I still remember the moment I had that sinking feeling that something was wrong with me.
I was sitting on a scratched-up black futon in my small, shared apartment in Manhattan, a few years into my so-called career. Already, I’d covered a lot of ground: I started in international relations, initially dreaming of a career in the foreign service, when I started working at the US Embassy in Cyprus. Disillusioned with government bureaucracy, I then spent a few years at McKinsey & Company, living the hectic life of a management consultant as I flew from city to city and client to client. My third move was international, putting most of my belongings in storage to live in Kigali, Rwanda, while working on vaccine introductions with the Clinton Health Access Initiative.
From afar, they all sound like exciting opportunities. And at one point, I believed deeply that each and every one of them might be my “dream job.”
But for one reason or another, once I found myself actually working in each role, that familiar sensation of career wanderlust would creep in. I couldn’t get myself excited about the long-term, nor picture having my boss’ boss’ job and being happy. Looking ahead two years, or five years, or 10 years down the line didn’t inspire a feeling of anticipation or excitement—instead, it was more like dread.
I started to wonder if I was just lazy, or if I had career commitment issues.
I concluded that it must be me that was the problem—obviously, I was the only common denominator.
I see so many people fall into this very same trap. For months or years, they’ve operated with this assumption that a certain position will be the perfect fit. Diligently, they apply themselves in pursuit of a goal, believing that career satisfaction lies on the other side. But when they finally find themselves with that title or on that path—and it’s not what they dreamed it would be—instead of questioning whether it might not be the right fit after all, they beat themselves up. They feel ashamed, embarrassed, and—most difficult of all—lost.
Trust me, I get it. Before I began The Muse, I spent plenty of time walking around in that very same position.
So, how did I manage to find a career path that finally made me feel passionate and excited?
Here’s what ended up working for me:
1. I Paid Attention to What I Didn’t Like
For starters, I paid attention to the things that I didn’t like about my previous roles. After all, knowing what you don’t want can often times be even more revealing than what you do want.
For example, I often found myself frustrated by how slowly the gears would grind in my role at the US Embassy. I was eager to roll up my sleeves and get things done, but progress was slow and international diplomacy—understandably—required unbelievable patience. That made me realize that I wanted a role where I could take steps quickly and see the needle move.
Similarly, as a consultant you’re often working on solving other people’s problems—and while that could be intellectually stimulating, I missed the all-in feeling of being truly on the hook for a project’s success or failure. I missed the ownership of it all, which led me to consider careers in which you have a lot of individual responsibility and can see things through to the very end.
Paying attention to the things that frustrate you in your past positions will help you to uncover the things you’re ultimately looking for in a new role, which you can use to uncover career paths that you might not have even considered previously.
2. I Learned About Different Careers
There are endless options out there, and it’s nearly impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff if you never put yourself out there and learn everything you can about the different roles that are available.
And no, this doesn’t mean you need to job hop to learn these sorts of things. There are plenty of other methods you can use. Setting up informational interviews, job shadowing, volunteering, or even doing part-time work or taking on an internship will help you discover more about a career path before you jump in with both feet.
For example, before I left McKinsey, I set up informational interviews with ex-consultants in a variety of new career paths—which helped me avoid some definitely wrong moves!
3. I Allowed Myself to Change My Mind
Think about this: Does anybody fault you if you don’t marry the very first person you date? Absolutely not. But, for some reason, we often feel the need to be totally committed to the first career we choose.
Discovering that you actually don’t like that thing you’ve been working toward can inspire a hefty amount of shame and guilt. When you’ve waxed poetic to your friends and loved ones about your dream job, it’s not easy to admit that it’s no longer everything you thought it would be. It’s human nature to not want to confess that you were wrong.
But, it’s important to get past that. Remember this: Finding a career path you love is far more important than saving face.
Today, thinking about the future gets me genuinely excited, and I couldn’t be happier to imagine myself at The Muse years down the line.
Sometimes, finding what you want in a job can take a while. And, more often than not, you won’t be certain you’ve found the right fit until you’re in it—it’s that old, “When you know, you know” cliché.
But, the first piece of the process is acknowledging when a certain path isn’t right. Do that, and you’re one step closer to finding a role that’s truly a great fit for you.