Finding Your Employment Bliss


He must therefore devote himself

to the quest of his own nature

as of something infinitely important

but strange, puzzling, and full of mystery.

…the very real inner impassioned feel of the self…

- Marjorie Grene

ere’s an interesting factoid: Yearly between 1938 and 1999, the United States Department of Labor published a book called The Directory of Occupational Titles. Now the on-line database O*NET, it originally contained over 12,000 entries describing, very little surprise here, occupations. I bring this up because it is crucial to understand just how mismatched we are if we are hoping to stumble upon our employment bliss through luck alone. The odds of 1 in 12,000 feel a little needle-haystackish, don’t they? An article in the NY Times on May 30, 2014 entitled “Why You Hate Work” described a 2013 Gallup poll which indicated that, “across 142 countries, the proportion of employees who feel engaged at work is just 13 percent.” Clearly, as the authors of this article suggested, the way we find work isn’t working.

We no longer exist in villages where children get to wander daily through all the available workstations and gravitate, Montessori-like, toward those that intrigue them. We need, therefore, to be more instrumental in the process of matching our unique constellation of gifts with an inspirational handful of those 12,000 options for work.

What’s in the way?

In addition to the metaphysical obstacles described in the two previous articles on existential meaning and cultural myths around work, we face some additional sources of confusion as we approach career decisions:

1. Work versus werk: If you listen closely to people talking about their upcoming Monday morning, you can start to make a distinction between those who are grousing and those who are not, simply by the way they pronounce the word “work.” The grousers put a mournful “ehhh” into the word, making it sound more like “werk.” People who like what they do round the “o” out with a certain reverence that gives it a full-bodied sound almost like the word “pork.”

Werk, known colloquially as your "day job," is what you do to pay bills when work is not available. It can be extremely honorable and not without satisfaction. But it is not work.

Work is how you spend your day when the majority of your talents have been put in harness. Annoying tasks notwithstanding, the bulk of your day is spent facing challenges that you were, very gratifyingly, well designed to meet.

We all may chafe about going to werk on Monday from time to time, but if you never feel the word “work” roll off your tongue when referencing your particular job, then it may be time to rethink things a bit. No one is not most often eager to go to work.

2. Aptitudes versus gifts: We also need to make a distinction between aptitudes and gifts. Aptitudes are small, natural abilities that allow us to become proficient quickly at basic human tasks. An aptitude is a knack – like manual dexterity, working with numbers or having a good sense of direction. Aptitudes fit together to become components of gifts. So, for instance, gifted tennis players will have the following aptitudes: excellent vision, hand/eye coordination, depth perception, foot speed, upper body strength, etc. Gifted therapists will be innately high in empathy, patience, curiosity, problem solving, resilience, conscientiousness, memory and optimism.

There are several reasons for making the distinction between these two levels of ability.

We all have aptitudes that don’t fit into our primary area(s) of giftedness. These "left over" aptitudes can be extremely confusing as we try to sort out what aptitudes go into which gifts and which gifts define us most completely. And because aptitudes balk at lying dormant, their nattering can be distracting as we try to focus our efforts on our main gifts.

Also, many of us will find ourselves lacking an aptitude or two when we finally settle on a gift we would love to pursue. The trick is to dedicate extra training and practice to developing that aptitude to an at-least-acceptable level. What we don’t want to have happen is for a missing piece or two to derail our pursuit of happiness.

And, finally, because aptitudes tend to show up in school settings, they easily fall victim to early cultural pressure. Your world will be eager to tell you things like “You’re so good at math and you like to draw. You would be a great architect.” That career advice is hard to rebut when we are good at math and we do like to draw. We must, then, beware of this: just because we can do something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should do it professionally. All this is to say – stay alert to how you may have been pigeonholed as a tyke due to the more recognizable of your aptitudes.

