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How to Make Better Decisions About Your Career

Picking your college major, choosing the perfect career, trying to decide if you should leave your job and move to a new one — decisions like these can feel daunting. We all spend a huge amount of time at work, and we all want (and deserve) to love what we do. But the path to finding that work isn’t always clear. Luckily, there are actions you can take to help you figure out what’s right for you. Use this five-step framework to narrow down your options and focus on what’s important.

1. What are your feelings telling you? If you want to find a fulfilling career, it needs to align with your values. Your feelings can help you discern this, even if you haven’t consciously named what those values are. Think of it this way: When you’re faced with an important decision, what’s the first thing that happens in your mind and your body? Usually, before logic kicks in, you’ll experience a strong emotion. Pay attention to that. Your emotions are connected to who you are at your core and can provide important insights about your identity and the values that may be driving your actions but that are also, at times, beyond your conscious awareness. So, think about the kind of work you’re doing now, or the kind of work you’re planning to do. Brainstorm and jot down ideas of different careers you’re considering. What feelings come up? If you feel anger, sadness, or even fear and anxiety when you’re looking at the choices on your list, consider those red flags. If, on the other hand, you feel happiness or excitement, that’s an indicator that what you’re considering might be a good decision. If you don’t come up with anything that elicits positive emotions, go back to the drawing board. Keep looking for different careers until you find something that is in alignment with your emotions.

2. What matters to you? Once you’ve connected with your emotions, you’re ready for the next step: consciously identifying your values. What are values? They’re simply defined as what really matters to you, or your “why.” That is, they can help you define why a certain decision feels more meaningful to you than another. Understanding your “why” will allow you to make choices that align directly with the things you care about — choices that will keep you fulfilled longer term. For example, let’s say you’re trying to decide between two jobs that you’ve been offered. One is a high-paying corporate job and the other is a job working at a nonprofit with a reasonable, but lower, salary. If you take the time to identify your values and find that helping others is one of them, but money isn’t high on your list, that makes your decision to work at the nonprofit a bit easier. There are a number of ways to figure out what your values are. One of the best is through formal psychological assessments. My favorite is the Enneagram personality test because the results describe your personality traits and motivations in the context of ideal circumstances and stressful situations, which can give you a more holistic look at who you are. But there are a number of other credible resources out there as well: DISC, LIFO Survey, Big Five Personality Test, 16 Personality Factors Test, and Hogan’s Motive, Values, Preference Inventory (MVPI). All of these tests are supported by science and extensive research. If you don’t want to take a formal assessment, there are a few other options. The Passion Test by Janet and Chris Atwood asks you a series of questions and has you rank your interests from most important to least important. Examples of these questions include, “What subject could I read 500 books or watch countless videos about without getting bored?” and “What would I spend my time doing if I had complete financial abundance to do anything?” It may seem straightforward, but recalling your interests in a direct and honest way can help you name values that previously seemed elusive.

3. What matters to other people? None of us exist in a vacuum. Just as it’s important to get clear on what matters to you, it’s also important to consider how your decision will impact your loved ones — because it probably will. Whether it’s a partner, family member, or friend, ask the people who will be affected by your choices for their own thoughts, input, and feelings. This is especially important if you’re making a decision about your career. Often, these kinds of choices have a strong influence over your finances and living situation, as well as the amount of time you can dedicate to certain relationships. For example, let’s say you are offered a job that you’re excited about that aligns with your values and requires you to commute two hours into work every day. You may be okay with this personally, but you must acknowledge that this is time you will lose out on spending with your significant other, family, or friends. Your decision, then, not only impacts you — it impacts those you care about. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t take the job. However, it might mean that you should take the time to negotiate the offer to make it more closely aligned with both your values and those of the people around you. In this case, you might ask the hiring manager for a flexible work arrangement, one in which you come into the office only three days a week to limit your commute.

4. What is the reality of the situation? The goal of asking yourself this question is to make sure that you are making your choices for the right reasons. You want to ensure that the decision you are about to make is based on correct data, not an erroneous interpretation of your situation. Otherwise, you might end up having false expectations or feeling disappointed by the choice you make. To answer this question, you have to be objective and consider the realities surrounding your options, not your assumptions. For example, let’s say you’re thinking about changing jobs because you think your coworkers aren’t friendly. Before you make the big decision to leave your organization, ask, “Do I have information to back up my logic or am I making an assumption?” Maybe your coworkers seem unfriendly but are actually just shy. Maybe they’re too focused on work to socialize. Or, maybe you’re right, and they really are unfriendly. You won’t know for sure unless you step back and look at the situation objectively. Write down a description of the experiences you’ve had that back up your logic, but don’t include any interpretations. Just describe what happened. Taking time to pause and describe creates an opportunity for you to evaluate things more clearly — and you can apply this tactic to any kind of situation. If you’re still in doubt about whether you’ve come to the correct conclusion after you’ve done this, double-check your conclusions with someone you trust, such as a friend or counselor.

5. How do I put the pieces together? Once you’ve answered these four questions, you’ve laid the foundation for making an optimal decision. But there’s still one last step: putting all the pieces together. How do you do that? Start by reviewing all the information you’ve just discovered. For example, if you are trying to decide on a career path, consider the emotions you felt as you looked at your potential job choices. Ask yourself, “How do I feel and why do I feel this way?” Next, review your values. Do the job choices that excite you align with those values? What about the values of your loved ones? This should help narrow down your list. Finally, give yourself a reality check. Are there any factors driving your decision that are based on assumptions rather than information? It will take time, but giving your full attention to each of these points should help you reach a rational, appropriate decision about what career path is best for you, no matter what your current situation is. Not only that, but you’ll also know, on a deeper level, that the decision you’re making is in full alignment with your values, your emotions, yourself, and the people you love. And when it comes to a major decision like finding your perfect career, that’s exactly as it should be.

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