By the time you’ve been in the professional world for five, 10, or even 15 years, it’s natural to wonder: Did I pick the right career path? Maybe things aren’t panning out exactly as you’d hoped, you don’t love where your industry is headed, or you just find yourself daydreaming about a different type of job altogether. The issue is that it can be even harder to narrow down what you really want to spend your life doing once you’ve already got some experience under your belt. Fresh-out-of-school job seekers don’t have as much context, but once you’ve gained some on-the-job knowledge, contacts, and skill sets, evaluating new opportunities (or deciding whether you should even be looking for them) gets more complicated.
Ahead, find the five essential questions career coaches say you should explore to help you decide on a career—regardless of how established you are.
Why did you choose your current job?
If you’re looking to make a career change, feel more confident in your job choice, or simply advance to the next level at your current gig, figuring out how you got to where you are right now is highly valuable. Juliet Murphy, an empowerment consultant and career coach, regularly asks this of her new clients when trying to help them decide on a next step. “If I get an answer that they chose it because of the money, that’s a good indicator that they are probably in the wrong line of work, as going after a job simply for the money gets stale very quickly. People usually realize after a year or so that it is not meeting all their requirements for fulfillment,” she explains. If they give her a legit answer, though, it’s a different story. If you’ve got solid reasons that show you did some planning and research before jumping into your current career track, it’s likely worth sticking around in a similar career role to see if you can maximize the ways in which it’s already a great fit for your skills and interests.
What are your core values?
This might sound like a simple question, but it may prove to be harder to answer than you’d expect. “Figuring out what is really, really important to you tells you a lot about the type of work that will fulfill you,” explains Jennifer Davis, founder and leadership coach at Jennifer Davis Coaching. “I do exercises with clients where I have them visualize a professional moment or project when they felt especially empowered and then talk about what values they were honoring in that moment, as well as what unique gifts and strengths they were bringing to the project, the company, and the world.” While it’s certainly helpful to have a professional guide you through this process, there’s no reason you can’t get started on your own. Grab a notebook, and list the three best moments—big or small—you’ve had in your career so far. Think about what made them so rewarding for you, and you’ll be one step closer to identifying the values that make you who you are and can lead you to a career you love.
If you’re thinking about leaving your job, why?
This one might not apply to everyone, but if you’re considering looking elsewhere because you’re not happy in your current industry or career track, it’s worth nailing down why you feel that way. “This question is important because it’s not always the career that is the problem,” explains Murphy. “I often hear that people are not getting enough interesting work, they don’t get along with their co-workers, or the boss doesn’t like them. When I hear these statements, I realize that it’s most likely not the career but the work environment and the people that are creating the dislike for the job,” she says. If this is the case for you, it’s pretty great news because it means you might be able to get a job at another company in the same field and be way happier.
What’s your mission statement?
You might have thought these were just for businesses, but people can have mission statements too. Essentially, a mission statement defines your purpose in life in a couple of sentences. If it becomes clear that you’re not loving your job or career as a whole for reasons that don’t revolve around your work environment, a mission statement can make a huge difference.
“A purpose is what you were put on earth to do, what makes you get out of bed in the morning, and what you are excited to put out there on a daily basis,” Davis notes. “One of the first things I do with any of my clients, regardless of whether they are looking for a new career or simply trying to become happier and more effective in their current position, is to craft a life purpose statement,” she says.
She acknowledges that this might sound a little corny, but in reality, it helps you create a vision of who you are and what you want to do. The best part? Once you have one, “the statement can be used as criteria to be met for any opportunity that comes your way.” Just like that, and there’s no more wondering whether accepting a new job is the right choice or not.
If you could wave a magic wand, what would your life look like?
Sometimes, getting out of your own head and into the “fantasy realm,” as Davis calls it, can be quite revealing. “Oftentimes we close doors and limit ourselves based on salary, current qualifications, and other practical matters that can come into play later. If someone has an opportunity to see what they would love to be doing if time, money, talent, and connections were not issues, wonderful ideas can be born,” she says. “Reality and limitations can always be added back in the mix later—or not, depending on how adventurous and risk-loving or risk-averse you are.” So take the time to think about how you’d want to spend your days in a perfect world, and you might just find yourself coming up with your next big career move.
What have you found helpful in choosing a career path?