Career counseling advice: How to set career goals

This article on Career Counseling Advice: “How to set career goals,” was originally published by Washington, a subsidiary of the Washington Post.  Written by Dr. Lynn Friedman, career counselor, psychologist and psychoanalyst, it is the first part of a career counseling series that examines obstacles to career satisfaction & how they can be overcome.

Choosing your career goals: Washington DC

Work life can be challenging, especially here in Washington DC.  Perhaps there are few more daunting tasks than deciding what you want to do with your work-life.

How do you go about choosing a career or identifying your work-life objectives? Ask a random sample of Washingtonians about their careers and you will learn that careers can be thrilling and wonderful — terrible and miserable — and everything in between. Ask them when they thrive and when they struggle, and you will consistently learn that work-life trials and tribulations break down into five career challenges:

1. How do I identify my career plans?
2. How do I develop a plan for pursuing my career goals?
3. How do I overcome career roadblocks?
4. What sort of career help, if any, do I need to achieve my work-life ambitions?
5. How do I select a career counselor or a career coach?

This, initial, piece answers the question: “how do I identify my work-life or carer plans?”

How do I identify my career goals, here in Washington DC?

In Washington DC, arguably the work-a-holic Capitol of the country, many professionals lament that they are not entirely fulfilled in their careers; or, that they do not have enough time for family, friends, hobbies and community involvement. Yet, they are uncertain about how to go about changing their situation. Moreover, they lack clarity as to whether they need professional help. And, if so, what kind of help? Some ask, “how do I know if I need psychotherapy, career coaching, family support or something else.”

These are important questions because, often, people pursue career coaching or psychotherapy without first undergoing a thoughtful psychodynamic, career assessment designed to develop a deeper understanding about what sort of help would be most useful in achieving their work-life plans. Thus, they may end up in psychotherapy when career counseling may be more appropriate or vice versa. Also, those who discover that career counseling is warranted may be unsure as to how to select a career counselor.

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? I wrote a column for the on, “Identifying your career goals” and which addressed several 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 career? 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 objectives? Have you achieved them?

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

Setting aside the fact that it is hard to imagine, with today’s technology, one would be out-of-touch with one’s best friend, try to answer these questions.

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.

Identifying work-life goals can be difficult for some.

For some people, identifying professional goals is challenging. Why might it be difficult? And, what steps can you take to address it? Here are 4 main reasons why people have trouble clarifying their work-life goals:

  1. They have had limited exposure to the range of possibilities.
  2. They have been so bound up in pleasing others that it has never occurred to them to consider what they might enjoy.
  3. They secretly know what career they want but they are unable to acknowledge it, even to themselves.
  4. They can not identify their career plans because they are out-of-touch with their feelings.

Each will be addressed in turn:

1. 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 identify your goals is limited exposure to the endless variety of possibilities. Fortunately, this is the easiest obstacle to address. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do 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 catalogue 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.

We turn now to other difficulties that interfere with one’s capacity to establish and pursue work-life goals.

2. 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 many of whom have devoted their lives to meeting the needs of others and putting them at ease. 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. What came as a surprise to me in my capacity as a career counselor and psychologist is the extent to which men struggle with this concern, too!

If you find yourself in this predicament, two things that might be helpful are: (1) interviewing people about their careers and (2) finding a support group for people who are working to clarify their work-life goals.

Interviewing people about their careers

Richard Bolles of, “What color is your parachute”, describes how to approach this in his book. He suggests that you request a 20 minute meeting to ask the person about their career. Then, ask the following questions:

  • what do you like best about your career?
  • how did you get into this line of work?
  • what advice would you give someone starting out in this field, today?

Finding a support group for people who are working to clarify their work-life goals

In these days of the internet, you might search out this sort of group. If you can’t find one, consider starting a meetup group or even a listserve. This will allow you to learn from others who are at various stages in this journey.

We turn now to another reason why people have trouble choosing their work goals.

3. 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 their awareness. If those in this situation have enough insight into themselves that they are able to recognize their guilt and self-doubt, psychodynamic therapy and psychoanalysis can often be enormously helpful to them. Unfortunately, ignorance about this sort of help and fear of stigma often prevent people from knowing that this sort of treatment could be helpful.

4. They can’t identify their work-life goals because they are out-of-touch with their feelings.

We now turn to another reason why people may have difficulty identifying their 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 can’t 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 chronic or terminal illness, alcoholism, mental 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 their feelings. Feelings typically inform our choices. For most of us, our feelings are our guide. We know when we like something and when we don’t. Since knowing what you like entails knowing what you feel, these folks are operating in the dark. 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 but more likely these kinds of diffculties will require psychotherapy or psychoanalysis aimed at helping the person to access their feelings.

Once you have identified your work-life goals, learn more about strategies for pursuing them, here:

  • How do I go about pursuing my work-life goals?
  • How do I galvanize myself to get started?
  • What sort of help, if any, do I need to achieve my goals?
  • How do I select a career counselor or a career coach?

Those seeking consultation, with me, are welcome to call: 301.656.9650

Posted in

Dr. Lynn Friedman

Dr. Lynn Friedman, Ph.D., FABP, is a Clinical Psychologist, a Supervising and Training Analyst, and a Clinical Supervisor in full-time, private practice. She provides evaluation, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as supervision to psychoanalysts-in-training and other mental health professionals. Beyond this, she is a board certified, psychoanalyst who teaches at Johns Hopkins University and the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis.

I'm interested in exploring a consultation with you, what's my next step?

I provide psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, clinical consultation, supervision & executive coaching. If you are seeking consultation from a psychologist, psychoanalyst, in DC, feel free to call me: 240.483.3530.