No Clear Career Ideas? The 3 Mistakes You’re Making (And 3 Things To Do Instead)

Newly Updated

If you're stuck for ideas and struggling for inspiration, you're not a lost cause. You're just looking at your shift from the wrong angle. Natasha lays out the key career change mistakes that are limiting your options, and shares some fun techniques for generating new possibilities for fulfilling work.

I had decided to make an evening of it. I sat on the floor of my lamp-lit bedroom, my favourite relaxing album playing in the background and a huge pot of tea beside me. In front of me, a gorgeous virgin page on a fresh new A2 sketchpad.

This was it. This was the evening I was going to have my light-bulb moment.

I picked up my pen, ceremoniously removed the lid, and waited.

And I waited.

And I waited.

The paper looked back at me, expectantly.

"Maybe I just need to start with what I know," I thought.

So in one corner of the page, I wrote: "Skills. Writing. Supporting vulnerable adults. Diffusing difficult situations. Good working knowledge of welfare benefits."

This was boring. I had all this stuff on my CV. No light-bulb moments coming from that direction.

So I poured another cup of tea. Scratched my neck. Time for a different angle.

What about if I got really intentional and spiritual about it?

I placed my pen right in the middle of the page – time to be bold.

"What would I do if I knew I could not fail?" (I'd seen that emblazoned across a picture of a mountain on the internet somewhere).

I sat, and I waited. And something came. Except… it was a tiny, half-formed creature of a thought, Gollum-esque and a bit unsettling.

"Something that has a social kind of slant to it… that helps people…"

The previously rapt audience inside my mind sat back in their seats and commenced a slow, patronising clap.

"Well done, Natasha. How very inspiring. That gives you a grand total of nothing useful to work with, doesn't it?"

I got angry.

"Fine, then. I want to be a social entrepreneur, like the guy who started TOMS shoes."

Except there was no way I could do that. I had no idea how to run a business, no money to get it started, and no business idea in the first place.

My inspiring, turning-point career change idea evening had been a flop. I went to bed that night disappointed, but unsurprised. After all, I’d been turning these somersaults inside my head for at least a year now. Low lighting and a pot of peppermint tea were hardly going to revolutionise my world.

The first question of any career change is very simple: "If not this, then what?"

Five words, four letters at their most complex. You answer this question constantly, every day: when you hear of a traffic jam on your way to work; when your waiter informs you that they've run out of the chicken dish; when the deal you're negotiating at work falls through.

But when you're contemplating the direction of your future, it becomes far more complex and difficult a question.

This isn't just a theoretical exercise, after all; it's a question nestled at the very core of your life.

What are you here for? How are you going to pay your bills and support your family? What kind of a reality will you wake up to every day? How will people see and understand you? What impact on the world will you make?

And in the face of questions like these, it's hardly surprising that you stop, shrink, and find yourself blinking and paralysed.

Your mind goes blank. A cacophony of voices arises, loud with muttered questions, suggestions, doubts and mocking laughter… but none of it's clear enough to make anything meaningful out.

And when a real possibility does emerge, it's quickly smothered again, by fears and self-doubts and cold, hard reality.

So you stay where you are, hoping for a revelation.

You can't do anything until you know what you want to do, after all.

You can't make a move until you know where you're going.

This isn't a chicken-and-egg scenario; you clearly need an egg.

Once you've got an idea of what you want your future career to be, you can start working on making a change. But until then, you're trapped.

Coming up with career ideas is the first (and sometimes the hardest) part of a shift.

Either you have no ideas at all, or you're riddled with hundreds – and either way, you're paralysed.

The good news, perhaps, is that this isn't unusual. In fact, despite this slippery, confusing and intangible feeling, there are some solid reasons why you're finding it so hard to come up with ideas for your future career.

Let's take a look at three of them – and some fun, easy ways to disentangle yourself from their grasp and start coming up with fresh possibilities.

