Spring Into Action: Stop Thinking and Start Doing

You want to find a satisfying career, and you're doing all the right things to make it happen: career tests, introspection, research, informational interviews and more. But your hard work hasn't produced any results. You're still stuck. As it turns out, there's a sensible explanation: Most people who don't know what career to pursue "can't figure it out in their heads, with a workbook or by introspecting about their past jobs," says Herminia Ibarra, author of Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career and professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, an international business school in Fontainebleau, France. Ibarra is just one of several career-development experts who say the traditional approach to choosing a career -- learning about yourself, seeing what career opportunities exist in the world of work and then trying to match yourself with the right option –- has one major flaw: For many people, it just doesn't work. "If you don't want a career, spend time planning it," says San Francisco career counselor Kathleen Mitchell, who works both in private practice and on the career-development staff at City College of San Francisco. Don't Think So Much The pressure of determining what to do with your life can be paralyzing, says John Krumboltz, a professor of education and psychology at Stanford University, and coauthor with Al Levin of Luck Is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and Career. "It's hard enough to figure out what I'm going to do this afternoon," Krumboltz says. "If I have to figure out the rest of my life immediately -- now that's pressure. And that shuts many people down." How should you approach choosing a new career? You may be better off using what Mitchell calls a "planned happenstance" strategy. This entails taking small actions that are likely to lead to career insights and opportunities (the planned part) and then seeing where those insights and opportunities lead you (the happenstance part). Think and plan a little less, but do a lot more. Experiment a bit using strategies like these:

  • Sample Different Career Options: Volunteer for a nonprofit organization whose cause is important to you. Try a few temp assignments or freelance projects that will expose you to new people doing new activities. Take a part-time internship in a new industry to see what the work is like. The more you test new career options on a smaller, less-risky scale, the more you'll learn about career opportunities, Ibarra says. You'll have a greater chance of discovering that one of them is a good fit for you.
  • Talk to People Outside Your Circle: The people you're closest to might unknowingly limit you when you're trying to chart a new career path. If you're an accountant, for example, the people around you might tell you to simply look for another accounting job. At best, they might advise you to seek another job that involves number crunching. "You need to find different people to talk to," Mitchell says. "Find people who are willing to hear you out and move you toward your vision without reaching conclusions too quickly."
  • Focus on Job Activities, Not Job Titles: In their book, Krumboltz and Levin tell of a woman who decided she wanted to be an art director for an advertising agency. She became so intent on landing that exact job that she turned down several offers to do similar work at other companies. The result: She remained stuck. "The notion of declaring an occupational goal can give you tunnel vision and prevent you from selecting alternatives you might hear about along the way," Krumboltz says. Focus on the job activities and conditions you're looking for rather than a specific job title.

Of course, thinking and planning both have their place in the process, Mitchell says. "Just don't get caught up in the planning," she stresses. "Don't feel every step needs to be laid out before you move ahead. Begin with any idea rather than the perfect idea." In doing so, she says, you'll create your career along the way -- without having to know exactly where you're going ahead of time.

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