How to (not) plan your career

I learned the hard way how to plan my career by not planning. I began working post-college as a laboratory research biologist. I didn’t stay with this long as I discovered it was lonely work, preferring to work with others collaboratively. So my journey began to find the work that would allow me to be at my best.

Suffice it to say that the rest of my 25 years of corporate life was filled with searching for the perfect job and learning a lot about my strengths, weaknesses, skills, talents, values through some positions that that didn’t fulfill me and some that did. Besides needing people, I also learned that I would thrive when I worked in a creative and trusting environment with great people. Finally, I wanted autonomy and to make an impact on others.

I was lucky with the opportunities I had, but in the end, it took me 25 years to find work that included the last two (autonomy and make an impact). So here I am. Doing something I love, am good at, and making a difference in the lives of people who make a difference in the lives of others. For me, it doesn’t get much better than that.

It took almost a lifetime to find a perfect match in work that fulfills me. There are some things you can do to fast-forward your own quest for the perfect career without planning it out in minute detail (which might cause you to miss the perfect opportunity).

Get to know yourself: A brief daily reflective practice and/or journaling is a great way to begin. Start with questions you ask yourself like “What about my current situation fulfills me?”; “What am I doing well and enjoying?”; “What would I change about my current situation if I could?”. Take reputable self-assessments (not the Facebook kind) like DiSC and Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram and hire a consultant or coach to debrief them for you. These can help you to begin to understand your strengths, weaknesses, skills and talents. Any investment you make in time or money for these things will be worth it.

Learn how others see you: If your company has a 360 assessment process, see if you can take advantage of it to learn how you’re viewed by others in your organization. Learn to ask for feedback or feedforward to get specific information on how you can do better. Ask friends. Ask colleagues. Ask your manager. Make it a habit of regularly checking in with others on how they perceive your behavior and performance, and be specific with your inquiry (it’s not enough to ask “how am I doing?” try instead to ask about a specific time and place when they observed you in action).

Know what’s important to you: Knowing what you value helps you to make decisions about career choices. If you value working alone, why would you want to manage others? If you value time with your family, why would you choose a position that requires significant travel? Learning what you value can come with taking a values assessment or through your reflective practice. Becoming aware of your values is like standing on solid ground; it rarely shifts, and it becomes a foundation for the career decisions you’ll make.

These things are the beginning of your journey to find a career that fulfills you. So don’t plan, but get yourself ready for the opportunities that may come your way.

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Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.

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