3. Do/be naïveté: Many of us – especially in our younger, career-searching years – are unclear on the distinction between doing and being. After decades of television and movies, for example, twenty-somethings can subconsciously imagine that being a lawyer involves lots of money, great clothes and dramatic courtroom scenes. Who wouldn’t be attracted to “being” one of those? But few of us understand what doing law entails. It’s not until we are older that we realize that the sexiness of being a surgeon, as another example, plays out at dinner parties, not during the hours and hours of standing on your feet with your hands inside an anonymous body, the hours dictating charts or the too frequent responsibility of trying to explain to the distraught family what went wrong. This is why I applaud the current trend toward internships as early as the high school years. We need to help kids start making the distinction between “I want to be a veterinarian” and “I want to spend my days doing what I can for sick and suffering animals.” For if you have the makings of a surgeon, the sexiness will play out for you in the parties and the operating room alike.

4. Fame isn’t a career choice: It’s a corollary to the do/be dilemma to believe that “I want to be famous” is a career one can choose. It isn’t. Fame occurs when there is an interaction among what the dominant culture is willing to pay for, timing, luck and someone’s particular talents. If you’re at the right place at the right time with the right stuff, you may become famous. (I’m not going to editorialize here about how horrific fame can be…) We need to explain to our youngins why fame cannot be pursued directly. But it is also wise to recognize that those youngins who seek fame are usually responding to an inner voice of audacity that can be a fundamental and positive factor in their professional trajectory. Although not all audacious people are famous, all famous people are audacious.

5. Training dilemma: Post high school, we are supposed to get to work – either at a job or in training for a job. What a vast and vague range of possibilities that encompasses, from learning on the job to start-up endeavors to vocational training to community colleges to universities to professional schools. Expecting kids to navigate this terrain is akin to handing a youngster a menu from all the restaurants in Chicago and saying, “Quick. Choose what you want to eat for the next twenty-five years!” Unfortunately, few parents and high schools have the time and expertise to provide kids with guidance throughout the process of choosing where to go after high school.

And even if we are convinced that college is for us, there’s the dilemma of selecting one. We pick our college for many, many reasons – some of which make sense such as in-state tuition. But we rarely consider whether or not a certain institution has a good program in our desired major. First of all, how many eighteen year olds have much of an idea about what they are aiming for professionally? Most of them have taken basically the same 6-8 classes every year for the last twelve years. They graduate from high school knowing a lot about math, English and history, but remember that 12,000 number? Add to that this number – there are something like 1,500 different academic programs out there. Taken together these numbers demonstrate a wealth of options presented to an extremely naïve group of young people. And finally, once there, we fall in love with our college, which means we will often choose from among the majors they provide – probably in the neighborhood of 100 at the smaller schools to 250 at the big state universities – rather than transfer to a new institution. If our campus offers cyberforensics, and that’s our forte, we’re in luck. But if we were designed to major in vegan culinary science and that is not on the list at our university, we may well not even know it exists.

6. Polymaths: The good news/bad news cliché is germane here, for when you have many aptitudes and gifts you also have much heartache. (Here is a lengthy article on the very challenging reality of being a factotum.) There are several reasons that the multi-gifted often feel cursed. First is, of course, the seemingly impossible task of sorting all those aptitudes and the gifts into tangible entities. Your life will feel like someone took all the pieces of four jigsaw puzzles, homogenized them, then handed them back to you to assemble. Polymaths also believe they can never master anything because of the distraction of all their gifts. Jack-of-all-trades and all that jazz. In addition, it’s often difficult to maintain self-confidence when faced with singularly talented individuals who are shooting straight for the stars. It is unpropitious to compete for both stipulation and opportunities with these singularly focused people because the awards and top training opportunities usually go to those who have demonstrated consistent commitment to a particular field. How do you prove, for example, that obtaining a third master’s degree is important to your creative process rather than an indication of your being a dilettante? It is also beyond daunting for the polymath to face the sheer amount of learning that is needed to support interdisciplinary potency. Finally, a factotum is often out of sorts and lonely because few people can understand her constant tension, yearning and frustration. There is never enough energy or time to master all her gifts, so she is always tired and always in a hurry but not always clear what direction to go next. Many a polymath sits at home alone at night loaded with talent and desire, yet feeling lazy, misunderstood and not well met.

To some extent we are all polymaths in that we all have multiple aptitudes and gifts and we are all able to learn about a wide range of topics. And as parents commit to getting their children more and more diverse training earlier and earlier, we will have even more young people pulled in several directions at once by their love of learning.

