Image: Mike Swigunski
With thousands of potential careers out there, how are you meant to find the right one for you? And what happens if you make the wrong choice? Natasha shares an unconventional way to focus your ideas and keep your options open at the same time – creating a career path that feels true to who you are, and to who you might become.
"Your perfect career is out there waiting for you," they say.
"What you seek is seeking you," they say.
Nice idea. But how long is it going to take?
If your perfect career is out there somewhere, it can feel like an impossible task to find it – like searching the whole of the ocean for a single, specific fish.
Much like the ocean, the world of work is vast, ever-expanding and ever-changing.
In this huge space, how in the world are you supposed to do it?
As a career changer, how do you identify (and then land) the one, single, ideal career that will leave you leaping excitedly out of bed every Monday morning?
It's a terrifying question. You spend hours trawling recruitment sites online, scanning job titles you didn't even know existed, desperately hoping you'll come across a description that ticks all your boxes.
It's a gargantuan task. It's also paralysing, soul-destroying, and totally understandable, given the way we're taught to think about careers. Even as kids, when we're asked "What do you want to be when you grow up?", we're expected to answer with a job title.
But this doesn't help when you're starting out on a career change, because:
a) Chances are you don't know what the specific career is that would encompass everything you are and everything you love,
b) The world of work is changing so fast that specific roles and even industries are disappearing and morphing at a rate of knots, and
c) It's likely that there are at least 50 different careers out there that would light you up.
Job roles and career paths are such tiny targets to hit, and they're constantly changing shape. Ten years ago, there was no such thing as a FinTech engineer, K-Pop dance class instructor, or an online dating profile specialist. Five years from now, the careers out there will look totally different again.
So, if you're trying to get specific about what exactly you want to do right from the starting blocks, you're fighting a losing battle. The fish you're trying to find isn't just in a vast and moving ocean. It's actually repeatedly disappearing and changing shape.
So what are you supposed to do?
Stop asking "What should I do?". Instead, ask: "What am I all about?"
When you're in a career you love, it feels a lot like getting paid to be yourself.
When people in fulfilling careers start work in the mornings, most of the things they're doing are pretty aligned with the way they'd happily spend their free time, too.
They're thinking about things they'd enjoy reading about, practising things they're enjoying getting better at, producing things they'd be proud to tell people about.
In other words, their work is a manifestation of who they are, organised in a way that provides value to others.
Their careers are just expressions of what they're all about. And your ideal career will be a great reflection of your answer to the question: "What am I all about?"
Your ideal career is something that's all about immersing yourself the things you're interested in, it's all about doing the things you're really great at, and it's full of people who are also all about what you're all about.
So instead of jumping straight to thinking about specific career paths, roles, and job titles when you're considering a career change, I'd argue it's much more productive to ask the question: "What am I all about?"
Now, upon first glance, this kind of a question is a deathtrap for over-thinkers. It's big, theoretical, existential, and a generally a bit woofty. But the good news is, your life is littered with clues to the answer.
Every story you've ever heard or read or told is about something
Every story has a theme and a topic, right? And that includes the story of your life.
But when a story goes off-topic – when it deviates from its theme – we lose interest in listening to it. We feel confused and lost. And that's probably what you're feeling in your work right now. You've gone off-topic. You've deviated from what your story is about.
What's particularly tough about this is that you likely never knew, explicitly, what your story was about, so you can't find your way back to it.
Luckily, there's a way to find out what you're all about. You need to re-read your story again, and learn from its message.
Here's a fun way to do it.
1. Go back through your life story and make two lists
List 1: Every time you were in 'flow'. Every time you were totally, utterly absorbed in what you were doing, to the point where time flew by. Think of what you loved doing when you were a kid, a teenager, a young adult. What could you read about endlessly, talk about endlessly, think about all day long? Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing?
Dive deep and look for moments of sparkle even in your darker days. Maybe you hated your last job, so your instinct is to ignore it, but there was one day during that time when you were involved in a particular project and came home buzzing. What was that project? Maybe you hated your first job, but there was one person you loved working with on those crappy tasks. Who was it, and why did you love working with that person?
