How to help people find their career path
Career growth conversations can feel paralyzing and overwhelming. Beneath the question “What do I want to do with my career?” often lurks an existential trap: “Who am I?”
The human brain is poorly equipped to handle “Who am I?” as a line of inquiry. Asking “Who am I?” potentially traps our brains into what researcher Carol Dweck famously named a “fixed” mindset of permanence. When we think of ourselves in such limited terms, we can struggle to imagine future versions of self that may be different.
Instead, a much better question to ask is “What do I value?” Research finds that people who see their work as a tool to achieve personal goals are more satisfied in their current roles. We also work harder in jobs that feel like they’re aligned with our internal desires -- what psychologists call self-concordance.
For example, imagine you’re offered a job that doubles your salary, but also doubles the amount of hours you’re expected to work, and a lot of your time will be traveling. Should you say yes?
It depends on what you value! If your values are “Prestige, Early Retirement, and Adventure,” then it may make sense. If your values are “Flexibility, Family, and Community,” it may be better to say no. What you value determines the best path.
The trick is that when we think of our jobs as a tool to help us design our lives, we’re more open to surprising, novel, and rewarding career moves that may have never occurred to us when we sat down to write out our five year plan. When we’re faced with an unexpected or surprising career opportunity, being able to take a step back and ask what we really care about, the right path often reveals itself. The cherry on top: the same research suggests that when we think about work through a value lens, a broader range of opportunities open up to us.
But how do we discover what we value?
Try the sampler platter
The fastest way to discover what works for you is to try things out. Just as Thomas Edison famously found 99 ways not to make a lightbulb, most of us will discover 99 career experiences that don’t work. Not only is this okay, it’s actually one of the best strategies available to us.
Researcher and writer David Epstein studied the careers of successful professional athletes and entrepreneurs, and found that the most successful performers were those who engaged in significant periods of ‘sampling’ -- playing many sports, or trying out different ideas -- rather than specializing too quickly. For example, tennis player Roger Federer played basketball, handball, skiing, wrestling, swimming, table tennis, and skateboarding before ultimately committing to tennis. His experience in multiple sports gave him the flexibility to adapt to each new challenge in his chosen career.
In the world of work, stories like this exist under the surface of nearly everyone who seems satisfied with their jobs. We worked with a senior People Operations leader who spends his days managing leadership development, hiring, and onboarding in an organization undergoing hyper growth - and loves every minute of it. When we asked him how he ended up in this role, he credited his experiences as a wilderness firefighter, whitewater rafting guide, and high school teacher as crucial times when he got to figure out what mattered most to him.
If you’re in a period of confusion about your trajectory, accelerate your sampling period by using the 3E model - Education, Experience, or Exposure. Go take a class, read an article, try out a small stretch assignment, or go have an informational interview. The only metric for success that matters is that you’re doing something new.
If you’re coaching someone on their career growth, and want to encourage sampling, consider asking questions like:
- What seems like something you’d like to try out?
- Who’s work outside our team seems interesting to you? Why?
- When you’re at the end of your career, what do you hope to be able to say you learned from your time in this company?
Go away from work
When we have to juggle multiple priorities, manage communication, and maintain focus in countless video calls, it can be hard to think deeply about what we value in our work, much less imagine new possibilities. Research suggests that digital multitasking can negatively impact our cognitive ability more than using cannabis. Too many of us are getting high off Slack.
The antidote may be as simple as using vacation time to sober up. Neuroscientists have found that our creative problem-solving brains need uninterrupted time to daydream and connect wildly disparate ideas into new insights. Additionally, psychologists who study behavior change have found when people spend time in new environments are more likely to follow through on ambitions. Simply put, if you’re hoping to clarify what you value, give your brain a chance to reset.
Pro Tip: Proactively schedule downtime
The greatest temptation in vacation scheduling is to cram activities into the schedule like we’re planning summer camp for bored 13-year-olds. To get the maximum impact of vacation, it helps to set the intention to lounge. In fact, researchers have found that failing to plan downtime can lead to vacations that end up leaving us more stressed than before.
Pro-Pro Tip: Get paid to take time off
The nice thing about PTO is that we’re paid to take it. Not only that, there is a clear relationship between vacation and increased earning. Researchers Sean Achor and Michelle Gielan found that there was a clear correlation between the amount of vacation time taken and the likelihood of someone getting a promotion. People who took less than 10 vacation days a year were 36% likely to receive a raise or a bonus. People who took 11 or more days a year off were 65% likely to receive a raise or bonus. Time off equals money in the pocket.
In our Career Growth workshop, we help train managers and their employees to practice skills like these and more. If you’re interested in booking a workshop, reach out here, or check out our new book, The Leader Lab, which distills over a decade’s worth of experience and research into becoming the best leader you can be.