So. What we have to face when trying to find our employment bliss is this: In an existentially meaningless world, we, and we alone, must sidestep well-meaning but probably misleading input from those around us in order to figure out which of the 12,000 or so work options might best fit the most significant set of our unique aptitudes and gifts. And then we need to swim, again alone, through murky waters to find our way to the training and mentoring we need. No wonder so many of us rely on a musical-chairs strategy when faced with this monstrously difficult task and just plunk ourselves down in the first job we can tolerate, believing that the career-choosing music has stopped.

Route finding – removing the obstacles

Given those long odds, are we doomed to lose the employment crapshoot and join the eighty-seven-percenters who are disengaged from their jobs? Or, perhaps, did this big, fat brain of ours with its consciousness of the givens of human existence also come with a mechanism for finding our employment bliss? Great balls of fire, it did!

We can figure out how that route-finding system works by reverse engineering the human ability to feel passion. Here we go.

The word “passion” in this context means an intense eagerness to consume almost any experience that leads you toward greater and greater mastery. It becomes the psychological equivalent of a perpetual motion machine – gifts feeding themselves with energizing mouthsful of the profound satisfaction of praxis as you gain a more and more comprehensive understanding of your topic, which further drives your curiosity. And when you are impassioned by what you are paid to do, you will feel like the luckiest damn person on earth.

How do we get to that enviable place? We start with this truth: all aptitudes and gifts are hungry all the time. In humans, psychological hunger shows up as wants. Wanting, in its most natural form, is about turning toward. There are feelings that occur within you as you move toward and move away from something that could be uniquely valuable to you and your particular aptitudes and gifts. Those feelings are caused by the biochemistry of the hot/cold game of wanting. In a highly technical nutshell, our brains squirt out happy juice when we are moving toward our gifts and dissatisfied juice when we are forced to march in an aversive direction or blocked from proceeding forward toward what we are seeking to learn next. If we could follow these reliable clues with no interruption, we could fairly directly find our bliss.

What interferes? These four things do: poor upbringings that leave us confused about what we really feel; the chores of life that demand our attention; the nervy, relentless tendency of Fate to misdirect us; and, finally, the cacophony of our many wants all clamoring simultaneously for our attention. Each source of interference needs to be addressed, then eliminated or at least minimized.

Poor upbringings: We can work to dismantle the first obstacle, an unhelpful upbringing, with overt attention to self-construction. Our route-finding system remains intact under the detritus of the poor parenting we received, we just need to clear away the debris. You probably know the drill by now: eliminate shame, foster curiosity about what lessons were missing or distorted during your childhood and then review the state of the art existential/feminist material for the information you need to fill in the blanks and create an excellent set of internal parental voices.

When it comes to finding our passion, what we want to pay specific attention to in terms of the missed lessons of our childhood is the ability to both access and assess our feelings.

The call to heal our ability to know and trust our feelings is not a therapeutic platitude. Environmentally caused alexithymia, the inability to recognize and articulate feelings, is at the root of all prolonged psychological wandering. Here’s why:

Feelings are the most elemental psychological unit within us. They are moment-by-moment snippets of information about how the particular organism that is us is doing. They are the raw material for all that follows, so the more feelings, the better. Feelings exist naturally in droves just below the surface of our awareness. We notice the stronger feelings that erupt into our consciousness such as anger, exhaustion or confusion, but most of our feelings go unacknowledged and unidentified. If we decide to start paying more attention to our preconscious mind, we should be able to detect and identify dozens of coexisting feelings at any point in time. Paying attention is pretty straightforward. It is a matter of developing the habit of stopping the busyness of our day and tuning in to see what’s going on inside. At first you may find only more basic feelings (mad/sad/bad/glad), but, with time and practice, you can develop a language with which to more accurately identify the feelings existing within you (annoyed/perplexed/withdrawn/euphoric).