1. You can't be what you can't see

When you try to come up with ideas for your future career right now, where do you look?

You look around you – at your life and the things you know exist. You look at the careers your friends and family do; at the industries you've heard of, read about, or come into contact with; at the places and spaces you pass by in your day-to-day life.

But if you've been thinking about making a shift into fulfilling work for more than a couple of weeks, it's likely that you've considered most of those possibilities already.

You won't find new ideas in your life as you know it. If they were there, waiting to be found, you'd have found them by now.

Many of the people we've worked with at Careershifters have made shifts into jobs, businesses or industries they didn't even know existed when they started out on their career changes. Their inspiration came from stepping outside of their usual pursuits and environments; from seeing new things.

Alice, who took part in our Career Change Launch Pad, wasn't sure how she was going to turn her passion for wine into a career until she went to Thailand and discovered a demand for wine that wasn't being fulfilled. She's now exploring setting up a business.

Amy had never thought about health and wellness as a career path until she went to see a nutritionist.

It wasn't until I came across websites like Careershifters during my own career change that I discovered there was a whole industry built around helping people find fulfilling work.

For the systems thinkers among you, it's a simple concept: new inputs = new outputs.

And for the more poetic types, there's the gorgeously gaited quotation: "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got."

To come up with fresh, exciting possibilities for your future career, one that feels fulfilling and inspiring and right for you, it's time to start bringing in new inputs. You need to start seeing new sights; experiencing new things; looking at the world from new perspectives.

Be aware: this isn't a quick fix. You're unlikely to have one new experience and bump into your ideal future career, right off the bat. But the more you explore and discover, the broader your life will become, and the more likely you are to connect with fresh possibilities.

I call this technique 'Stretching the Fishbowl', and you can do it in a whole bunch of different ways. Here are a few ideas:

  • On your commute to work this week, listen to a podcast on a topic that interests you – then the next day, switch to one on a topic you know nothing about.
  • Attend a free (or cheap) talk, seminar or event related to a topic you're interested in. It doesn't have to be a viable career idea – it just has to get you out of your usual environment.
  • Try a different angle on something you already enjoy. If you're a runner, join a running group or switch from the road to the forest. If you love cooking, teach someone how to make your favourite dish, or test out a new kind of cuisine.
  • Sign up for a class or workshop that excites you. Not a long course – just a one-off taster or experiment.

2. You've collapsed your dreams with your fears

Sometimes, coming up with new ideas for your career change can feel like a disheartening game of Whack-A-Mole. The first hint of an exciting possibility starts to emerge, and it's slammed out of existence immediately.

Running your own business? Absolutely not: you don't have the start-up capital.

Something to do with well-being and nutrition? No: the industry is saturated and you'd never make enough money.

Maybe occupational psychology? Are you crazy? You're not even remotely qualified; nobody would take you seriously.

If you're going to give your ideas any chance of surviving (and surprising you), you need to work on separating the 'what' from the 'how'.

When you first start out coming up with ideas, leave the practicalities to one side, at least for a while. The first step to moving into fulfilling work is to create as detailed a picture as possible of what fulfilling work would mean for you.

Your concerns about how to get there may be perfectly valid. But right now, they're not helping you make progress.

Set them to one side and focus on figuring this out: assuming it were possible for you to find your way through any obstacles, where would you want to be headed?

Dan took part in our Career Change Launch Pad. He had no idea what he wanted to do next, he told us, and wasn't particularly optimistic about coming up with something realistic in eight weeks. But once he started to focus purely on what made him happiest, safe in the knowledge he could tackle the practicalities later, he became a fountain of energy.

"I never thought I'd be able to just play with ideas like this. Sure, I've got some concerns about how I'll deal with my mortgage payments further down the line, but until I've got some ideas that actually feel exciting, I don't need to worry about that. And with all these people I've been meeting, I'm pretty sure I'll be able to get good advice on how to manage my career change responsibly."

