Career Q&A: Learning to steer your career

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I am increasingly unhappy with my career choice and I don't know what to do. Some days at work are good, and some days are just plain bad. What can I do?

We all face times in our careers when we question what we are doing the role of our careers in the scope of our lives in general. Accept this questioning as a natural and healthy process, and actively investigate and evaluate your situation and any planned changes of course. The easiest short-term thing to do is nothing, but that in itself is a decision and has its own long-term consequences.

The plastic push car analogy

By way of analogy, my daughter Olivia has a large plastic car that allows me to push her around our house and garden. She sits in it like a good little driver and turns the wheel around and around, occasionally honking her plastic horn when a toy or other obstacle is in her path. I act as her engine, pushing her along. She doesn't connect the fact that I am also acting as her steering mechanism, trying to avoid any expensive objects or dangerous things like staircases. It is only when she gets seriously off course from where she wanted to be that she that she looks up to advise me that's she's not happy with where we've ended up.

Who's steering your career?

The analogy above, while simplistic, fits with many people's career path dilemmas: "How did I get to this point in my career?" The choices we have made along the way were not necessarily the result of well-strategized decisions but rather the result of their subconscious pushing them along without any conscious acknowledgement. This subconscious, like any good parent, is trying to avoid major dangers such as job loss or financial ruin. It is less concerned about the quality of the ride, and may even hope that you are so focused on avoiding those little day-to-day obstacles that you won't even notice that you're off course.

So who is steering?

That subconscious driver can actually be an internalized composite of many people, advice, opinions, and other influences in our lives — from that parent or guardian who told you things like "Work isn't supposed to be FUN, that's why they call it work!" to "As long as you have a good pension, you should be happy." Or you can create your own: "If I have the lifestyle I saw in that magazine, I will DEFINITELY be happy then." We can internalize those thoughts and ideals without consciously acknowledging them and they act as our steering mechanism, even if we think we're doing the driving by turning that little plastic wheel all the time.

Begin to listen to your inner self

Each of us is born with a distinct personality type that evolves as we grow into a natural mode of operating that helps us get through life. For example, we may tend to be naturally introverted rather than extroverted, or detail-oriented versus strategic thinking.

Most of us naturally prefer to use one dominant personality type over another but humans are amazingly adaptive creatures. If your dominant writing hand is injured, for example, you can quickly readjust your behaviour and learn to write with your other hand. We may not be as proficient or comfortable using it but it can be done. In the same vein, many people find that stress is created in their careers when they are asked to perform duties that do not appeal to their core attributes of their natural personality type.

This can happen at any point in a career but most often happens early, when new graduates are most likely to simply accept certain tasks as being difficult or unpleasant to do and just get on with things. This sets up their steering program on the wrong course for their career.

Keys to better career steering

The key element to take control of your career is to understand that career success starts with knowing who you are. Ask yourself, "What is my niche? What are my special skills and is my role consistent with who I am as a person, and the values that are important to me in my life?"

If you are honest with yourself in answering these questions, real breakthroughs can happen — and you can be much happier.

Good luck!

Mitchell Stephenson M.A., CPCC, is a senior partner and a certified professional career counsellor at Catalyst Careers, a career transition, counselling, and outplacement firm. Mitch has been involved in human resources, career counselling and coaching in the health and legal sectors for many years. To contact him, visit: www.catalystcareers.ca.

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