How To Find Direction In Your Career When Feeling Directionless

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This week on Ask Victoria: Dealing with a fear of commitment when it comes to work. Have a question you’d like us to answer? Send it to askvictoria@idealist.org.


 

Hey Victoria!

After graduating college, I struggled to keep committed to every job I’ve had (and it’s been about 7 different positions in the last 2 1/2 years). I committed to a year of national service, hoping to feel fulfilled through volunteerism, but by the end, I felt bored, frustrated, and definitely underpaid. After completing my year, I landed a job at a local university and I was so enthused about the opportunities that awaited me here  – free tuition for a masters, networking, etc… But now I’m feeling that same commitment itch and after less than 6 months, I’m ready to go from here. I no longer like my leadership or the idea of getting my masters. All I can think about is moving away.

I applied for another service year out of state, feeling like my year of service would “mean something” more than my current work in my hometown. I was accepted and have been planning my move to another state accordingly, but as the date draws near, I am drawing away from the thrill of moving to another state to do another year of service. I’m starting to feel like I won’t like the program, location, and moving process is not helping. I KNOW I want to move, but I don’t think I love the job I’m heading towards.

It’s only a year of commitment, but I’m feeling reluctant. However, whenever I try to look for alternative options, I can’t seem to find what I want and I honestly don’t know what I’m looking for anyway. How do I stick to a commitment and how do I know what to commit to? I’m almost 27 and I have no idea what I’m doing. Help!

Best,

Hailey

Dear Hailey,

Wow, 7 jobs in 2 ½ years! That sounds like a lot of change. Even still, take some comfort in knowing that the norm these days is to stay at a job for less than 5 years (in some cases only 2 or 3), so it’s not totally unheard of to leave jobs quickly. Many people change careers- not just jobs, but careers– about 7 times in their lifetimes.

Let’s explore, though, what might be causing you to leave at a fairly quick rate. You mention in your note that you were “hoping to feel fulfilled through volunteerism.” Not knowing more details about your personal or professional background, I don’t know how much volunteer experience you’ve had prior to your year-long commitment. Perhaps taking a more exploratory approach before you embark on a new career or service term might be a good place to start. What would it look like if you tried out some of the activities you’d be doing in the program you selected, and then reflected on whether engaging in those activities gave you the desired feeling of fulfillment?

Think about why you became interested in volunteering to begin with. Is it based on prior volunteer experience, a personal experience, conversations you’ve had with friends and family, something else? Do you feel like volunteering “should” make you feel fulfilled?

Try to unpack this thought a little bit more- for you personally, is volunteering a “should” or a “must”? Perhaps there are expectations, perceptions, or even misconceptions that have you looking towards volunteering. Is volunteering what “nice” people, who “care about the world” do, and you relate to that? What other ways can you express those parts of yourself? As far as the volunteer program goes, there could be aspects of it that you like and that bring you your desired outcome, but committing to a full year is more extensive than you need in order to even meet that desire.

I have some additional questions for you to explore:

What is most important to me, the destination or the journey?

Spend some time with this question to discover whether you are actually more enamored by the journey than the destination. It might be that you are more of a “starter” than a “finisher.” If you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, this would be the difference between perceiving and judging: perceivers love the idea-making and the possibilities, while judgers get excited about the list-making and seeing tasks to completion.

If you’re one who gets excited about all the things you encounter along the way, the issue might be that you are exhausted by the time you actually “arrive.” The finish line itself may no longer feel exciting, and then there’s also the challenge of reconciling the idea that you’re actually not “done” but are actually just getting started.

Try building in what I would call “transition phases”- periods of time in between the hunt for your next experience and the taking on of your new role. Schedule time for recreation, recharging, and renewal, in whatever ways work best for you. You may want to set up time to meet with friends, set goals, and brainstorm ideas for where to look when you need inspiration and motivation.

How do I know what I want?  

You wrote, “I don’t know what I want.”

