Ask a child what he wants to be when he grows up, and you’re almost guaranteed a confident answer. A doctor. A teacher. A unicorn. While some people hold on to that dream into adulthood, many find that, despite knowing their general likes and dislikes, they’re utterly lost when it comes to making real career choices.
Discovering your ideal career can be a challenge, but these five steps will help set you on the right path:
1. Write your ‘dream’ retirement announcement
Start your career by envisioning what the end of it might look like. What do you want to be remembered for? Don’t be afraid to unleash your inner child and make it outlandish. Roller coaster designer? Casino tycoon? Hey, it’s your fantasy. The truth lies in the details of the achievements and accolades you describe. Letting yourself have fun with this step will reveal a lot about your long-term career goals and passions.
2. List five projects (for work or school) you most enjoyed doing
Once you have your list, identify why you enjoyed these projects. What tasks did you particularly love? Perhaps you have a talent for in-depth research and analysis, or maybe you thrive on public speaking and presentations.
Next consider how many of those tasks are relevant to the career you’re planning. If there isn’t a lot of overlap, it might be time to consider other career choices and shifting to another track that will allow you to spend more time using your strongest skills on tasks you enjoy.
3. Identify whether you thrive on stability or change
This is a surefire way to narrow down your career choices. Does a stable, nine-to-five job with a steady paycheck sound like a dream come true or a monotonous nightmare? If you prefer to shake things up and you have more of an entrepreneurial spirit, independent consulting or freelance work on a temporary contract basis might be worth looking into.
4. Ask others how they made their career choices
Hearing the stories and struggles of others in your industry can go a long way toward helping you identify what you really want. Try attending job seeker meetups. You could also start a discussion on LinkedIn or reach out to your Facebook contacts — and be sure to do more listening than talking.
5. Move from speculation to experience
Once you’ve gotten a better idea of what type of career you’re looking for, it’s time to take the next step. You might take a night class or a workshop to learn a new skill or hone one you’ve not been able to refine during your education.
If you’re already working but not confident you’ve made the right career choices, ask your boss about a mentorship program. If you think you might want to shift gears into another position, see if you can shadow someone in that department to get a taste for the job. If you’re thinking the freelance life might be for you, contact a staffing firm to try a few short-term contract jobs.
And if you’re still stuck, consider doing volunteer work. Whether it’s serving meals in a soup kitchen, tutoring students in advanced statistics or leading computer workshops at your local library, providing a service for free will tell you plenty about the kind of worker — and person — you want to be.