Career Path

Did You Choose Your Career or Did Your Career Choose You?

Sometimes the distinction isn’t so clear between what we’d like to do versus what we end up doing.

Somewhere between the time we get our driver’s license and the time we can legally drink alcohol, many of us make a decision that directs our life’s career course: we declare a college major or zero in on a professional path. A few years later, we get a job. And then one day, some of us discover we really don’t want to be in that career anymore.

Indeed, according to a recent survey from PayScale, two-thirds of employees in the United States regret their college degrees. Which, in some ways, really shouldn’t be a surprise: as we change and mature, what we want at age 36 may not match what we wanted at 18. But there are many reasons people stay in their field once they’ve chosen it, even if it isn’t fulfilling. Education and reskilling take time, change is scary, and we all need a steady paycheck—particularly as student debt continues to mount, making a career path based on certain salary figures a large driver for career decisions among younger workers. One study showed that business students, for one, expected an average starting salary of about $61,000, when in reality the average for a business-degree graduate is $46,500.

if what you’re doing currently isn’t going to take you to the future you want, there’s no reason to hang around.

That said, there are ways to retake control of your career so that you don’t feel like you just ended up somewhere without any choice. “You can create fulfillment for yourself, but it doesn’t happen by chance,” says Marquitta Cherry, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. “There’s work involved.”

Regain control.

The key to redirecting your career lies in first understanding your role in whatever you don’t like about your professional life, says Angela Smith, founder and principal of Loft Consulting in Orlando, Florida. You won’t be able to move forward unless you can acknowledge whether you’ve been complacent or allowed things to creep onto your plate. If you’re stumped as to how it all happened, begin with smaller, tangible questions: What are your most and least favorite parts of your job? Are there items that can be delegated or dropped from your workload? Are there shortcuts that would make your job easier? Sometimes, you can make small, immediate tweaks so you can do more on your own terms.

Get clear about what you actually want.

With a bit more control under your belt, now you can look at the long term. One way to start is by writing down what success looks like to you, and then what success feels like. “Get specific,” says Joyel Crawford, CEO of Crawford Leadership Strategies. “What does your perfect day look like at work and beyond? Once you have clarity, you can reverse engineer to get there.” Such an exercise can also help you understand your priorities. You may find that your 18-year-old self was driven by ambition to get to a top-tier company for your profession, but that your 36-year-old self now prioritizes flexibility in work hours.

Make the decision to stay or go.

It can be difficult to know how long to stick it out in a job, not to mention a career. It may be best to hang in there if you see your current role as a stepping stone to another, or if it provides the financial stability you need to pursue development in more fulfilling areas, Cherry says. But if what you’re doing currently isn’t going to take you to the future you want, there’s no reason to hang around. One indicator Crawford uses with her clients: “If they stop promoting you, it’s time to leave.”

Whether you stay or go, take your time and make sure it’s a decision, and not something you feel like you have to do. Even if you stay, consciously choosing to do so means you’re not stuck.

Reset expectations.

With a decision made, it’s time to redefine your expectations. If you’re joining a whole new industry, you must give yourself time to learn the profession, company culture, and way of doing things. Don’t expect to be acclimated in three to six months, the way you may have been in previous jobs, experts say. And if you’ve decided to stay put, find ways to develop skills in new areas that may reignite a long-forgotten interest, or simply acknowledge where you’re at. Oftentimes, just being honest with yourself—that you’re in this job for the paycheck to support your passion for surfing—is enough to reframe expectations.  

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