The Three Stages of Career Exploration


Although I’ve written before about the process of career change, I recently conceived of a simple, 3 stage model that can serve to assist you if you’re wondering about switching careers.  The essence of it is outlined below:


Realization is the first stage, the realization that all is not well with your career.   Realization can come in a wide variety of forms, and often several realizations converge at once to launch this process.  There are lots of obvious realizations: I realize that I dread waking up on Monday and going into work, I realize that I need to make more money, I realize I’m not going to get promoted, I realize that I’m not doing work that excites me, etc.  But realization can begin with subtler cues: I realize I’m really interested when my friend tells me about the kind of work he does, I realize that I daydream a lot on the job, I realize that I’m getting more tired than I used to at the end of the week.

Realization often creeps up on people somewhat slowly, but this first stage can be initiated through a methodical process of self-examination, investigating the thoughts mentioned above (“Do I dread waking up Monday morning; do I daydream a lot on the job?) as well as some others, two of which are:

a) Is my career heading in a direction that will land me close to the place in which I dreamed of being when I first launched my career?  If not, the answer may not be to switch careers, but it is certainly a call for you to examine what you’re doing right and where you could improve so as to get on track towards that dreamed-of place.

b) Do I aspire to be in a much more senior position on my career track (i.e. “Would I like to be the president of this company, a partner in this law firm, the executive director of this NGO)?  If not, you may not be on the right track.


Exploration is the second stage.  Once you have a firm realization that you’re interested in exploring an alternative career path (or, more commonly, several possible candidates), it’s time to begin exploring.  The exploration can (and should) take two basic forms. 

One is internal: what aspects of the work I’m doing or have done, or what activities, bring me joy, fulfillment, or satisfaction?  The answer(s) might be “working as part of a team towards a common goal” or “making sure projects move ahead on schedule’ or “creative problem-solving” or “being outdoors” or “helping others” or “making a difference in the world” or “getting rapid feedback on my efforts” or “acting as a role model,” or “organizing things,” etc. Internal exploration should also most definitely include contemplating the possibility of a potpourri / composite career also known as a slash career, as in psychotherapist / singer.  You may want to add a new layer to your life by allowing a hobby or interest to "go commercial".

The second is external, searching to stimulate new thinking about possible career directions by looking to outside sources.  Of course, working with a career counselor/coach, or life coach/ consultant is one important source because such a person can suggest many different avenues of exploration.  Some of them are:

a) Talking with close friends, or even e-mailing them, about what they think you’re good at and what they might see you doing in 2 or 3 years.  Ask them to concentrate on function (e.g. “selling things,” “Working with people,” or “making sure things happen on time”) rather than specific occupation.

b) Talking with people who are doing, or who have recently done, what you think you might be interested in. LinkedIn is the ideal tool to do this (see my "Linkedin Primer").

c) Searching job listings using the keywords, or variations thereof, that you identified as a result of your internal exploration.

d) Reading one of the books recommended in the career section of my website and completing the exercises contained therein.

e) Spending investigative time on that treasure trove of information, the internet.


Stay as present as possible in the experiences you begin to encounter as you move down the paths of exploration.  What aspects of the exploration did you look forward to?  What stimulated your curiosity?  On the flip side, where did you encounter fear or anxiety?  Talking through the fears with your spouse or a trusted friend can help you determine whether the path you’re exploring is destined to be fruitless because of some deep-seated barriers, or that the barriers are surmountable, in which case continue the exploration.  As you move further down the paths remain open to the possibility that an adjustment needs to be made in your original thinking, and that a “branch” of the path may be worth investigating.  In the final analysis, though, you will be seeking the inner sense of “rightness” that will tell you that you’ve identified the answer(s) to your quest.

Keep in mind, though, that you're highly unlikely to know whether the shift is the right one until you've spent some time with it. Which is why it's so valuable to "Beta test" a new career path if you can - volunteering, shadowing, or working part time outside of your current job to start to get a feel for what it would be like.



“Midlife Crisis” and Career Satisfaction 


This post is inspired by an article (actually the cover story) in The Atlantic magazine, entitled 'The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis." It's a misleading title, because the article in fact devotes quite a bit of emphasis to deconstructing the entire idea of midlife crisis, focusing on what social scientists increasingly see as a "Happiness U Curve."

