Almost every time a new client calls me for help in deciding on a new career path they talk about the difficulty they’ve had in “figuring it out”. They’re stuck. This almost never surprises me. Why? Because when a client is literally attempting to figure out a new career (i.e. reviewing the information they already have about themselves: their strengths, weaknesses, passions, values - and their prospective careers), they’re dealing with experiences and knowledge of the past. A new career path is by definition something in the future. So, very simply, if you haven’t been able to “figure out” a new career direction for yourself it’s because the experiences and information you have accumulated from your past are not yet sufficient to move you decisively in a new direction. How to gain more? Here are two specific examples of paths I urge my clients to embark on:
1. Inquiring: You should start to become comfortable with telling your current and future circle of friends and colleagues that you’re looking to find new career challenges. Or you might phrase it as seeking different experiences, or learning a new set of skills. Having established in conversation that you are in an exploration phase, they will understand and most likely appreciate your asking a lot of questions. Most people are flattered when asked to talk about what they do, and appreciate an attentive listener. This is not to say that you should always be asking people about what they do; if you’re looking to move into the arts you probably won’t have a great deal of interest in learning about accounting or researching (although an accountant for the Motion Picture Association or a researcher for the Kennedy Center or the National Gallery might provide a wealth of useful information). A final point: if you do decide to inquire, make sure you are willing to give your full attention to the answers you hear.
2. Experimenting: Experimenting most frequently takes the form of some sort of immersion into the field in which you have interest. There are several ways to do this. One is to enroll in an introductory course (live or on-line) that will expand your knowledge of the particular field you’re wanting to explore, or to attend a series of lectures.
A second is to volunteer for an organization or institution that works in your area of interest. For some fields this may seem impossible, particularly those requiring extensive training, but chances are you can find a volunteering opportunity that at least gets you close to the action. Interested in medicine? Volunteer for the Red Cross. The law? Your local Legal Aid Society. Don’t overlook the multitude of industry and cause-related Associations located in Washington. They will be able to help direct you towards volunteer opportunities within their arenas. One excellent source of a wide variety of such opportunities is an organization called onebrick.org which only requires a one-time commitment of three to four hours, after which the volunteers gather off-site for socializing. It offers a wonderful chance to “sample” an activity in your area of interest, and to network with others who have similar interest, and perhaps much greater experience (and good connections).
A third, less "hands on" but still potentially valuable method of experimentation is reading biographies / autobiographies of people who have worked in the field you're wanting to learn more about. Of course, reading of anything related to that field could be useful, but the personal flavor of biography can give you a better sense of whether you might be a good fit. A superb anthology of short biographies (actually, case studies) of people struggling with finding a new career is entitled: "What Should I Do with My Life" by Po Bronson.
I often hear the phrase “think outside the box” in discussions of how someone can determine a new career direction. The paragraphs above take a somewhat different direction, namely: E X P A N D the box!