When we feel stuck, unsatisfied, underutilized, resentful, or bored with our professional lives, a well-meaning friend may ask, “So what do you want?” Even the most talented, prepared, and high-performing of us might answer with, “I just don’t know what I want.” This is exactly the scenario that brings so many people to seek the support of a coach in the first place. My perspective: No one but you can know what you want. Uncovering this takes time. And, you owe it yourself to explore the question. Knowing what we want is essential. Want offers a deep, renewable source of energy that allows us to push through the difficulties and obstacles of getting closer to our goals. Want reflects the reality that we are in motion and in a constant state of change, that we evolve, and that in various seasons of our lives different things matter to us. When we’re in pursuit of what we want:
We live and work in greater alignment with our core values and our purpose as we understand it at a given moment in time.
More alignment = greater satisfaction AND better outcomes in every domain of our lives.
We guide ourselves away from wasted time and distraction and we focus on the things that matter to us.
We can enlist the help we need from others in purposeful, useful ways.
We have the stamina to keep going when things get tough.
So why is it hard to answer the question of what we want? We have all internalized messages about what we can or can’t have because of the other commitments in our lives.
We believe there are limits to what we can have given our history.
Or we can’t envision how the things we love could be part of our work. Many of us have simply stopped asking ourselves what we want, postponing our exploration of our career desires to a later time. I can think about what I want when the kids are grown, or after I’ve made VP at this firm. Many of us get caught in the should-trap. I should take a job that shows upward progression in my field, or I should stay here because my manager has been good to me. The should traps are some of the most pernicious we face – sometimes because they come disguised as being in service of other people. There’s a reason people use the expression: Stop shoulding all over yourself! Feeling a little clueless about your own Career Desires? Try these ideas out:
Look for the evidence in your own life.
Our lives are a primary and best source of information about what we are drawn to, what gives us energy, what really matters to us. All of us can benefit from excavating our own work histories carefully and patiently to discover the patterns contained in our experiences. Ask yourself, when were the times at work you have felt the most delighted? Operated in your zone of genius? Barely noticed the passing of time as you dove into activities and ideas that lit you up from the inside?
Look to the leisure pursuits in your life – what you read and watch, what you are drawn to for hobbies, travel, and personal projects. Examine the conversations that you generate when you’re with people you enjoy. There is evidence in these moments about what you love and what you want. Ask someone close to you: What do you notice me doing when I am really engaged and joyful?
Notice how the ‘but’ statements stop you, and learn to stop them.
One of the hardest things to watch is someone light up about something that turns them on, and then immediately shut themselves off before the thought is even completed. “I would love to manage people again, but I want to be home for the kids, and that kind of job might be too much.” “I want to work in that sector, but there’s no money in that.”
“I’m so interested in what another part of the business is up to, but I don't have experience in that area.” All of us have internalized messages that block us from believing we can have what we want. The inner critic, our internal saboteur, whatever name we use to identify the cruel, internal loudmouth that crushes our desires needs to be told to bite its tongue.
Generate great personal research questions
How can we find out what’s possible, even if we’re nervous, worried or scared? By asking open-ended, spacious questions that get to the heart of what we don’t yet know, and then going on some fact-finding missions. If you are worried, fearful, or blocking yourself from exploring something you want, there’s a great chance that you’re really in need of more information. Think you’ve been out of the market too long? Believe you can’t make a pivot from a family-led business to a public company? Worry it would ‘look bad’ to move from people management responsibilities into individual contributor work that lets you do more of what you love? Let’s find out. Here are some examples of great personal research questions:
How did someone I admire manage that pivot in her career?
What are three major factors that are changing my field since I stepped out a few years back?
What are the biggest opportunities and risks to my starting my own practice?
How are my team leadership skills relevant in a start-up environment?
Asking great questions, collecting data and sifting through what we find allows us to take purposeful, pointed action to get us closer to what we want. And, going through these exercises isn’t just for new job seekers. It’s for those of us who work for ourselves, work in organizations, already have jobs, all of us.
If we’re not asking ourselves what we want often enough, suddenly we look up and say: where did the years go? The end of one year and the beginning of the next might be the perfect time to explore what you want in your career and life.