Lindsay Gordon is a career coach for analytically minded people who want to stop doing what they think is “right” in their career and start doing what’s right for them. She helps people get clarity about what’s right for them in a job and why, confident about their skills and abilities, and able to communicate that to interviewers, managers, and colleagues. This is her first guest post for Girls in Tech NYC.
One of the hardest questions to answer in your career is, “What do you want to do?”
When your manager asks you this seemingly simple question, it can fill you with embarrassment and shame if you don’t have an answer. Why is it so hard to answer? Shouldn’t it be easier to know what we want? This is something everyone struggles with because no one teaches us how to know what’s right for us.
I want to take you through a practical 4 step process to help you understand what works for you and move you closer to work that fits.
Step 1: Relieve the Pressure and Acknowledge the Barriers
There is SO much pressure around career these days: what you should be doing, where you should want to work, what work should mean to you, etc. Everybody has an opinion about what you should be doing — your friends, your family, and maybe even cultural expectations.
On top of all that, we’re walking around with all kinds of mean voices in our heads: “I’m so behind,” “I should have it figured out by now,” “I’ve stayed too long,” etc. You can see how that environment might not be conducive to you feeling empowered in your career! So, before we can even look at aligning ourselves with work that will be a good fit, we need to stop beating ourselves up and relieve some of the pressure.
To identify your own unique flavors of career pressure, ask yourself the following questions:
- The voices around me are saying, “I should be a…” or “My career has to…” What impact does the pressure have on me?
- What would be possible if I could relieve that pressure?
Once you see the pressure you carry around every day, you can acknowledge it, set it aside, and think about what YOU actually want in your career. There is no way you can find fulfillment following other peoples’ versions of success.
We also want to acknowledge the very real systemic barriers in the workplace that make it difficult to “just do what’s right for you.” These barriers (racism, sexism, ageism, etc) will affect folks differently and the important part is to find where you have agency within the system that is not designed for you to thrive.
Step 2: Evaluate Your Current Fulfillment
It’s incredibly important to understand how things are going currently so that you can make meaningful adjustments and/or identify what you want to prioritize in your next step. A very quick way to assess your current happiness at work is to rank your fulfillment in each of the following 8 areas on a scale of 0-10, where 0 is not at all fulfilled, 10 is highly fulfilled. (I recommend that you do this exercise quickly in order to tap into your gut feel rather than overthinking it.)
On a scale of 0-10, what is your current fulfillment in the area of relationships? Generating results? Career development? Creative self-expression? Personal well-being? Communication? Climate and culture? Recognition?
Now you can start to learn from your highest and lowest scores. For the lowest scores, what’s really missing for you in that area? How would it affect your satisfaction if you did have what’s currently missing? For the highest scores, what’s been awesome for you in that area? How important is that piece to your overall experience at work? This will help you identify what’s important to you in a job and which pieces are key to feeling alive and aligned in your career.
Step 3: Uncover Your Unique Value
So many of my clients are surprised to find that they have strengths! They say, “Oh, this is just how my brain works” or “Doesn’t everyone do this?” But anything that feels easy or natural to you is often a huge strength of yours. Once you start seeing them as strengths, you can be intentional about engaging them at work.
To help you start to uncover your unique value, here are two prompts I like to give my clients:
- “Not only do I have [abc] strengths that you would expect from someone in my role, I also have [xyz] strengths that are unique for my role.” What sets you apart? What might people not expect?
- Say I polled your favorite colleagues/managers across your career and asked them, “What makes [insert your name here] so incredibly awesome to work with?” How would they respond?
When you’re clear about your unique value, you can convey it effectively to others and apply it to our final step, proactively cultivating opportunities.
Step 4: Proactively Cultivate Opportunities
Most of my clients are only assessing the opportunities that come to them, instead of proactively cultivating opportunities to grow. Your job is not automatically going to hand you creativity, meaning, or self-expression, it’s up to you to create those things. Once you’ve relieved the pressure, know what pieces are important to you in your career, and can speak about your unique value, you can add a lot of intention to your career development. Start making bold asks, start sharing what you’ve learned about what you’re looking to create in your career in conversations with your VP, be the first person on everyone’s mind when an opportunity comes up because of how much you’ve talked about wanting to grow in that area, etc.
And remember, career growth doesn’t have to be a new job or climbing the ladder; make sure you define it for yourself. You have no control over outcomes, but you do have incredible agency in your actions/inputs and can be planting seeds every day for your career growth. The goal when answering the question, “What do you want to do?” is not an end-point to have it “figured out” but to see it as a lifelong journey of discovering what’s meaningful to you and how you want to contribute.
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