"Know thine self" in order to advance thine career
September 28, 2017 11:56 AM   Subscribe

I have been told by many that my current search for career growth and development is limited by my lack of self-awareness about my own goals and desires. Please tell me how a 32-year-old american can improve his practical introspection.

I seem to be very good at helping others understand themselves but when I turn that lens on myself, it comes back very fuzzy and wishy-washy. I have a difficult time differentiating between "self-imposed limitations" "low confidence" and "things to avoid." And my "strengths" seem both completely average (dunning-kruger) and equally valid (I'm about as good using excel as making pizzas).

At the same time, my self-concept doesn't translate well into a mission statement or career goal. I want to work with a good team - I don't care what we do. I want security.... but also I want flexibility and control and excitement and an easy pace and prestige without any bad things. I love projects, but as long as its an interesting project with good team mates, it could be a pushpin or a skyscraper and I'd be happy.

My mentor, several wise coworkers, and my boss all say that I can do anything I want - but I have to want it first in order to pursue it. How do I know what I want? It feels like I'm being told to pick a major again.

My role has no progression, and it is common for employees to bounce between departments along their career paths at this large corporation.

Please share with me your story of how you learned what you want. Did you take an assessment? Did you follow a plan? Was it a conversation with a certain type of person? If it "just came naturally" to you, under what situation did you realize it? Were you in your 30s?
posted by rebent to Work & Money (6 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
For strengths - the VIA Character Insight Assessment can improve your awareness of what your character strengths are, it's like $20. I have found it helpful for this sort of question.

When you have been very engaged at work, what were you doing? What were the elements? Good team and autonomy (control) are important elements for satisfaction for most people. An easy pace AND prestige might not be realistic all the time but I don't know your field.

For me, I am in touch with my emotions (I'm fairly open and soft), I like helping others, and I also like continuous learning, so being able to help others, not have to hide my emotions/use them skillfully, and be able to spend time at work learning new things through books and courses keeps me very happy. These strengths came out in the above assessment and although I'm fairly self aware it was still a bit of a revelation to see the pattern that came out.

I have aspects of my job that I don't like (when I am dependent on other people, when I have to speak publicly, when it is very busy and I don't have time in a day to relax a bit and let my mind wander, when I feel pressure to output under time pressure), but being able to use my strengths as above for something I really want to do outweighs those stressors. I don't think it's possible for most people to have a job that is absolutely perfect, because shit will always happen, but if you can be working on projects you enjoy for a purpose that is meaningful to you, using skills you like to use, that goes a long way to smoothing things over.
posted by lafemma at 12:52 PM on September 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

tldr: You have to work to know what you want. Your first paragraph after the break just reeks of someone who hasn't tried very hard to gain skills or knowledge that make them an asset for any company. Perhaps a therapist can help you work on self-awareness. You've really never had some spark or interest that has caught your fancy? Who cares if it's hard or you don't think you can do it or someone once told you to avoid doing it. If you want to do something you like or even love, you've got to kick ass and take risks. I've never found tests to be useful.

If you want inspiration, here's my story:

I had very different ideas about what I wanted to do when I was a teen and young adult than what I do now. In high school, I was very creative and was in all the art and writing clubs. I was shit at math and mediocre at science. I looked at art colleges before my parents dashed that college dream (story for another day). At around 20, I ended up not going to school and getting a full-time job in a local utility company doing billing and customer service. I took a class here and there at community college. At age 24, as an independent student, I started going to community college every semester. My original major was chemistry. I had taken and liked psychology courses but wasn't sure I could justify the student loans for any psychology careers (sound familiar?). I continued school and got an associate's degree in general humanities, but burned out on chemistry. I continued writing, but otherwise was still lost.

Then, I got lucky. Someone I was close to told me their neuroscience/psychology lab desperately needed help processing data. At that point, I fucking hated my shitty full-time job (this is 5 years later, still at the same utility company). I had basic skills, like working with Office and talking to people on the phone. But I convinced my friend to hire me, because I knew (and they knew) that it was a foot-in-the-door that could get me free tuition and a good job at a university. And I actually believed I could do it, because anything was better than what I was doing.

It worked. They got me the job, I kicked ass, and our hard-ass professor was impressed with how I performed not only at this processing task, but also at all the other lab tasks, too. I eventually got hired as FT research staff there. Then, I applied as a student and got in. Then, I worked my ass off and completed my bachelor's degree while working full time in 5 years. Now, I work in a different lab closer to my interests, and I KICK ASS. I worked really hard over the years to figure out how to be the best at my job, and I think I'm pretty good at it.