[Sidebar: For those with acute alexithymia, deliberate steps have to be taken to learn how feeling words connect to the state of the individual. An emotional vocabulary is built by tracing the feeling word backward. You define a specific feeling word, like disgruntled, and think about that definition until you can identify a time when that feeling was probably present in you. You might remember the time when you reserved a window table at a restaurant for a special occasion and they lost your reservation. They gave you a nice enough table, but the meal was ordinary and the service a bit slow. These disappointments accumulated to create an irritation due to a general dissatisfaction with the experience. That is the definition of disgruntled. So you were probably feeling disgruntled. When life again gives you a series of small disappointments and you feel something, you now know that you can say you’re disgruntled. With practice, you’ll eventually know pretty accurately when you are feeling: restless, proud, calm, audacious, chagrined, bemused, angry, reluctant, feisty, anticipatory, starving, gleeful, wise, relieved, wary, awed, soothed, hot, bewildered, uxorious, grumpy, sleepy, dopey, happy, bashful, stretched, rhapsodic, disrespected, stoic, confident, trapped, confused, right, cheated, devilish, pragmatic, generous, weak, sorry, cozy, ridiculous, and so on. With practice, you can come to precisely identify most of how you feel about your life on a moment-by-moment basis using one of the over 4,000 feeling words in the English language.

It’s important to note that you need to collect and respect negative feelings as well as positive ones, because information is available through both.

It is also wise to never disrespect a feeling when you discover it. Feelings always make sense because they are the result of who you are, where you are and when you are. You may want to change them (by, for instance, changing the situation that caused them), but they are never wrong to have. Therefore, whenever you identify a feeling it is prudent beyond words to learn to respond with “Of course I feel this way at this time.”]

If we get skilled at knowing ourselves at this most basic level – in other words, able to answer the question: What am I feeling? – we will be able to start to answer the appropriate follow-up question: Why? When we can routinely understand what we are feeling and why, we will get a sense of what makes us feel good and what doesn’t. When we realize what makes us feel good and what doesn’t, we have regained our ability to investigate what we want with that hot/cold navigation system.


Remember, I'm happy to answer any questions:


I’m afraid it’s quite possible that I have failed here to convince you how valuable feelings are in terms of being bricks for building. Maybe Legos would make a better metaphor. Think for a moment about how many little doohickeys there are now in the Lego world. One can build just about anything. Feelings are like that. You need lots of sizes and shapes and colors in order to be able to create novel ontological structures. Little feelings, odd feelings, bold feelings, feeble feelings. Every feeling you can acknowledge hands you a little piece of yourself that you can use to build a dream. The next step from feeling toward dreaming is wanting and that process is described below. Maybe after you read that section you can return to this section and read through it again.

There is no way I can overstate how necessary this first step is – learning about yourself by studying your full range of feelings – in terms of finding the passions that will bring you a joyful life. Again, it’s a therapy trope BECAUSE looking at how you feel about things is the only way to get to know yourself. So, corny as it sounds, ask yourself sincerely and often: “How do you feel about that?”

The chores of life: When we reach the age when we stop outgrowing things, usually in our late teens, we start to accumulate stuff. The more stuff we gather, however, the more chores we have. Every sixteen-year-old kid wants a job, a car and an apartment full of stuff. Many work hard to achieve all that not realizing that their lives will then be burdened by rent, car payments and all the chores needed to maintain all of their stuff. People further along in life can find themselves constrained by student loans, marriage, children or caring for ailing parents. The task traps in life are innumerable.

As with feelings, much of how we take on chores is done outside of our awareness. A wise fellow pays attention to the type and sum of the tasks that are coming to define his life. Often the energy outlay needed to keep all the balls in the air can leave us too depleted to make a positive life change. In my role as clinician, I’ve often seen people who believe that they cannot escape a task-saturated life in order to move toward an exciting professional opportunity. It can indeed be difficult to see how disengaging from your current earnings and your tasks-in-service-of-stuff can work to your advantage. Oftentimes an outside perspective is the only way to see when making a career change is a logical, fiscally responsible choice. An objective view can remind you that a change now (even one that might be expensive in the short run) can enhance your earning potential because if you are working at something you love, you are protected from most of the sources of burnout, meaning no yearning for an early retirement for you! Also, people who love their jobs are generally healthier. Good health can translate into a willingness to take risks at work that can take you to very successful places. And, because it’s a rare person whose stuff is capable of bringing them happiness, it makes more sense to place your faith in obtaining and maintaining mastery as a source of joy.

