlfriend. Jumping head first into the first thing that comes along is rarely a good idea, even when you're keen to focus your energies in order to see more tangible progress.

Even when you're feeling overwhelmed with ideas, you must continue looking for new ones, overturning fresh possibilities and exploring new angles. You may simply feel as though you have too many ideas because you haven't yet stumbled across the one that really feels right.

Plus, having a wide range of possibilities available to you can help you see patterns and themes that you'd never notice if you tried to to shut down your thinking too early.

The more possibilities you have on your plate, the more information you have to play with about who you are and what works for you. You can compare and contrast different ideas, find the spots where possibilities overlap, and look for overarching themes and patterns (more on this later).

And by purposefully not narrowing your focus too soon, you'll avoid winding up in a job you thought would be right for you, but actually feels just as stifling as the one you're in now.

The trick is to make sure you're exploring as many of your ideas as possible, at the same time.

Dan and Chip Heath, authors of Switch and Decisive, call this 'multi-tracking’:

"Multi-tracking essentially says that we do better if we consider two or three alternatives at the same time. There was a study in Silicon Valley by Kathy Eisenhardt at Stanford University. She found the Silicon Valley firms that were the quickest to respond to strategic changes – and respond with a strategy that addressed the changes in their industry – were firms where top leaders considered multiple alternatives at the same time. By considering two or three at once, by multi-tracking, you're in better shape than if you consider one alternative, and then if that one fails, you go onto the next one and then the next one." – Chip Heath

Tracy took part in our Career Change Launch Pad in 2014, and when she first joined the course she was in a huge rush to narrow down her options. She'd been weighing up lots of different ideas for a couple of months, and now she was keen to start focusing her attention on just one.

"I've been thinking about art teaching, about interior design, about moving abroad and running a B&B… I need to focus, because otherwise these will all end up being just nice ideas and I won't do anything about them."

What Tracy learned was that by multi-tracking, she could find ways to combine her passions in ways she never knew were possible.

She experimented with teaching an art class, spoke to a friend of a friend who had bought an old farmhouse in the South of France, and interviewed an interior designer about her working days. And she did all of these disparate experiments in the space of a month.

She discovered that there were a huge number of people selling their properties in France at that time, often at low prices. She realised that the day-to-day life of an interior designer wasn't for her, but she did make some great connections with people in the art world through her conversations with designers. And she discovered that what she really loved about teaching art was helping stressed-out people to relax and express themselves. When we last heard from her, she was talking to three friends about co-ownership of a Bordeaux château where she could run art retreats for adults, artist residencies, and workshops.

"If I'd dropped my other interests and just focused on art teaching, I'd probably be boxed up in a school somewhere right now teaching teenagers and wishing I'd waited a bit longer before diving in. I'm so glad I kept up a variety of my ideas…"

(For more information on how to experiment like Tracy did, check out our Lean Career Change method.)

Consider a portfolio career

For some people, multi-tracking helps to narrow down their ideas into a single career path. But what if you could build a career where you had time to play with all your different ideas – or at least a good chunk of them?

If you're easily bored, reluctant to dedicate yourself full time to one career path, or feel energised by new challenges on a regular basis, perhaps you don't need to narrow down your options.

A portfolio career is a lifestyle in which you combine two or more different jobs or lines of work.

Some people (like Carla) are employed full time and play with other projects alongside their jobs. Others, like Rachel, do lots of different projects on a part-time basis. Others split their time by season, or even juggle several employers.

This option is definitely not right for everyone.

If you're a 'deep-diver' – someone who likes to focus on one thing and one thing alone – a portfolio career will feel chaotic and stressful. And if you'd be uncomfortable juggling multiple streams of income, it's also not a great choice for you.

But for those of us who seem to perpetually have a thousand different interests and are willing to take a more unconventional career option, it's a fun and elegant solution.

Look for your umbrella

My career history is a perfect storm of seemingly disparate jobs.

