Feeling stuck and frustrated trying to come up with career ideas? You could be wasting your time. Natasha explains why your 'career' is a cramped starting point when looking for work you love – and shares three illuminating angles to try instead.
"A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion." – Botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer
There was a particular quality to the silence in my head.
It was quiet and it was sharp; it was wide-open blankness, but it had edges, too. Panicky edges. It felt like tumbling through dark space with a bell.
And it showed up every time anyone (including myself) asked:
"So what's your new career going to be?"
I had no idea what the answer was. But I knew I had to get it right. And every time I reached out blindly for an answer, something got in the way.
Hindsight is bright and revealing.
There's a lot I can see now about my approach to seeking answers that I couldn't see back then.
And a key insight I learned along my way was this: if you're truly looking for work you love – work that's an expression of who you are and what you care about most in the world – 'career' is the wrong place to start.
'Career' is trussed up and bound in rules and assumptions.
Sit with the word 'career' for a minute or two, and you find yourself inside a very particular world.
'Career' has clothes. It has jargon, procedure. It has times of day and yearly rhythms. It has a particular haircut, its own political system, and a ladder.
There are clear boundaries to the world of 'career' (that I kept bumping into, in the darkness of my uncertainty). Whether they're truth or interpreted, pleasant or constructed, they're there for each one of us.
What 'career' looks like to you is very specific, and most likely, constructed by whatever experience of 'career' you've already had.
So you're likely to have rules and assumptions about what a 'career' is, and what it isn't.
What's permitted, and what's not.
What counts, and what doesn't.
What's possible, and what's not.
Not a lot of freedom to move, right? Not a lot of space for new, inspiring possibilities to get in.
'Career' is strapped to 'survival'
When we think about 'career', however high-flying and first-world a career we might be imagining, we inevitably think about some of the most fundamental, basic needs we have as human beings.
Food. Shelter. Social standing. Acceptance and reputation.
'Career', as a concept, incites primal, fearful thought patterns.
What if it goes wrong? Will I be rejected? How will I survive? Will my family and loved ones be OK?
And just as your throat tightens as you think about it, so does your imagination, bravery, and willingness to experiment.
'Career' is you-focused
Particularly since the industrial shift from product-based to service (and now information-based) industries, 'career' has become a solitary journey. Competitive, judgement-based, and an indicator of individual value.
You build up your skill set, not because you're passionate about the talents you're developing, but to give yourself a competitive edge against other job applicants or co-workers.
You position yourself tactically amongst your colleagues when promotion (or redundancy) time rolls around. You predict, second-guess, duck and slide.
You're given psychometric tests to complete, to categorise and study you ('you' the commodity, rather than 'you' the contribution).
Unsurprisingly, you're left feeling isolated and at-risk.
And the thing about work you love… it's inherently not all about you. People who do work they love are, almost without exception, doing work with, about, and in service of others.
It's about contributing powerfully to the world, interacting with other people, making an impact on the things that matter.
However fascinating you might be, 'you' are only a fraction of the conversation to be had.
Starting from 'career' is starting, right off the bat, from a small and constrictive space
But if you want to end up with a career, where else is there to start?
One of the most glorious, joyful lessons I learned from my own shift was this: if you're doing the 'work you love' thing right, your 'career' is just a byproduct of a much bigger conversation.
It's much, much more powerful to start in a big expansive place to play, looking at work from all kinds of different perspectives and angles.
Looking at it, in fact, without looking directly at it. And, like an optical illusion, career options just show up in the corners of your field of vision (or sometimes, smack bang in the middle).
There are a whole host of angles to give you a new level of access to the work-you-love conversation.
Here are my favourites:
- What impact would I like to see made in the world?
- How many different ways are there to make that impact?
- Who's already making this kind of impact?
- How are they doing it?
When we explore 'impact', we're looking at the mark you want to leave on the world. What could you look back at, from your rocking chair in your 90s, and be proud to have influenced?
It's important to note here that 'impact' doesn't have to mean ending poverty or revolutionising the education system (although it absolutely could).
'Impact' could be bringing more laughter into the world.
It could be helping people realise that they actually love classical music (they just don't know it yet).
Mark explored the question of 'impact' when he asked me to coach him through his career change. As a corporate salesman for 'IT solutions', he didn't feel he was making any kind of meaningful impact on the world – at least, no impact that was meaningful for him.
When we began to dig into the question of 'impact', he was surprised to find that his current work was what pointed him towards something that did matter: easing people's stress levels.
"I used to constantly come into contact with people who were so anxious, so frustrated and stressed, usually because of something tech-related! And that was the one thing I liked about my job – I could help them. Yes, I was selling a product, but I was also helping those people to relax and breathe a little easier. And I was really good at that part; my ability to put people at ease and really listen to them was the thing that made me a great salesman."
