“How Do I Find The Career I Want When All I Know Is What I Don’t Want?”

Ted has something every career changer wants: clarity. But is it the right kind? How do you make progress toward work you love when all you're certain of is what you want to leave behind?

What's your work history and current career?

I work in corporate tax for an FMCG company.

I'm the classic Big Four story: I left university and went straight into a graduate scheme, because I didn't know what else to do, and I've been here ever since.

How do you feel about your work?

I feel unimportant and uninspired.

If I were to fall off the planet tomorrow, nobody at work would notice; it wouldn't make a difference. They'd just get another bright young thing up the ranks and that would be that.

It's not quite that dramatic, of course. I do good work for the business and I'm fairly proud of the way I've progressed in my career. But I always imagined I'd make an impact somehow in my career – that I would do work where my particular contribution was important and valued – and I've ended up in a big machine where I'm essentially just a very well-paid cog.

I go into the office, I do my job, I leave.

My manager doesn't particularly respect or appreciate me; beyond our quarterly reviews, he doesn't even talk to me very much. My colleagues are nice, and some of them I'd count as fairly good friends, but it all feels very monotonous and banal, and I can't help but wonder if this is really what the rest of my life is going to be like.

I'm pretty sure I'll be up for a promotion again in the next year or so, and all I can think about is the last time it happened: my family were so proud, they threw me a surprise party. And I stood there feeling like the ultimate liar. I didn't want that promotion, and I don't want this one. What's the point of climbing higher up a ladder when you have no desire for what's at the top?

What would you like to be doing instead?

That question floors me, every single time. I don't have the faintest idea.

I'm 32 years old, and I've only ever worked for one company, in one department. It feels like such a waste; like I've got stuck in a time warp and somehow I'm still that 21-year-old kid who left university with no idea what he wanted to do.

I've got no clue what's outside that company bubble, to be honest. And I'm certainly not qualified for anything else, so I haven't even really bothered going after a career in anything else before.

What's the biggest obstacle in your way?

I feel like I've got all the wrong pieces of the puzzle!

There are some features of my future career that I feel very strongly about: I don't want to work for a big company. I don't want to have to answer to a boss or a manager I don't respect. I don't want a long commute. I don't want to do something simply because I know it'll impress my family and friends (and I know that's something I'm in danger of doing).

I know what I don't want (and to explain best what I don't want, all you really need to do is look at my current job), but I have no idea what I do want to do.

And reversing all the statements about what I don't want doesn't seem to give me any further clarity.

I don't want to work for a big company, but when I say to myself: "So, I want to work for a small company", that doesn't particularly inspire me either.

I feel like I'm starting from such a negative place, only knowing what I hate and won't put up with any more; it must be limiting me somehow. But I don't know how to break out of it.

How do I get clear about what I do want when all I can think about is what I don't want?

Can you help Ted?
  • Have you been in a similar situation, or are you in the same boat right now?
  • What can he do to start working out what he wants?
  • Do you know anyone he could talk to?

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