How Careers Evolve With Personal Growth

How many of us secretly want to live a life different from the one we lead now? Relatively successful at what we do, we may be using our talents and deriving pleasure from our activities, but every once in a while, we hear a little nagging voice.

Years ago, I interviewed a woman who was conducting research on chronic career indecision. I thought guiltily that I might be a candidate myself. After all, when I graduated college, I started in publishing, went on to social work, then to graduate school. My career path proceeded as follows: English-as-a-second-language teacher, translator, teacher (of adults and children), civic-organization director, French-English bilingual secretary and finally, human-resources professional, which I’ve remained for 20 years. In between, I free-lanced for newspapers and magazines, writing mainly on careers, and published a book, “I Need a Job, Now What?” (Silver Linings Books, 2001).

I was somewhat defensive about this hodgepodge until I read Gail Sheehy’s book, “New Passages” (Ballantine Books, 1996). According to Ms. Sheehy, we question what we’re doing, in life and love, about every 10 years. Call it an identity crisis that keeps recurring. Only those incapable of growth, she says, skip over these crises. Now I regard the lifelong learning and progression through a series of careers as natural, normal and necessary.

Professionals pondering a career change often wonder where to start. Most of us as children had clear insight into our innermost dreams and desires. If you dare, you can get in touch with yourself again. Maybe your dreams aren’t practical, you’ve outgrown them or they’ve changed a bit. It’s worth the effort to indulge in a little old-fashioned soul-searching. Here are three steps that will help you:

1. Ask yourself: At age five, what did you want to be when you grew up? At 15? At 21? Why? What hobbies and other pastimes give you the greatest pleasure? Is there an activity that puts you in a state of bliss and makes you lose your sense of time passing?

For myself I’d say: writing fiction, hiking, listening to live music, traveling, brainstorming, leading workshops and having intense conversations with close friends. For you, it might be drawing, shopping, gardening, cooking, quilting, reconciling accounts, teaching children a skill, helping others or any number of other things. When you’re “in the zone,” you don’t want to be anywhere else in the world. You’ll know you’re there. If you can turn your passion into your job, you’re ahead of the game.

2. Look at what you’re doing now and analyze what you do best — writing, selling widgets or crunching numbers? What are your selling points? Sometimes others know better than we do, so consider asking old friends, family and former teachers about what they think you’re good at.

3. To transfer your skills and predilections to a new career, you’ll need to do your homework. This includes researching companies, job titles and duties, industry publications, membership associations. You’ll also need a functional resume that emphasizes your skills and accomplishments, rather than lists past jobs. Next, create a scenario that explains to interviewers where you’ve been and why you think you have transferable skills. You’ll also need to network, and it will help to find a mentor. No how-to book, annual report, or Web site can match the vividness of in-person experience. Get an entry-level job, volunteer or intern in the industry you’ve targeted.

Remember, once you know where you’re headed, you’ll get there. And if you really want it, you’ll do whatever it takes to attain your dreams.

How did I finally settle down? I found a job that capitalized on the experiences I’d acquired in my previous careers — from social work: interpersonal skills, coaching, mediating and interviewing; from teaching: training adults in business skills; from journalism: writing newsletters, policies and procedures; and from directing a civic organization: decision-making, problem-solving and teambuilding. I also drew on my natural talents, including creativity, leadership and a desire to help others.

I’m now the director of human resources and staff services at a nonprofit. Has my career finished evolving? Hardly. I sense another “passage” coming up as I near retirement in the next decade. I can barely wait.

By Janet Garber

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