Mark had been stuck inside the 'career' conversation for years, believing that all he had to offer was his knowledge of IT and his ability to sell.
Reframing his starting point from 'career' to 'impact' led Mark down a whole new train of thought – a path that eventually led him to a job teaching mindfulness at work.
When you look at the world around you, putting the idea of 'career' aside for a moment, what impact would you love to make?
- When I think of what I love (or what inspires me, or what I keep getting drawn to), what do I love about it?
- Why is it important that it exists?
- What is it about it that I wish other people could have access to?
I'm a firm believer that we're drawn to activities, environments and ideas because they share a core 'essence' – something that moves and inspires us at a deep level. (I also call this your 'umbrella'.)
Each activity or interest is a manifestation, as it were, of something bigger that we're attracted to; that matters to us.
For example, perhaps you meet someone who says they love great design, start-up culture and maths.
There's something in those things – a core 'essence' that they all seem to share. It's something about innovation and problem-solving; coming up with elegant solutions to questions. If you were to imagine other things that this person would enjoy or be inspired by, you could make some predictions… perhaps they'd also be drawn to minimalist aesthetics and the one-for-one idea behind TOMS shoes.
As a Launch Pad alumnus, Joe is part of an ongoing coaching and accountability group I run with Careershifters. He's been exploring a number of career ideas since completing the course, including yoga and meditation, outdoor activities, coaching, and counselling.
On a recent call we explored the question of 'essence' – what was the golden thread that ran through all his different interests?
For Joe, it turned out, it was about emotional intelligence: the magic of people's internal growth and ability to navigate the world without being uncontrollably thrown around by reactions and emotions.
Getting clear on that core 'essence', he said, gives him a guiding light to filter his ideas through. Does this idea share that important essence, or is it something that's more of a passing interest?
Take a look at the things you're drawn to. However disparate or disconnected they might seem, try on the idea of a core 'essence' that they all share. If they were, in fact, all manifestations of the same thing, what might it be?
- Who am I, that other people are not?
- Why might others look at me with awe and gratitude?
- Who needs me?
- How can I help them be great?
You are probably the least unique and interesting person you know.
You're just… you, right?
Normal old you, just doing your normal things – nothing to write home about.
It feels that way because you do 'you' so naturally, so consistently, and so perfectly that you can't imagine that for others, what you do looks like pure magic.
Put me on a stage in front of 300 people, and I'm home. Relaxed, easy, and completely myself. I'm told that public speaking is people's number 1 fear – people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death.
I find that incredibly hard to believe – because for me, it's no problem at all.
On the flip side, I work with a woman named Catherine, and watching her do her thing every day blows my mind.
She filters through numbers, lists, spreadsheets and disorganised documents like a breeze, bringing order to chaos and fine-tuning details that I would never have noticed.
For her, it feels a lot like public speaking does for me: it's normal. It's easy. It's how she rolls.
There are things that you do, ways that you see the world, and approaches that you bring to tasks that people would give their right arm for. And yet… you probably don't even know that they're skills.
Or even if you do see them as interesting features that are uniquely 'you'… how do you turn ‘you’ into work that pays the bills?
When Anna started our Career Change Launch Pad in June 2016, she was confused. She really wanted to do work that helped people, but was worried that her straight-talking, incisive personality was a negative characteristic.
Over the past few months, Anna's relationship to herself has shifted. She's started to realise that her ability to cut through the fluff and say what needs to be said is a treasure that people actually value.
She's started to see her gift clearly, and, crucially, see it as a gift rather than a curse.
In the two areas she's exploring (being a doula and being a professional organiser), she's discovering how much people crave her unadulterated Anna-ness, and that, in fact, it's something they might even pay for…
What gifts do you have to share with other people? What are the things that you do brilliantly and naturally – and how could you give them away to people who need them?
When you step out of ‘career’ and into ‘life’, the ‘work’ will appear
"I liken the process to seeing ghosts: the ideas are always there, half-formed. It's about being in the right state of mind to take them and turn them into something that works." – Fyfe Dangerfield, musician
Sometimes, trying to grab on to a 'career' idea is exactly what makes it slip away. Like squeezing a bar of soap, the tighter you try to snatch it, the less likely you are to be able to hold on.
But if you loosen your grip, unfocus your eyes, broaden your gaze, and take a step back… a whole new world of options bursts open.
Don't limit yourself to thinking about your career.
Think about your life, and the work you have to do in the world.
There's a career in there for you, if you'll just loosen up enough to let it in.
What answers do you have to the questions above? I'd love to see what you come up with – let me know in the comments below.
Natasha Stanley is Head of Content for Careershifters and Head Coach for our Career Change Launch Pad. She also currently travels the world as a horse-trainer, business consultant and copywriter.