Support worker for the homeless. Florist. Domestic violence refuge manager. Pole dance teacher. Coach. Writer. Volunteering coordinator. Yoga teacher. Horse trainer. Charity fundraiser.

Looking at this list, you'd think I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

And while I was doing those jobs, I felt a lot like that, too.

But then I took some time to look for my umbrella: the pattern or theme that tied together the work I'd loved most, or been most drawn to. What was it that all these jobs had in common?

What I saw was that I was constantly pulled toward work that allowed me to help people achieve the extraordinary – to do things they never dreamed would be possible.

And the jobs that didn't fit the pattern? Those were inevitably the ones I didn't enjoy, or the ones I left within a few months.

Supporting people to achieve the extraordinary.

That isn't a job title. It's not a career path. It's not specific, no college or university offers a qualification in it, and there's no group for it on LinkedIn.

But it's what I do.

And when I identified that umbrella, I immediately felt much clearer about what to consider, what to explore, and what to say a definite 'no' to. Even with a huge range of possibilities to choose from within that theme, I finally had a guiding light by which to navigate my shift.

Does this idea help people to achieve the extraordinary?

If it's a yes, I'll explore it.

If it's a no, it's a nice idea, but it won't ultimately fulfil me. I'll steer well clear (even if the pay packet looks nice, or the people are lovely, or the office has free lollipops and a slide).

And if it's a maybe, I'll look for ways to tweak it. Writing crime fiction probably isn't my bag, but writing articles like this one is bang on the nose.

Try writing down all the work you've ever done that you really enjoyed. Career paths, jobs, voluntary roles, projects, events… whatever you can think of that felt really enjoyable.

What's the common thread between them, however tenuous? What's your umbrella'? (And for more on this kind of subject, check out Pam Slim’s Body of Work).

Dive blind

"I can't start doing anything until I know which option I want": the plaintive lament of the over-inspired.

If I can give you any advice at all as a career changer with a million ideas, it's this: you won't get clarity if you don't dive in.

Don't wait until you have 'the answer' before you start taking action. It's counter-intuitive to start on a journey when you don't know the final destination, but you won't get anywhere if you don't leave the house.

To be honest, this is the guidance we offer to all career changers, no matter what their situation. You can't figure it out by figuring it out. Thinking, list-making, hoping, researching, despairing… none of these things will help you narrow down your options.

Just start.

Start anywhere.

Pick one of your ideas out of a hat and go and immerse yourself in it. Speak to people who already work in that area. Take a class. Go to a meetup. Experiment with actually doing the job you're considering doing.

Your ideas will not go away until you've given them the attention they're asking you for. They won't organise themselves and gracefully bow out of the race until they've been acknowledged and loved and stroked and investigated.

So the only thing to do is take a chance on one of them (and then another, and then another), in a small, low-risk way (check out our Lean Career Change feedback loop for a step-by-step guide to doing this). Don't get married to it (meaning: no job applications just yet, please), but at least take it out on a date. If it turns out to be a dud, you can cross it off your list with confidence. And if you fall a little bit in love… you're on a good track.

Finally...

I remember so, so clearly what it felt like to be awash with possibilities and yet have no idea where I was headed. All these beautiful balloons floating around my head, and no strings to hang on to. All I wanted was for someone to point at one of them and say: "That one. That's yours."

Thing is, the answer probably isn't something you can even conceive of right now.

It's very likely that where you'll end up, happy and fulfilled in a new career, looks nothing like any of the ideas you have right now. Chances are, it's a beautiful mishmash of a number of them, with a few awesome curveballs thrown in for good measure.

So dive in, keep an open mind, and don't allow panic to shut you down or leave you paralysed.

You're creating something very special here. Give it time, energy, and space to develop. And it will.

Do you have too many career ideas? Which of these principles could you apply to your own career change? Let me know in the comments below!

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is Head of Content and Head Coach for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art of human connection.