There’s also a secondary danger to having a chore heavy life. Chores do bring a sense of satisfaction that can erroneously feel cumulative. It might be a good idea for all of us to stop occasionally to inquire of ourselves how much of our creative energy is being siphoned off by mundane chores performed in service of our stuff. Carlin rules! (

The fickle finger of Fate: Your brain is designed to be extraordinarily responsive to the environment. This is a good thing, except when it’s a bad thing. And it’s a bad thing if what is shaping your mind is barren or hostile.

If your environment is bleak, punishing and stark, your brain will start to shape itself to fit the smallness and meanness of your world. While such an accommodation can keep you from losing your sanity, it will also keep your ego stuck several sizes too small to contain your talent.

If your world has barriers to success that look impenetrable, your brain will often accept that as true. These barriers are erected with messages such as: only boys go to college, you must join the family business, the military will make a man out of you or you’ll never earn a living as a drummer.

If Fate offers you a forced choice, i.e. you are married to a man who wants to live by the ocean but your dream job is in the mountains, you might believe that these are your only two options.

These examples describe some of the ways that Fate tends to shut down your ability to want. If you aren’t exposed to a range of options, if there are fences put up around you or if the things you want seem to come at too high a price, parts of your brain will try to convince you that you don’t want to want what you want. The only answer to this constraint is to step outside your door and then keep stepping. Walk out into your world and test the limits. Push for as much challenge as you can handle. And then push a whole lot more. Diversity of experience is the best way to increase your ability to want, so seeking novelty is truly an über human endeavor.

While we can never beat Fate at its own game, the more options we routinely generate for ourselves, the more surely we can recover when Fate tries to pull the rug out from under us.

I want to mention here that Fate has so thoroughly trounced some people that they may legitimately require outside help to get out the door of their tiny upbringing. There are many sources of that help – friends, ministers, teachers, therapists, coaches and so on. If you find yourself on the threshold but unable to step out into your world, please feel entitled to ask for help. Here is a link that might help you make that move: getting help.

Cacophony of wants: Most of us, especially in the age of the Internet, are exposed to so much information that we end up with many imported, distorted wants. Combine that overabundance with a culture that squeamishly refuses to teach us how to skillfully want, and we have a recipe for existential disaster.

There are true wants and there are planted wants. Planted wants are adopted from the dominant culture in response to fear. I am taught to want this, that or the other thing in order to avoid serious unpleasantness such as social rejection, feelings of inferiority or FOMO – the sense I am missing out on something remarkable.

True wants, on the other hand, identify for us what is missing in our life, and are formed by feelings that cluster around an idea. As a trivial example, the fact that I want to go see a specific movie on a certain evening is a combination of feelings: curiosity piqued by the previews, boredom with staying home, eagerness for the emotional energy of the big screen experience, hunger for popcorn, anticipation of shared laughter, frustration with never having seen any of the movies nominated for an Academy Award, etc. I will also have feelings about staying home: enjoyment of a fire in the fireplace, reluctance to change back into street clothes, fear that I will be disappointed by the movie, etc. I want to go to the movie, and I want to stay home. The wants that dominate will vary moment-to-moment (and movie-to-movie). (The astute reader will identify some planted wants within that description, e.g. the allure of the Academy Awards, advertisement of this particular movie, etc.)

True wants represent our individual tastes. Some are fairly stable (I want to be around people who are funny.) and some are quite transient (I want that blue shirt.) Some are trivial (I want that blue shirt.) and some are serious (I want to finish this website.) They all reflect a greedy, healthy relationship with the world. Wants exist in us spontaneously and comfortably to the extent that we have a rich supply of feelings and a certain degree of comfort with the seven deadly sins. Once we can trust ourselves to be “sinful” (a HUGE step for most people), our wants will appear, coexist and sort themselves out into clusters based on their ability to bring us well-being.

