Identifying your career goals

Identifying your career goals can be a daunting task. In general, people have difficulty identifying meaningful work life goals because they struggle with these three questions:


  1. What do I want to do with my life; how do I identify my career goals?
  2. How do I go about pursuing my goals?
  3. How do I overcome roadblocks that get in my way?

How to choose a career

How to choose a career, by Dr. Lynn Friedman, was originally published in Washingtonjobs, a subsidiary magazine of the Washington Post and on the DC Web Women site.

What do you want to do with Your Life?

How do you figure out what you want to do with your life? What sort of obstacles can get in the way? How can these obstacles be mastered? Not too long ago, I wrote a column for the on Managing the Inner Spirit, which addressed what steps to take if you are unhappy at work. But what if you are not unhappy? What if you are not sure about how you feel about your work? What if you are neither particularly happy nor unhappy? What if you are just unfocused? What steps should you take to identify your work-life goals?

A first step is to take inventory. Ask yourself where/what/how do you want to be five years from now.

Toward this end, Dick Bolles, author of What Color is your Parachute, uses a wonderful exercise:

Pretend that it is five years from now. You are writing to your best friend, whom you haven’t seen in the interim. Your life has changed so that you are now living your ideal existence. What is it like? Describe it in detail. Consider the following spheres:

  • personal
  • social
  • work
  • spiritual
  • financial
  • physical

As you do this exercise, you may want to consider the following:

    • Who are the important people in your life? Do you have a significant other? Is this relationship healthy and growth-enhancing? If you do not have such a person in your life, do you want to find someone? Do you have children? If you do not have children, do you want to have them?
    • Socially, what is your life like? How would you like it to be? Do you have the kind, number, and type of friends that you would like to have? What are your special interests and hobbies? Do you engage in them as often as you would like? If not, what steps can you take to change that?
    • What is your favorite climate or region of the country? Are you living there? If not, why not? Is this something that you would like to change?
    • Consider the spiritual domain. This is very personal and means something different to everyone. What are your spiritual needs and are they being met?
    • What is your community involvement? That is, how do you give back to the community? Do you feel that you give enough — have you found a gratifying way to contribute?

What are your financial goals? Have you achieved them?

  • Last, what are your work goals? Do you find your current job gratifying? What do you like best about it? What do you like least about it?

What sort of obstacles can get in the way of figuring out what you want to do with your life? How might these obstacles be mastered?Some people are actually able to answer all of these questions. They know what they want, but they have difficulty developing an effective strategy for getting it. Or they have a strategy but they have difficulty mobilizing themselves to do what they need to do. If you are fortunate enough to be in this situation, the latter part of the series will attempt to answer your concerns.

But what if you can’t answer these questions?

How might you understand this difficulty and what steps might you take to address it? There are many reasons why people can’t articulate their work-life goals. One reason is a lack of exposure to possible goals.

They have had limited exposure to the range of professional/personal options, so they don’t know much about what they might enjoy.

By far the most prevalent reason for not being able to answer these questions is limited exposure to the endless variety of possibilities. Fortunately, this is the easiest obstacle to address. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What you enjoy most?
  • What are you good at?
  • What if you are uncertain about where your talents lie?

Ask five friends to list five attributes that they like best about you, then ask them to list five things at which you are good. Be sure to seek out those who you think will be most supportive of you. Review these lists. You will be surprised at the consistency, even across people who don’t know one another.What common themes emerge? Have your friends identified attributes or skills that you might want to develop more fully? If so, obtain a catalog from a school that offers relevant courses. Read the course descriptions. What seems interesting to you? Take a course. If this seems intimidating, go with a friend, or just sit in for the first night and see what you think about actually enrolling in a course.

We turn now to other difficulties that interfere with ones capacity to establish and pursue career goals. Some people are so bound up in pleasing others and putting others at ease that it never occurred to them to consider what they might enjoy.

They are so bound up in pleasing others and putting others at ease that it never occurred to them to consider what they might enjoy.

It will probably come as no surprise that this is a fairly common problem among women who have devoted their lives to meeting the needs of others and making sure that others are comfortable. Many women are afraid to even imagine what they might enjoy because they are afraid that pursuing their own goals might make someone else uncomfortable.

If you find yourself in this predicament, two things that might help are finding a mentor(s) or joining a work-life group.

To find a mentor, join a group in an area that you think you may be interested in pursuing. Look for someone who has already traversed that terrain. If you are intimidated by this prospect, start by joining a listserv. After you learn more about the group, try going to an event and seeking out a mentor. Tell your friends about your goal and ask them to help you identify a few good role models.

Consider joining a work-life group. Such a group will provide you with support, encouragement and suggestions as you consider what sorts of goals you might pursue. In this sort of group you will meet others who are at various stages in this journey.

We turn now to another reason why people have trouble choosing work-life (career) goals. They may secretly know what they want but be unable to acknowledge it even to themselves.People may be unable to identify their career goals because they are unable to acknowledge their wishes even to themselves.

They secretly know what they want but are unable to acknowledge it, even to themselves, often because they don’t feel that they are good enough or because, for some reason, they feel that they don’t deserve to get what they want.

This is a more complicated problem. Individuals with this difficulty are often suffering from enormous guilt and/or are plagued by a deep sense of inadequacy. It is difficult for these people to address this problem on their own because often the source of the guilt and low self-esteem is outside of an individual’s awareness. If these people have enough insight into themselves that they are able to recognize their guilt and self-doubt, psychoanalytic therapy and psychoanalysis can often be enormously helpful to them. Unfortunately, ignorance about this sort of treatment and fear of stigma often prevent people from knowing that this sort of treatment could help them.

They can’t identify their career goals because they are out-of-touch with their feelings

We now turn to another reason why people may have difficulty identifying their career goals: They are out-of-touch with their feelings, so they don’t know what they love or what they hate or anything in between.

Some people cannot figure out what they like because they do not know what they feel. Typically, growing up they were asked to suppress, or turn off, their anger or sadness. Often this occurs in families where someone suffers from alcoholism, medical illness, or other overwhelming difficulties. The child concludes, “I can’t express my anger and frustration, or I will make things even worse then they already are.” In order to tolerate the intolerable, the child suppresses all of her feelings. Since feelings typically inform our choices, this makes it impossible for the person to figure out what she wants to do by figuring out what she likes– since knowing what you like entails knowing what you feel. Thus, a first step for such a person is to seek a psychoanalytically-informed career assessment aimed at identifying what sort of help might be most useful to them.  This could entail career coaching or it might be psychotherapy or psychoanalysis aimed at helping the person to access their feelings.

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