First, let me ask: How true is this statement? Perhaps you actually do know what you want, but it’s the actual making of a decision that scares you. It’s a common issue and many people deal with it. There may be a fear of making the “wrong” decision, so rather than getting clarity on what you really want and going in that direction, the waters get muddied with all your options floating around.

Next, let’s say “I don’t know what I want” is a truer statement than I want to believe. Humor me with an exercise in practicing to make decisions. Start small, with choices that will (probably) have little consequence on your life overall—what to eat for dinner, what movie to watch or book to read, what color to incorporate into your outfit today. Don’t let yourself dream up too many options; narrow them down to two, and then give yourself a time limit—let’s say 90 seconds—for making a final decision. Keep a journal of your decisions and jot down a note about the outcome and your overall feelings about your choice- were you happy with it, did it have unforeseen consequences. Over time, see how much more confident you feel in your decision-making ability and if your concerns about making commitments wane.

How do I stick to a commitment?

The exercise above might help, but also keep in mind that for some, the full-time, permanent 9-to-5 job is not the best option. If you feel you “can’t” commit, it’s not necessarily indicative of a “flaw.” In fact, your strengths may be wrapped up in your ability to quickly switch gears! Look at what we did there; we reframed how we see it. Looking at this this way, you might stop seeing it as a negative trait.  

Next, ask yourself why you want to commit to something long-term. Assess whether the traditional full-time, permanent position is the right option for you. Write a list of what is important to you in a job and why. For example, if a job with greater security and health benefits is important, it might make sense to stick with the traditional route. However, if you like flexibility in your schedule, using a variety of skills, and working on various projects, freelancing or consulting might work out better. Explore the possibility of taking on shorter-term commitments. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the volunteer term appealed to you in the first place- while the time commitment may seem long, there is actually an end in sight. What if you were to look at your career over the long term in that way as well?

Also remember that whatever decision you make, a learning experience exists as long as you are on the lookout for it. There is no decision that you make that is for nothing, or that is “wrong.” There is always a nugget to glean from the choices you make- even if it’s to not make that decision again.

Finally, I’d like to briefly address your desire to move. I’m guessing that your reservations about it have to do with whether it is the “right” decision. It can be stressful to get everything in place, not to mention the expense.  Again, there can be a learning experience in it. I would weigh what you’ll gain from the move against the potential drawbacks. If you feel that making the move will keep you on top of accomplishing something of value to you, trust that you are making a decision you can be confident in sticking with!

To your success,

Victoria

Do you have advice for Hailey? What would you do if you were in her shoes? Chime in below.

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About Author

I became acquainted with Idealist in late 2000 while working in the career development office at a private liberal arts college in NYC. I used it almost daily to help students and alumni find meaningful careers. After a 12-year stint in higher education, I worked as a career coach for professionals in various industries (and still used Idealist). During one of those many searches, a listing really caught my eye- the one for the newly-created position, Careers Program Coordinator. So... I jumped at the opportunity. Since then, I took on the role of Manager of Career Content for Idealist Careers, creating career content for job seekers, leaders, and other nonprofit professionals. Understanding the roles that a positive outlook and holistic self-care play in career success, I've shared with our readers time-honored methods for improving confidence and productivity. Now, as Manager of College and Professional Development, my focus is on lifting the advice from Idealist Careers "off the page". Drawing from my experience in career development, I propel job seekers and career changers towards taking control of their searches with confidence and removing fear, uncertainty, and other blocks to success via in-person workshops and seminars, webinars, and conference programming. My great loves are cooking (preferably without a recipe, otherwise I doctor it up), dancing, live cultural performances, identifying the tasting notes in a good cup of coffee, exploring neighborhoods for hidden gems, and anything else that sparks the senses and allows me to experience all the beauty, dynamism, and intrigue that vivaciously living in a remarkable world offers.

6 Comments

  1. I think a lot of the time people don’t sit down and find clarity. Life is sometimes so relentless that it’s difficult to stop and make a real short, medium and long term plan. I always say, it’s better to spend some time gaining clarity, to rush into things. It’s better to start the journey on the correct path, than have to deviate.

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