List 2: All the things that pique your interest. Important: the items on this list do not have to be 'career-related'. In fact, it's better if they're not. Think about websites you visit, shops you spend hours in, the first section of the newspaper you turn to, topics of discussion you could lose yourself in for days, people you admire, lifestyles you dream of, your favourite colours, your favourite places… everything.
The more items you can add to these lists, the better.
And if you're sitting there thinking "But I've never felt truly in flow and I don’t know what I like", you're lying to yourself. Seriously, cut that out and put some elbow grease in. Ask your friends and family when they've seen you at your happiest and most engaged. Think of one moment or one thing you enjoy, and use it as a launchpad. Do what you need to do to fill out those lists. I promise it's worth it.
2. When you feel like you've got enough material to play with, leave it alone for a few days
By 'enough', I mean at least 20 items on each list. At the very least.
And then, back away. Don't even peek at what you've written. Get some distance from your work; nobody can see a pattern from 2mm away.
3. When you're ready, come back and play the part of 'objective observer'
Pretend that what's in front of you belongs to someone else, and you're an external scientist who's been brought in to examine a natural phenomenon.
This part's important, because it helps to destabilise the snarky little voice that hangs out in your head and pooh-poohs everything that seems like it might be a little bit hopeful. You know the voice, right? (And if you’re thinking: "Excuse me? What is this woman on about? I don't have a snarky voice in my head!" – that's precisely the voice I mean.)
4. Identify the storylines in your list.
'Storylines' are patterns or themes that connect seemingly disparate ideas, activities and events, and they can be as specific or as high level as you like.
What keeps showing up, over and over, in the moments when you've been happiest in your life? Is there a certain activity that you've mentioned five or six times? Do your moments often seem to involve a certain kind of people? Do you have items across the lists that generally involve inspiring people, or systems, or making things work better, or using your hands?
What are the common threads that tie your lists together?
Examples of storylines could be: 'Great Design', 'Making life more fun', 'Adventure', 'Making the invisible visible', 'Water', 'Fixing things', 'Cars and motorbikes', 'Gardening', 'Taking things apart and putting them back together again', 'Dance and physical self-expression'.
Take a look and see what storylines have shown up in your life, without you even realising they were there.
Debbi came to me for coaching a few years ago. She worked in IT and was dying to make a shift, but had no idea what she was 'all about'. In fact, she'd near enough come to the conclusion that she was so far gone, she was a lost cause.
When Debbi made her lists, she noticed that things related to cooking and interior design seemed to come up a lot. She also saw a higher-level storyline of connection and celebration – she'd listed practically every party she'd ever thrown and every time at work she'd created a new friendship with someone unexpected. There were also a bunch of what she called 'one-offs'; items on her lists that didn't seem to fit together. You'll also have a few one-offs, and that's fine. Keep them nearby and you may find that they make more sense later on.
So, for Debbi, she now had two low-level (more specific) storylines: cooking and interior design, and two high-level storylines: connection and celebration.
What Debbi immediately realised was that her low-level storylines were a part of her high-level storylines. She loved cooking because she loved to feed people. She felt most 'herself' when she was the source of nourishment for others, and when she saw a group of people come together around a table to – you guessed it – connect with one another and celebrate something. Interior design was another way of fostering connection through environment – creating spaces where people could be together, and where the spaces became a part of enabling that sense of togetherness.
A warning on logic
Debbi immediately followed this storyline to its logical conclusion: becoming a chef or a caterer. In catering she could indulge her love of cooking, and help facilitate people's celebrations. Perfectly logical, right? Absolutely – and logic is extremely dangerous when we're dealing with something as complex and subtle as a human being.
Debbi decided not to cut all ties and dive right into catering, but instead to test out her theory (lean-career-change style). Her brother-in-law had a friend who ran a catering business, and she asked to help him out at a wedding he was working on. She rocked up on the Friday night, giddy and excited and ready to participate in someone's big day. Surely this would tick all of her boxes?
What she found that weekend was that catering a wedding was about as far from her love of fostering connections as her day job in IT. Sure, she was cooking, but she was cooking huge batches of each dish, which she realised detracted from her enjoyment of pouring love into each dish and making it 'just right' for each person.