When plotted on a graph in which the X axis is the level of self-reported life satisfaction and the Y axis is age, the curve looks like a cross-section of a bowl, with satisfaction higher in the late teens and twenties, gradually declining through the thirties and hitting a low point in the forties. Somewhat surprisingly then, satisfaction begins to increase through the fifties and sixties and is actually highest when people hit their seventies, until serious health problems multiply and begin to significantly impair physical and mental activity. This pattern is seen across a wide variety of cultures and geography, and is even purported to hold true for apes (their "life satisfaction" being measured by zookeepers).

There are a number of factors that contribute to the shape of the curve; here are some of them:.

1) The unlimited time horizons of youth shorten as people age into their forties and fifties; they realize that time is not unlimited, and so they tend to adopt more realistic goals. They also tend to become more involved with ongoing activities and experiences that bring tangible and enduring satisfaction (such as membership in groups and pursuit of hobbies) rather than the acquisition of material objects that provide a short-term “fix."

2) Spirituality increases with age. This phenomenon is due to a greater sense of mortality, and a greater interest in the "meaning of life." Greater emphasis on spirituality is an important contributor to finding a sense of peace and contentment with life.

3) Perhaps related to evolutionary biology, younger people tend to be more competitive, spending a great deal of mental and emotional energy comparing themselves with peers. This tendency to compare generally tapers off when people hit their late forties and early fifties. Why? It may relate to a kind of mental exhaustion and a realization that there will always be someone who is richer, smarter, fitter, better looking, or generally further advanced. 

4) Older people tend to be less inclined to be upset about things they cannot change. This is an important component of wisdom - I frequently teach or remind clients about the Serenity Prayer: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage (or strength) to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Again, some form of mental exhaustion may contribute to this wisdom, as the realization that effort after unsuccesful effort to influence unchangeable outcomes only leads to unhappiness.

5) Older people tend to be more open with others about the difficulties and disappointments that they've faced in life - an openess that helps them to realize that they are not alone in these experiences. That realization is comforting and can help put the inevitable low points of life in perspective.

6) As one ages one certainly sees examples of others leading lives that are deserving of envy. But most people see at least as many lives that turn out not so well, and are often marred by tragedy. In the relatively evolved person's mind, then, gratitude builds and satisfaction with the life that they're living increases.

7) Young people's time horizon is almost unlimited, and so they see enormous opportunities in the future. Often these perceived opportunities are chimeras of wishful thinking, rosily colored by ignorance of how the world actually works and by not having experienced the kinds of setbacks more familiar to older people (e.g. the death of loved ones, personal illness/injury, career disappointment). As a result, younger people consistently overestimate their expected future happiness, while older people consistently underestimate it. Thus things tend to turn out worse than expected for the young and better than expected for the old, and as those realizations sink in the curve measuring life satisfaction bends towards that bowl shape. 

"Midlife Crisis," then, is a point of inflection, where the accumulated impact of the above hits people, generally in their 40s. The great news is that, for most people, life will be experienced as getting better as they age. Hard to imagine for the young, but true.


HELP!! All the Jobs I'm Interested in Demand Experience I Don't Have

If you’re starting on a new career track (whether “fresh out of the gate,” i.e. perhaps just having graduated from college or graduate school, or particularly if you’re thinking of changing careers in midlife), it’s incredibly frustrating to peruse job postings that require years of experience for what are essentially entry-level positions. How does one acquire experience in a new field if the only jobs available require previous experience in that field? 

In order to work around this chicken-and-egg barrier, there are several possible solutions: 

1.  Volunteering

Identify a well-run organization in which you believe and see if there are volunteering opportunities to undertake the functional work most similar to the kind of work you are looking to move into. For example, if you are interested in event planning or project management you might volunteer to help plan and orchestrate a fundraiser for an NGO. If you are looking to go into digital marketing you could offer your services to a not-for-profit that is looking to refresh and update its web presence. If you are attracted to finance, perhaps you could offer your labor to a “life skills” organization that instructs the poor on financial literacy. Don’t overlook the possibility of contributing your efforts to a community governance or improvement group (for example DC has Advisory Neighborhood Commissions that deal with a variety of local issues such as recreation, health, and budgeting). 

