I knew my life was going to change during the last year of my PhD, but I did not suspect the change would be so radical. 8 months ago, I made my first appointment with our career counselor. (Had I known we had one, I would have arranged a meeting earlier.) I went from being clueless to being in total control of my life.
It turns out, I had always been in possession of the key to unlock my potential. I just needed someone with a fresh perspective to push me in the right direction. That first meeting with the coach was meant to help me define my career goals. But, how are you supposed do that?
Be pragmatic and take one step at a time
The problem many people have, including myself, is that we tend to romanticize particular jobs and to develop platonic feelings about the lifestyle of the person who carries out those jobs. For instance, how many times have you fantasized with being a writer or an artist? It’s so extravagant, so bohemian! You just get to create and meet interesting people, you are everyday caught amidst the most eccentric situations, and you get to be admired and hated –but mostly admired. Those sleepless nights writing with crazy hair and a pack of cigarettes (picture Johnny Depp in The Secret Window) are the dream, right? Even though we know a character is suffering, for a moment we still wish we were that character. Blame cinema, blame novels, blame whoever, but you –we, all– need to learn to identify and stop that behavior when we think about our own careers. (Nothing wrong with fantasizing about being a singer under the shower.)
This romantic idea is what possibly pushed me towards starting a PhD. Although this was a great decision, believe me: there is nothing romantic about statistical models not converging, or stumbling upon a paper that crashes your next experiment. But here I was, close to finishing and doing it again: what if… I now become the Creative Director of a cool lifestyle magazine? Obviously, the day I wrote down “Creative Director” as one of three possible careers for myself, I had no idea AT ALL of what a creative editor actually did. How could I possibly assume I would enjoy that job in real life?
Just like we tend to put success before happiness (when it should be the opposite –e.g., read Shawn Achor or watch his TED talk), we also tend to favor end goals in contrast to processes. And that mirrors how we search for a job.
We open the browser, go to Linkedin, Monster Jobs, whatever, and type “Creative Director”.
And we take it from there.
There is nothing wrong with this, but
a better first step is to focus on the processes, assess our skills, and then –only then– search for matching jobs.
I’ve been reading a very helpful book called “Designing your Life“, written by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans from the Design Program at Stanford.
In a nutshell, the book applies basic principles from the design process to what they call “life design”. It moves beyond asking “what work do you want to do”? to “why do you work?”. Thus, just like designers do in the beginning of a project, the book’s practical exercises cue us to dust off our tools for discovery, so that we can assess where we are standing right now, and what areas in our (professional) lives need improvement. The mission? Finding out what our quest is, and set the path for action.
What I find most interesting about the book is its definition of work. Work does not just comprise what you do to pay the bills, but it comprises anything you “do”, including hobbies and household tasks. From that starting point, the authors take you by the hand in figuring out what your work- and life views are. Some people may have conflicting or imbalanced work- and life views. One very easy example: you work for a corporation that is known to cause heavy environmental damage, yet you wish to help protect nature.
Once you have begun reflecting on your core values and purpose, you may start taking note of what it is that you truly enjoy (or not) about your work or current situation.
“Wayfinding is the ancient art of figuring out where you are going when you actually don’t know your destination” (p. 43)
Wayfinding is what we actually did, the first time the coach and I met. We started by noting down adjectives related to my character, and to slowly zoom into tasks that I like to perform, and why. We generated a list that reflected my “essentials”. That is, besides my professional expertise, the qualities that I possess, and the tasks that bring me the most fulfillment.
If you don’t know how to get started with this, there are more guided methods. For example, Burnett and Evans suggest you write a “Good Time Journal” for a couple of weeks. This can consist of writing the activities you do, accompanied by your engagement level during each activity (low: you’re easily distracted; high: you’re on the “flow“) as well as your energy level. You can use this exercise to dissect what it is about a job or activity that you like and dislike.
Bring all the insight together to inform your search
You can confidently pack the insight gained from the exercises I wrote about so far (purpose, work view and life view balance, and the activities that engage and energize you) and start to figure out what type of work is the best match for you. Do this by browsing offers, asking friends, mind-mapping, etc.
What did I learn about myself?
I found out that I actually like research, but I would prefer a job with less emphasis on writing. I also found out that University may not be the perfect environment for me: that I want to work with people, and to do so in a creative or artistic setting. I also found flexibility, openness, optimism and enthusiasm to be some of my strong suits. Thus, my new goal is to work as a researcher for a company I share core values with and that has an easygoing, creative atmosphere. I feel I am walking towards my place in the universe.
If you have a story to share, a question or a suggestion, please do not hesitate and drop me a comment below! Feed this blog a little love 😉
♥ Ingrid ♥