She spent the entire weekend in the kitchen, hearing the music drift in from across the hallway and little bubbles of laughter – but that was as close as she got to feeling the connection and celebration she was there to facilitate. And, although there was a sense of camaraderie among the catering team, with everyone pulling together to produce results, she wasn't particularly inspired by the people around her.
Having dodged a bullet by testing out an idea – and learned more about herself along the way – Debbi tried out a number of different possible manifestations of her love of connection and celebration. When we last heard from her, she was moonlighting alongside her day job: running a twice-weekly themed supper club from her home.
"Just having my storyline as a guide helped so much. I use it as a touchstone – if a career idea isn't focused around connection and celebration, I don't bother with it. I'm still experimenting and I don't know how far my latest project is going to go, but even having it in my life has made the world feel so much richer and more exciting."
What Debbi's been doing is getting creative with her storyline. She's exploring every possible way that connection and celebration can be manifested in a way that people will pay for. She's imagining every possible conclusion to her story.
And you can do this, too.
View your storyline as an umbrella
A 'psychology' storyline logically leads to 'psychologist', 'psychotherapist', or 'counsellor'.
But the storylines of life, like any good book, aren't predictable. They don't really work as the starting point for a straight line. They're more like umbrellas: they're an overarching concept that covers a vast number of possible manifestations.
The 'psychology' umbrella, for example, covers psychologists and psychotherapists and counsellors, sure. But it also stretches over marketing, training, PR, life coaching, architecture, product management, customer service, education, the menu boards in Starbucks… In fact, wherever there are people, there's psychology.
And this is where it's important to point out: These storyline umbrellas aren't real. They're only concepts. And concepts are only worth paying attention to when they leave you feeling more powerful.
'Psychology' is actually a pretty big umbrella. If it doesn't leave you feeling like you've now got something new and exciting to work with, it might be too big – so you may want to explore what exactly it is about psychology that gets your juices flowing.
Are there smaller umbrellas in there you can focus on? The 'stress management' umbrella, for example? Or 'productivity'? Or 'neuroscience'? Does psychology actually represent something deeper for you? Is it a tool that allows us to foster better relationships? Is 'helping people form better relationships' actually a more accurate name for your storyline?
Find the name for your umbrella storyline that feels accurate and inspiring.
Ask yourself: "How many different things are people doing in the world that serve my storyline?"
The other wonderful thing about this way of approaching a career change is that it removes the paralysing burden of finding 'the one thing' that's right for you.
My umbrella storyline is pretty huge. I'm all about 'supporting people to achieve the extraordinary'. And I like a nice big umbrella, because I feel most myself when I have a lot of options to explore.
Right now, my career fits beautifully under my umbrella. The people I work with start out believing that work they love isn't reachable. What I do supports them to achieve something that feels extraordinary. And, in order to do that, I write, and I coach, and I design courses, and I interview people. The 'what' of what I do is all in service of my storyline.
I'm totally clear that my storyline could also lead me to a whole host of other jobs. I could run adventure retreats, taking people to climb mountains and wild-camp overnight. I could teach yoga. I could coach artists who felt 'blocked'. And I'm pretty sure I'd love of all of those careers, too – because they support my storyline.
When you identify your storyline, it begs the question: "How many different things are there out in the world that would fall under my storyline umbrella?" You begin to think more widely. The blinkers come off.
The fish you were aiming to track down is no longer swimming out there in a vast ocean. It's in a clearly defined barrel.
And to top off the good news, you could pretty much pick any of the fish in that barrel, and know that it would likely be a pretty good fit for you.
There are a lot of people out there pushing the idea that you were 'born to do' something. And that kind of approach is pretty terrifying. If there's only one thing that you're supposed to do, that's a vast margin for error.
I'd argue that all you were born to do was to be yourself. So when you're looking for a career you love, you're just looking for something that's a great channel for you to be you. There are probably 300 careers out there that would fit that description. They'd all fall under your umbrella.
And crucially, there's no pressure to get it perfectly right. Like Debbi, you might need to test some of your first ideas to see if they're an accurate fit. And, as you evolve and change as a person, you can move and shift around under that umbrella as much or as little as you like over the years.
(PS: If this way of thinking about career change floats your boat, check out Pam Slim's Body of Work.)
What are you all about? And how many different ways could you express what you're all about? Let me know in the comments below!