Two key objectives to keep in mind as you embark on the volunteering path: a) to the best of your ability make sure you are involved in a project that will allow you to claim a specific accomplishment (e.g. “organized a silent auction that netted a record $26,000); b) look to identify and bond with a senior mentor who can both teach you valuable skills and perhaps connect you with people in a position to hire you as you acquire those skills.

N.B. - If the skills you have to offer are minimal, and your primary goal is to build up those skills, you may need to start off by “shadowing” someone so as to gain an understanding of exactly what it is they do, and then gradually beginning to contribute as you learn. 

2. Blogging

I recently helped a young man acquire a data analytics job with a professional football team, an exceptionally desirable and highly competitive position. He did this primarily on the strength of a blog that I urged him to write which demonstrated his knowledge of data analytics and posed provocative questions about the current state of game management.

If blogging is a route you wish to follow, you need to make sure that the quality of your writing, as well as of your insights into the chosen field, are outstanding. If you’re not sure about your ability to consistently create interesting and thought provoking content, you can curate and organize the writings of others to illustrate your conclusions (although creating original content would be preferable). 

3. Interning

Landing an internship (most likely unpaid) is probably the most traditional way of gaining experience in a new field. Interns are traditionally younger, so this is most likely not a route that someone in mid-career can pursue, and of course the lack of pay tends to be more problematic the further into working age one is. But for younger career shifters interning can be a great first step. Just keep in mind that most internships attract quite a few applicants, so you will need to make a persuasive case on why you should be selected, highlighting abilities the internship involves by citing past experience and accomplishments. In other words, what you bring to the table. 


Networking with Twitter

Confession: I really dislike Twitter. Like so many technological advances the original concept was promising: brief, direct, focused communication - an information network.  But It has evolved into more of an opinion network - and, as sometimes used by Donald Trump, a DISinformation network. If you're an active Twitter follower you have added additional distraction to your undoubtedly already over distracted routine, constantly being alerted to the latest musings, or sometimes rankings, of numerous people of questionable relevance to your life.

Nonetheless, if used strategically Twiiter offers the opportunity to develop new contacts and relationships - the key to exploring career and job opportunities. A concise 
"instruction manual" titled "How to Network on Twitter (without looking like a creep) appeared in the March 2 2016 issue of Forbes that I am reproducing here:

"If you're mainly using Twitter to keep tabs on the Kardashians, you're missing out on lots of opportunity. Especially when it comes to professional networking.
Twitter is an incredibly powerful networking tool. It allows you to access important players in your industry who are perhaps otherwise pretty impossible to reach.
When my client Kaela told me about how badly she wanted to write for one a particular publication, I asked her what steps she had taken in order to pitch her articles.

Kaela had submitted her piece through the site's submission form, and had followed up several times without hearing anything back. When I asked if she followed the editor of the section that she was looking to write for on Twitter, it had never dawned on her that she might be able to use social media for something like that.
It's absolutely possible to make valuable networking connections by leveraging Twitter's platform. Here's a timeline of how to make contact with key players in your industry – without coming on too strong.

Day 1
Choose the person you want to get in touch with. When you're looking to make a connection with someone on Twitter, make sure you're choosing someone with a realistic following. For example, Kaela likely wouldn't have been able to foster a Twitter connection with the publication's Editor-in-Chief, who has 1.5 million followers. But the editor on the section she was looking to write for had only 15,000 – which is still a large following, but more reasonable that this person would notice tweets from one of 15,000 followers than one out of 1.5 million.
Make your Twitter page look pristine. Take a scroll down your Twitter page and make sure there's nothing vulgar or unprofessional on your timeline. Ideally, your Twitter page should be full of tweets and retweets that speak to recent and valuable trends and information.

Follow this person on Twitter. But don't come in too hard, too fast. Follow the person you're interested in networking with, and start to retweet a few of this person's tweets. Don't just retweet everything they've tweeted in the past 24 hours. Select tweets that resonate with you and the industry you're serving. This is particularly effective if you’re retweeting something that positions them in a positive light. For example, if this person won an award or nomination, or earned a big media mention, those are ideal tweets to retweet.
Days 2-4
Take a break.
Day 5
Tweet at the person. Don't overthink it. Your tweet could be something positive like: “I love the work you do – let me know how to help spread the word!” Or it could be something like “Take a look at @AshleyStahl’s article: Networking is Giving.” Just make sure to be authentic, and don't overdo it with the flattery.

