I started college as a musical theater major, but by the end of my freshman year, I knew I wasn’t supposed to have a career on stage. I dabbled in psychology before finding my calling in marketing.
A friend of mine, on the other hand, started her career as a marketer. But after picking up running, she’s in school to become a physical therapist. Another friend has been a software engineer by education and profession, and he recently transitioned into data science.
The thing we all had in common? At some point, we thought we had it all figured out—until we realized that our dream jobs weren’t our dream jobs anymore, and we had to start all over to determine how we wanted our career paths to look.
When you don’t know exactly what you want to do, planning for the future can feel totally overwhelming. But here are some of the questions we asked ourselves that helped not only point us in the right direction—but also plan for the future of our careers.
What Am I Really Passionate About—and Why?
When I first decided to change my major, I considered psychology, because I’m fascinated by the mind. The thing is, I’m not so fascinated by listening to people’s emotional problems, and when I did some further digging, it looked like a career in psychology probably meant becoming a counselor. After pinpointing what I loved about the mind—the ways our brains make connections, process information, and form memories—I realized that a career in marketing, which is all about understanding people’s motivations, would be a better fit.
Along similar lines, when my friend started running, she thought she wanted to become a fitness instructor, but realized that she wasn’t passionate about motivating people to get in shape. Instead, she was passionate about making the body work like a well-oiled machine, which led her to the more medically based physical therapy.
As you consider your next career move, you should think about what makes you excited to wake up every day—but don’t stop there. For every interest or passion, really try to pinpoint what about it gets you most excited. It’s also helpful to try out some things that will let you explore your interests a bit more—think volunteer projects, side hustles, and informational interviews. Pay attention to what moves you—and what you think might move you, but doesn’t. The goal is to dig until you reach the foundation of the passion. (If you need help with this step, The Muse’s five-day email based “Discover Your Passion” class can help.)
What Does My “Dream Job” Look Like?
Now, this doesn’t mean just the title or compensation—you should consider all facets of a job when thinking about your ideal career. For example, do you prefer a structured and heavily regulated environment, or an unstructured and creative environment? Do you want to wear a suit, uniform, or jeans to work every day? Do you want to work remotely, travel to different cities, or go to an office? Each of these questions significantly impacts the types of roles you’ll be looking at.
You’ll also want to consider what the role might look like in one year, three years, or even 10 years. One of my friends, for instance, is a Navy pilot (she flies helicopters on aircraft carriers!), and she’s at a critical junction in her career. She loves flying, and she loves the next three to five years of her path, which includes training others to fly. But, she’s concerned about her job when she reaches the 10-15 year mark, as advancement means that she’ll be on a ship for most months out of the year.
So, as you consider how you want to advance, take a look at what the career trajectory looks like. Will you stay focused in one specific skill or topic, or would you prefer to be more of a generalist? Will you need to at some point start managing others and give up the tasks of producing yourself? (This is especially important for creative professionals to consider.) Are promotions and pay increases based on experience, or do they require specific skills and credentials, like going back to school?
While you never really know how your role will evolve over time (or even what jobs might be available in the future!), it’s important to explore how the role tends to change as you advance.
How Does This Job Fit Into My Life?
As Rikki Rogers explains in her article, “Does Your Dream Job Fit Into Your Dream Life?” a job that makes you happy doesn’t always lead to a life that makes you happy. In her case, becoming a college writing professor would mean that she’d likely be living in a small town, thousands of miles away from her family, so she opted for a more versatile role in marketing communications.
The lesson: It’s key to look at your career choices in the context of the rest of your life—relationships, hobbies, family commitments, even things like fitness and spirituality. I actually put together a “life satisfaction spreadsheet” that ranks the top five things that made me a happy, healthy person, and allows me to weigh my satisfaction in those areas. It’s particularly helpful each time I consider a career move, allowing me to see how the change would affect me in all areas of my life.
Once you’ve answered the big-picture questions about your career, it’s time to put them into action. Again, it’s often helpful to test drive a career path before jumping in head first—here are five simple ways to do just that. Research what education and credentials you’ll need to advance, meet with people in the field to get their advice for breaking in, and ask for targeted assignments as you look to build your resume.
It’s impossible to plan for every step along the way, but asking yourself big-picture questions about what you want from a career can help you chart a path at any stage.