Yeeeeeah, it sucked a lot though. There were days where I pulled an all-nighter and then took an exam and then worked 10 hours without lunch. I probably cried or missed a meal a thousand times. I NEVER thought I was good enough. Dark times where I thought I had hit my own limit and couldn't go on. It wasn't always fun and I made mistakes. But at a certain point, I couldn't stop. I just did it because I had to.

But ya know what? I love my job, now. I get to do science and be creative and talk to families, which are all the things I love to do. I have tons of options for splitting off and doing related things, too. For example, I'm learning how to writing children's books, and since I work in a research lab that studies developmental psychology and language, I have a lot of useful knowledge about that. And I never took a test that I can recall, other than the Myers-Briggs stuff. I've talked to close friends at all stages of life who have given me good advice about my character. I've been to therapy, and I've really thought hard about what I liked/disliked about jobs I've had. YMMV.
posted by ancient star at 1:23 PM on September 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I would suggest reading Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You - "Matching your job to a preexisting passion does not matter, he reveals. Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it."

ancient star's experience above seems to echo that message - it wasn't a particular career goal, but working very hard at what they were doing that led to their current satisfying career.
posted by needled at 4:32 PM on September 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

It feels like I'm being told to pick a major again.
Yes, it can be almost exactly like that. So, it might be helpful to think about what made picking a major so hard - it might give you a clue to where you are getting stuck now.
For example:
Everything is equally interesting: Probably not true that EVERYTHING is EQUALLY interesting. Maybe you need to practice tuning into what really interest you. Practice having a preference, just about little things to start with. What do you want for breakfast? Which movie do you want to see? Notice that you can probably cross a bunch of things off the list and then narrow it down to just a few - that crossing off is a preference. In the job context, You say you want "interesting project" - what makes them interesting? boring? Would you rather spend a hour reading about paperclips or genetics or user design?

Also, it not just about interest but also skill - what are you good at? what do you enjoy doing? which jobs have the best combination of the two so that you can do them all day and not be miserable. There are assessment tools out there that can help - I liked the Strong Campbell interest inventory because it helped me map my generic types of interests (yes people, yes research, no outdoors) into real jobs

I narrowed it down but I can't choose between equally good options: Now that it is narrowed, look at the details you hadn't considered before. In the college context - which class as the best prof? leads to more opportunities on graduation? In the job context - this is where you look for the things that really matter to you - the quality of the team and the management.

Choosing one major means not choosing all the others: Yep - sometimes you have equally good choices. But not choosing leaves you paralyzed. If they all look equally good, just pick one and see what happens. Often success has more to do with what happens when you encounter problems than with path originally chosen. These all seem like good choices (or you would cross them off the list), so pick one and make the most of it. If you hit a deadend, take everything you learned and pivot to a new direction.
posted by metahawk at 10:14 PM on September 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

So what if you simplified the question and focused on asking what job(s) you might like to do next within your current company and then building your skills to be qualified for that job? I'm guessing there aren't the many jobs that actually within hopping distance of your current one - limited choice can be a good thing. Plus since they are within your current company, the options can be well researched (especially for things like teamwork and quality management). You can try out the new job, learn what you like and don't like about it and then jump to the next one.

If you don't know where to start, go through a list of job postings (or an org chart) and see which positions sound like they might be attractive. Pick just a couple to research and start talking to people to find out more about the jobs and what it would take to qualify for them. You can also get feedback on whether people think you would be a good fit and why or why not. Then go for it and see what happens - the risk is super low and it will get you moving. Once you start moving you can learn from the experience and decide what you want from the next job after that.
posted by metahawk at 10:21 PM on September 28, 2017

It's not subject material that differentiates jobs, in my experience, so much as activities and focus. So if you have been thinking about it in terms of which subject you enjoy learning about, and you find that you enjoy learning about all subjects, the important takeaway is that you enjoy learning new things.

But you could be looking at a job where you manage the ongoing schedule progress of a construction project by updating the project plan each day based on what the status updates from each individual contractor are - or where you read paragraphs of advertising copy looking for typographical errors - or where are you calculate taxes for 100 individual clients who all have small differences requiring that you pay attention and adapt the details to their situation but 90% of the work is routine - or where you call vendors every day looking for updates on expected arrival times for material and trying to convince them to speed up your particular projects.

And to some extent the way you figure out what you enjoy doing is by doing it, which is why people have so many career changes. But I recommend you keep an eye on what keeps the most options open for you. So if you think maybe you want to be an engineer and maybe you want to be an artist, you will find it much easier to do that transition if you start as an engineer (you can do art on the side, and no one who wants to buy your art will be looking at your resume) than if you start as an artist and decide later to become an engineer. But you should not expect that what you choose now will be what you do for the next 20 or 30 years. You're just picking what you want to do next.
posted by Lady Li at 2:48 PM on September 30, 2017

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