If you haven't received a reply within a day or two, continue to retweet a few of this person's tweets. At some point or another, you’re very likely to get a reply from this person. In Kaela's case, once the editor she wanted to get in touch with replied to her tweets and followed her back on Twitter, I had her craft a message complementing the compelling work that was being done on the editor's section of the site, and asking to chat more.

The more you support someone on Twitter, the more likely they’ll want to be networking with you. In today's job market, it's important to think outside of the box. And sometimes that means using that box of 140 characters on your Twitter account to make the valuable connections you need to take your career to the next level.
Just ask Kaela, whose most recent article on that site she so badly wanted to write for was one of the top performing articles of the month.
Even the Editor-in-Chief retweeted it."



Dealing with Rejection

Many of my career-counseling clients come to me because they have been repeatedly rejected by potential employers.  Many of my relationship-counseling clients come to me because they feel rejected (unloved or unappreciated) in their marriages or partnerships.  And a number of my psychotherapy clients see me to overcome the wounds that a series of rejections has inflicted on their self-esteem.

NO ONE likes to be rejected.  This is true in both the your professional life and/or in your interpersonal relationships (whether it be with a spouse, date, or friend).  So whenever rejection occurs, it’s pretty likely to be disturbing.  The disturbance could range from mild annoyance to total devastation (in the event of a cheating partner, for example).  But HOW you deal with the unpleasantness of rejection is of great significance to the eventual emotional outcome and, at least to some degree, is amenable to improvement.  

For some, virtually any form of rejection is devastating.  The rejection is viewed as an indictment of their entire being, and they feel worthless, incompetent, or unalterably unattractive.  These people are overly dependent on the perception others have of them to validate their self-worth.  The Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz” summarized this proposition when he said: “a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others”.  There is truth to that statement.  But a larger truth is that our worth comes from our living our own unique lives to the fullest of our ability, and treating others lovingly and respectfully.  Whether or not others approve, accept, or reject us shouldn’t be the primary determinant of our life path.

In childhood, people often absorb the idea that if they’re rejected they’re just plain no good.  This can come from being teased or shunned by playmates, or by unintentional or sometimes even intentional comments from parents.   The profound sadness of feeling worthless usually traces to one or more early experiences that occurred way before the cognitive abilities were developed enough to make sense of the rejection.  As adults, however, those cognitive abilities are developed, and should be put to use.

Perhaps the most important of these cognitive skills to develop is what Martin Seligman ( , probably the leading figure in the field of Positive Psychology, calls “the optimistic explanatory style”.  An optimistic explanatory style takes an event and intentionally interprets it in an optimistic or positive way (or at least in a way that casts minimal reflection on the “rejectee”).  For example, if you drive past your neighbor’s house, wave at her, and she fails to acknowledge you, you might conclude that she was momentarily preoccupied and didn’t register your greeting.  A pessimistic explanatory style would tend to interpret the neighbor’s lack of response as an indication of antipathy.  To take a much more serious example, the discovery of your spouse’s extramarital affair could be viewed at one extreme strictly as a commentary on your worthlessness or lack of intelligence, beauty, or success or, at the other extreme, strictly as a commentary on the weaknesses, failings, or inadequacies of your partner.  I think it is self-evident which of these interpretations will ultimately lead to quicker healing.

We now know that some people are in a sense genetically disposed to a pessimistic, depressive way of looking at the world, while others come into the world quite the opposite.  Genetics, however, is not destiny.  By practicing applying an optimistic explanatory style to the circumstances that feel like setbacks in your life, you can gradually improve your ability to look at events from more a more positive and energizing perspective.

Rejection provides an ideal, if admittedly challenging, arena in which to practice developing a more positive explanatory style.  For example, rather than focusing so intently on trying to discover which characteristics or actions of yours led to your rejection, or what you could have done to prevent it, think about rejection in more ‘neutral”, less individually specific terms.  Phrases like “If the train didn’t stop at my station it must not be my train” or “You can’t please all of the people all of the time” are truisms that may take a bit of the sting out of being turned down.  Coming at rejection from almost the opposite angle, another approach would be to look at the rejection as a learning opportunity.  By paying attention to read flags or feedback you may have ignored, you can become better at making smarter choices going forward, and thereby minimize the likelihood of rejection next time you venture forth.