Dan began to explore all the things he loved: from cycling, to architecture, to design. He was sure he'd never be able to match his previous salary working with bicycles, and wasn't willing to retrain to become an architect. But it wasn't long before he came across an inventor who was willing to help him design products for cyclists, and they began to work together.

There's a handy exercise for getting clear on what your fears are – and finding the distance and objectivity to stop them from blocking your progress.

I call it 'Little Voice Therapy':

  • Dig around for a career idea you've had in the past, but discarded because it wasn't realistic or practical. Write it at the top of a piece of paper. Then, below it, let your little voices go wild. List all the reasons you couldn't possibly make a shift into that field, industry, way of working, or profession. Keep going, even if you have to repeat yourself, until there's nothing left to say.
  • Take a look at what you've written, and for each item, ask yourself: How do I know this is true? Is it true at all? Could it be even remotely possible that there's a way around this obstacle?
  • Bonus points: Find someone who works in the industry or field you're considering. Tell them you're interested in what they do, and share your fears with them. See what they say (and see what happens to your little voices when you give them some airtime with a professional).

3. You're driving with your hands on the rear-view mirror

Your CV / resume, and your career history. It's the place that most career-changers start from.

Given what I've done so far, what will the world allow me to do?

It's a perfectly logical place to start. And, given that your CV / resume is most likely little more than a list of things you don't want to do any more, it's incredibly stifling.

If your career so far has been unfulfilling, it's unlikely to be a great starting point for creating a working life that leaves you happy and relaxed.

It's time for a mindset shift: from "What am I allowed to do?" to "What do I want to do?"

This isn't to say that your skills and experience thus far are irrelevant and useless. They may well feature in your future career, or play a key role in getting your foot in the door of a new industry.

But they can't be the only place you allow yourself to look.

Katie, a coaching client of mine, felt like she was looking through a blurry telescope in her attempts to come up with ideas for her future career.

In her first e-mail to me, she said:

"I have a feeling I might be beyond help. With 14 years in the law on my CV and no desire whatsoever to stay connected with the legal profession, I'm in the worst possible position to make a change. My qualifications and experience have set me firmly on a set of tracks that I fear I'll never be able to deviate from."

People e-mail us at Careershifters every day with similar fears.

"Can you give me an idea of what careers might be a good fit for me, given my skills and career history?"

"What options do I have available to me? I've attached my CV so you can see what I've done."

When we began to work together, Katie understandably found it difficult to ignore her legal past. But once she gave herself permission to focus on looking forward, rather than backward, she actually started to have fun.

"I can't believe some of the ideas I'm coming up with! It's scary, but suddenly I feel like my future's jumped open and I could put whatever I want in there. I was actually seriously considering training to become a scuba instructor yesterday! I still have some filtering to do, clearly, but at least now I have a stack of ideas to work with, and that's a million miles from where I was a month ago."

It's not always easy (or smart) to throw your CV / resume away entirely and do nothing but dream. So let's start small.

If you have great skills, but you've only ever used them in a certain context, applying them in new environments could be a great start to generating fresh ideas. There's nothing like throwing together two, seemingly unrelated words to spark creativity and innovation.

I call this exercise 'The Element Blender':

  • Make two lists: 'Things I do brilliantly / naturally' (verbs) and 'Envirnoments and things I love' (nouns), using a different coloured pen for each list. Cut out each item.
  • Start mixing and matching your lists, verbs with nouns. Don't worry about them making perfect sense to begin with, just see how many different combinations you can come up with.
  • You might find combinations like 'supporting / creativity', 'organising / interiors', 'writing / psychology', or 'managing teams / start-up culture'.
  • Get out there and start doing some research: Who else has combined these elements in this way already? Where could you bring your skills and natural talents into play in a new context?

Which of these three traps do you think you've been stuck in? Let me know in the comments below!

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach, writer, and experience designer for Careershifters. When she's not working, you'll find her listening to neuroscience podcasts, learning pottery, and dreaming up her next adventure.