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What If I Don't Know What I Want to Do?

Are you looking to switch careers but don't know to what you'd like to switch? That's the case for the great majority of the clients who come to me searching for guidance on how to transition. Their lack of clarity about the ultimate goal is like a millstone around their necks: they're often somewhat ashamed that they haven't figured that out, viewing that "failure" as an indictment of their intelligence or even their personality. And of course not knowing where one wants to wind up makes it awfully hard to ask friends, colleagues, or networking acquaintances for help in getting there.

Beware the trap of trying to get too specific with your career goal if you're uncertain!

One of the most famous aphorisms related to goal achievement is Stephen Covey's second Habit of Highly Successful People: "Begin with the end in mind." And innumerable articles and books urge their readers to develop a plan - a five year, ten year, even twenty or thirty year plan. Makes all the sense in the world, right? How can you get somewhere if you don't know where you want to get?

Unfortunately, most people simply haven't had enough life / work experience to be able to confidently choose a destination. So, swayed by the cultural narrative that says they should know, they often turn to career testing (most commonly Myers-Briggs) for the answer. After all, isn't that an objective way to gauge one's strengths and weaknesses, one's likes and dislikes? Shouldn't such testing produce a reliable indicator of the right career choice?

No, it doesn't. Or at least it can't be relied on to be sufficiently predicitive of an individual's satisfaction and success with a particular career path, for two key reasons. First, Myers-Briggs (and most other common career tests) certainly has value as an employer's measurement of the likelihood of success in a given occupation (in other words, predicting that a certain personality type, or set of strengths, is well suited for certain jobs)*. But when utilized to predict any specific individual's path to success it is hampered by the wide variance among individuals that exists in any large group. 

An analogy: We might know that grits are enjoyed by 55% of Texans, and are 10 times more popular among them than among Pennsylvanians. So if I were entertaining a group of Texans in Pennsylvania grits would probably be a good choice to serve. But how accurate a prediction can I make for any individual Texan's enjoyment of grits? There's almost as big a chance that a specific Texan WON'T like grits (45%) as WILL (55%).

The prediction accuracy is further clouded by the fact that most people tend to fall in the middle of a bell curve that plots any particular strength or characteristic, and that there is the possibility of significant variation in the way career test questions are answered, depending on the mood and circumstances of the testee. For example, I am likely to favor answers that point to extroversion if I had a great time at a party last night, but to introversion if I felt excluded. Or I might lean towards answers that revealed an empathetic personality if I had just finished an email exchange with a friend who had turned to me for comfort.

Then there is the fact that suggested career choices for any particular personality type or strength clusters are pretty broad. For example, a Myers-Briggs ENFJ is pointed to teaching, counseling, nursing, and perhaps management. The exact opposite Myers-Briggs type (ISTP) is directed to computing, engineering, accounting......and managament!

Of course career testing can be valuable in identifying career paths to explore, but the emphasis needs to be on the exploration, rather than relying on the test to answer the question "what should I do?" There are several excellent published frameworks for this exploration, notably "The Pathfinder" by Nicholas Lore and the classic "What Color Is Your Parachute". Completing the recommended exercises is sure to be valuable, particularly in the context of working with an expert career counselor who can think "outside the box" about what the results suggest.

Let me address another important aspect of career uncertainty, and the way exploration fits in: how to respond to people you've sought for guidance or ideas or connections or specific opportunities when they ask you "What do you want to do?" I advise my clients to be very upfront about uncertainty, but not to respond with "I have no idea." That doesn't give your connection anything to work with. Instead, respond with something along the lines of "That's exactly why I'm talking with you. I can tell you that I have some interest in... (technology, marketing, analysis, social justice, making an impact, making money, etc - choose 2 or 3 as a place to start). And I know I'm good with (people, numbers, problem solving, creativity, organization, my hands, etc. - enumerate a few of these). This approach will encourage a more open, creative, brainstorming kind of a conversation - exactly what you need when you're uncertain. As you engage in these kinds of conversations a much clearer picture will almost certainly emerge.

*In fact Myers-Briggs was originally developed as an employer, rather than an employee, tool.

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