My internship had just assigned me to the most grueling challenge of my career.
Manually entering financial data from organizational tax forms into a giant spreadsheet.
I remember feeling optimistic — at first. I had just compiled a new “summer hits” iTunes playlist and was eager to test-drive it while working on this project.
Two days and 374 rows later, I found myself broiling in a mini-existential crisis.
What was the purpose behind the mind-numbing data entry I had been doing? What skills were I getting better at? How was I growing in my career?
The voices in my head cycled through these questions up to the end of the internship. After my last day, like magic, their racket went silent.
Fortunately I learned a critical lesson from this experience. No one could pay me any sum of money to work on rote, repetitive assignments without a clear purpose.
I count myself as one of the lucky ones.
49% of Millennials reported that they plan to quit their job in the next two years, according to the 2019 Deloitte Millennial Survey. LinkedIn’s research shows the number one reason that 27% of Millennials and Gen Z cite for leaving their job is because of not having the opportunity to learn and grow.
I’ve coached countless high-achieving clients and close friends who quickly rose through the ranks and hit a plateau in their roles. They had high-pay, prestige, and sometimes even a flexible working arrangement. But what I also heard from them was feeling stagnant, unchallenged, and a bit of existential turmoil.
Here’s the bottom line:
By focusing on the right opportunities to learn and grow, there’s a greater chance for you to thrive in the long-run.
The Secret to Unlocking Career Longevity
One reason why stress often leads to burn-out is due to overwhelming stimulation. However, psychologist Christina Maslach, through 35+ years of research, also discovered that disengagement is a critical piece of the burn-out puzzle.
In fact, the most common reason that job-search clients reach out to me is because they feel detached from their work. They lost their motivation and are no longer challenged. They may even feel jaded by the people, team culture, or lack of resources.
One of my clients works in business development and felt dismayed by her company’s poor treatment of their customers. Their lack of care conflicted with her own core values.
Another client had her hands tied due to her large non-profit’s lack of resourcing, which she needed to fund her programs. Both of these clients are now searching for new roles where they can feel challenged to grow — while avoiding the triggers for their cynicism.
If we want to thrive for our entire careers, then we need to look beyond what’s sexy — the brand-name, kombucha on tap, and team outings to trampoline dodgeball.
The undervalued, more strategic factor is working on the right problems (with enough support in resourcing, culture, and people to actually make a dent).
Three Simple Ways to Discover Your Curiosities
Now that you’re convinced of the value of working on problems you’re curious about, you’re probably wondering, how does one even discover their curiosities?
There are three different approaches: direct prompt, indirect brainstorm, and assessments.
For this strategy, we drive straight to the heart of the matter.
Get out your pen and notebook and take 15 minutes to write answers to the following questions:
- What are the next 2-3 knowledge areas or skills you want to learn? And to what degree?
- For each area, why is it so interesting to you?
- For each area, what questions do you have about it?
Be as detailed as possible.
“I want to learn about analytics because it seems useful.” That’s just not going to cut it.
“I want to learn analytical frameworks and tools to answer the business questions I’ve identified — so that I no longer find myself twiddling my thumbs while waiting around for the task to get prioritized by the analytics team. I want to be more self-sufficient.
To get started, I’ll have to identify what are the most useful analytical frameworks and tools for my needs. I should go talk to my analyst partner to see if he can advise me on these questions.”
That’s a much more thoughtful, actionable answer with a clear path to learning opportunities in your current or next role.
If you find yourself coming up short when using the direct prompt, try drawing inspiration from across your life (yes, that includes your personal side!).
Get out your notebook once more and turn to a blank sheet. Pick your favorite 4 prompts and give yourself 5 minutes to answer each one:
- What are the problems you’re obsessed with solving?
- What are the common themes behind the media (books, movies, TV shows, podcasts) you consume?
- Who are 5 people that you admire? What kind of problems are they working on?
For prompts 4-8, fill in the rest of the statement with a knowledge area or skill:
- “I wish I knew more about…”
- “I’d like to get really good at…”
- “I could talk all day about…”
- “I could listen for hours to…”
- “If I had time and money, I would…”
Once you have your answers, put them in front of you and mine them for insights. Challenge yourself to stay open-minded about how you can apply your curiosities to your career (we’re not there yet).
Sometimes our most satisfying career decisions come from working on problems that stem from our own lives.
One close friend felt shocked by the void of meaningful career guidance at her university. With the help of her friends and mentors, she worked to address this gap and eventually built a 7-figure career bootcamp business for university students.
Another friend loved to think about how to make his own life more efficient through operationalizing systems. None of his circle was surprised when he went on to solve operations problems for fast-growing startups.
The last tip I have is to go beyond the obvious. Turn over stones even in the non-work parts of your life. You may be surprised by what you find.
Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, had already built a 10-year banking career before he merged his business knowledge, sense of humor, and interest in drawing to bring Dilbert to life. If he hadn’t tried combining his curiosities, the world would have missed out on his delightful comics.
Finally, if you like assessments, then you’re in luck. A quick Google search will reveal hundreds of interests assessments ranging from rigorously-researched to borderline-horoscope.
When I work with clients, I typically don’t recommend starting with assessments. It’s easy to anchor onto their results, and you may miss the nuggets of insights that comes through self-reflection.
With that said, one assessment that you can try here is the Strong Interest Inventory.
This test was created nearly a century ago and helps people discover their affinities with broad fields, analyzes their penchant for certain subject areas, and matches their interest with potential occupations. It’ll also recommend high-match vocations for you within or span across categories.
For example, what the test may tell you is that you gravitate towards Enterprising and Social categories. In that case, the top occupations for you are Marketing Manager (Enterprising), Social Science Teacher (Social), or HR Manager (Enterprising and Social).
Use Your Curiosities to Reveal New Opportunities
By now, you have a list of knowledge areas or skills that you’re curious about learning next. If you haven’t done so already, narrow them down to your top 3.
This shortlist is powerful. It can help you identify new roles or fresh opportunities in your current role.
Circles of Curiosity
This simple exercise can help you surface unexpected insights about possible career directions:
- Create a Venn diagram where each “circle of curiosity” represents your knowledge areas or skills.
- Brainstorm roles that you’ve considered in your career next step. Plot them on your diagram based on which circle they fulfill.
- Continue filling in your diagram (including intersectional regions) with possible roles, until you exhaust your ideas.
- Complete the reflection questions using as much detail as you can.
- What roles fulfill only one circle and not the other circles? What roles fulfill multiple circles?
- How do you feel when imaging yourself working in the roles that fulfill only one circle versus multiple circles?
- If the intersectional regions are empty, what might be a role that you could custom-design for yourself that fulfills these curiosities?
Armed with what you learned in this exercise as well as the values and strengths exercises, you have a diverse set of criteria in front of you that you can apply to your career map.
Through journaling, diagraming, and self-reflection, you now have more clarity on how to use your curiosities to continually challenge yourself and grow in your career.
May you never find yourself suffering from unfulfilling boredom in your job again.
In the next step of career mapping, we’ll dive into how to identify your needs and use them to construct non-negotiables for your next career step.
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