How to Set Career Goals When You Lack Direction


You're long past the age where people ask you what you want to be when you grow up — but you're still trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up. Maybe you're in a dead-end job, or maybe you're out of work. You know that you need to make some positive moves, but you just can't figure out what you want in a career.

It's time to block out some time in your calendar to sit down with yourself and make a plan. Here are some things that can help point you in the right direction of your perfect career.

Mark the day when you will quit your job on the calendar

You're about to embark on a journey of self-exploration, and just like a vacation, this journey will have a hard end date. A deadline gives you the urgency you need to figure this all out. Don't feel guilty when you come to work each day knowing that this job has a set ending point. Remember that company loyalty is rarely reciprocated; if it didn't need you anymore, the company would most likely discard you at the drop of a hat.

Don't worry about how long you've been on the job. If you have financial reasons to stay, such as union seniority or a pension vesting, certainly take those into consideration. But do not let yourself be stuck in place out of a feeling of obligation. (See also: 6 Reasons It's Never Too Late for a Career Change)

Look for self-improvement opportunities at work

Before you leave your current job, explore every benefit your employer offers. If they pay for education, take a class. If they allow telecommuting, set up a day a week that you work from home to arrange your work schedule around job interviews if the need arises. If they have a mentorship program, sign up. Take advantage of every resource at your disposal while you still have them. Don't feel guilty about using these resources when you're planning to leave. Of course, you also shouldn't be slacking off or searching for a new job while on company time, either.

Reach out to your network

At work, in your neighborhood, or among college or high school alumni, ask everyone you know and trust about their workplace and their job. What do they love about it? What kind of staff can they never find enough of? What could they imagine you doing there? Can they give you a tour of their workplace?

After college, my husband didn't know what he wanted to do with his art degree. But he met some friends who had a startup video game company, and he started visiting this company after his regular job, offering some of his skills for free and just hanging out. Once he realized how much he liked the work, he ended up pursuing a career as a game artist.

When you ask friends and family for career advice, accept that you will get plenty of unrealistic suggestions. These people may not have researched the jobs they're suggesting, so they might not know, for example, how long it takes to start making money as a hair stylist or how long you have to study to become a veterinarian. Pass up the fluff and push people to share their firsthand knowledge about their own jobs and workplaces.

Assess yourself

Take a career aptitude test. It can help you identify what your skills and preferences are and make suggestions on what careers might be within your skill set. You may even learn about a career you didn't know existed.

Try volunteering

For obvious reasons, a volunteer job is a lot easier to get than a paid job, and the commitment tends to be low. So it can be a good opportunity to try out new roles and to uncover passions you didn't know you had. Through volunteering during the cookie sale with my daughters' Girl Scout troops, for example, I learned that I love inventory management, a career path that I never would have imagined for myself.

Find out if your company offers paid volunteer time during the weekday, or carve out some evening or weekend time for volunteer jobs. (See also: 7 College Courses That Will Boost Your Career)

Make a list of what you're passionate about

If you've already tried the first few steps on this list, you've had the opportunity to explore your interests. Now have a meeting with yourself where you list those things. Rank them. You only have one life. Is it most important to you that you spend it in a career that helps children, or is it more important that you get to use your organizational skills? Once you have a short, well-edited list, post it in a place that forces you to look at it every day.

Look for opportunities to pursue your passions in your current job

Once I had a relatively boring copy editing job, but I really wanted to write. I let this desire be known in my company. I brought it up in performance reviews, and I posted a freelance article I'd published on my cubicle wall. After a few months, when a manager needed someone to write something for the company's internal website, she called upon me. It wasn't the journalistic writing I later progressed to, but it was writing, and the task helped push me to look for a real journalism job, which I soon found. (See also: 12 Ways to Rekindle Passion for Your Job)

Remember that you're more than your job

Look beyond your current job description when you assess what you have to offer. Consider every positive goal and outcome you've contributed to at work, and how you helped achieve them. Keep those successes in mind — whether or not they're part of your official job title — when assessing what abilities you could bring to your next job.

Go back to school

Before you've identified your new career goal, taking a class can help you explore your interests and skills. After you've identified a career goal, taking a class can help you get there. It could be a whole new degree, but it could also be a certification in a software program, a public speaking class, or a professional training program. (See also: 7 College Courses That Will Boost Your Career)

Lay the groundwork for change

Figuring out your passions and how to use them may take time. During that time, work to prepare your landing pad for the leap you will eventually take. Set aside some money each week for an emergency fund, in case you end up quitting your job before you find a new one. Deal with any personal situation that is taking up too much of your time and energy, whether it's an unhealthy relationship or a nagging health problem.

At the same time, don't fall into the trap of believing that conditions must be perfect before you can make your move. Remember that date on the calendar? Work every day toward being prepared when that date comes, but don't push Quitting Day back just because you don't have every single duck in a row.

Invest in yourself

Spend 3 percent of your income on professional development. Attend professional conferences even if your company won't pay for your plane ticket. Read career books. Treat potential mentors to lunch or coffee. Take courses, as mentioned above. All of these activities can help you find or hone those career goals and get you closer to reaching them. (See also: Here's How Spending 3% On You Will Advance Your Career)

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