Like feelings, wants are never wrong to have. We may want to change them in the future, but, as they show up in us, we must always greet them with “Of course!” An adult skilled at wanting, however, will review with George-Carlin-level honesty, the defensibility of each want as it surfaces. Is this want impressive to me? Will it take me down the road toward a better version of myself? Is this want even mine or is it imported? (Here’s a little test to determine whether the want belongs to you or is being promoted by someone outside of you. When you think about what you want, you should feel invigorated. If, instead, you feel something akin to apathetic, pressured or drained, the want probably belongs to someone else. Hopefully you will feel entitled to return it to them with a polite "No, thank you.")

But even with superfluous or imported wants eliminated, we will still have more wants than we can pursue. This fact brings us to the place we so often reach on this website – at the understanding that our life requires us to have existential skills that we simply have not been taught. The skills underlying sorting through wants are complicated so it might be necessary for you to stop here and read the article on will to power if you have not already done so.

Route finding – understanding the whole process

Back to uncovering our navigation system. Our brains constantly provide us with tons of data about the organism called “us.” These data start out as feelings, many of which will cluster together to form wants. If we develop a high tolerance for and comfort with having wants, they will hang around the water coolers in our brains to converse and collaborate.

As our wants start to coalesce, some of the resulting combinations will capture our imagination enough to become fantasies – those enticing fancies that exist on the playground of our minds. Sadly, fantasies are too commonly considered to be the embarrassing result of infantile impulses rather than serious options for adult satisfactions. Some of them are, of course, ridiculous to consider as anything more than mental cotton candy – as perhaps something to entertain us while we are exercising. (No matter how enticing it looks on film, there is no way I am ever going to become an extreme skier.) But some scripts may be doable with effort (hence the allure of bucket lists) and some are nearly nonnegotiable (most of us are able to spot future memories that are precious and legitimate dreams for us).

Psychologist Stephen Mitchell described the shift in thinking necessary to return fantasies to legitimacy: “…psychoanalysts have begun to think about fantasy not as hallucinatory, wish-fulfilling illusions that contaminate objective perception, but rather as the vehicle through which the world comes to life for each of us in a personal, vibrant fashion.”

Fantasies are safe, fun and valuable. Without them our lives would be less colorful and less fertile, and our future would never come to embody our essence.

If given respect, fantasies will sort themselves out in a fairly cognitive, pragmatic fashion, leaving a few select desires. Honest. This is not New Age poppycock. Your brain has at its disposal two crucial things – all the data there are to be had about you and your preconscious thoughts. As it is entertaining itself through those long, dark nights when you relegate it to unconsciousness, your brain tries out different combinations of possibilities. Some of these show up in repetitive dreams and some in daydreams. The best and boldest of these fantasies become what you want to want – or – desires.

Desires make life sexy. They are those fantasies that catch our imagination enough for us to test market them. We often try out only part of them, say, taking a survey course in archeology, getting a summer job at a law office, or trying out for the swim team. As the data come in from these experiments, we decide whether to expand the testing or not. If we liked the course, did well at the job or won a spot on the team we decide whether or not to invest in the next step.

We must start making fine distinctions among many tough choices at this point because we don’t get to pursue all our desires to the next step. It helps to have good future memory skills that are created in our will to power corridor in order to spin out the likelihood that these desires will lead us to satisfaction.

Desires have to compete with each other to be selected for one of the few life commitments – passions – that are the ultimate, elite stories we envision for ourselves. These are the few we pursue. Thus, we start with many, many feelings and end up with a select few passions that pull us into an adventuresome, electrifying future.

Putting it together

Once you have been successful in clearing the majority of the upbringing detritus off your navigational system, you should see the following equipment:

• Feelings: lots of raw material to feed the machinery of passion

• Wants: clusters of feelings that surround and support an idea about what we would like to add to our life

• Fantasies: happy stories we tell ourselves about dreams that might come true

• Desires: those lucky few fantasies that get chosen to be tested

• Passions: once the test data are in, passions arise that are the earnest answers to the question – What desires would you attempt to fulfill if you knew you could not fail?

You have probably spotted the inverted pyramidal shape to this process. Let's flip it over to fit our intuitive sense of this psychological process: Tons of feelings exist at the bottom, creating abundant wants that write many fantasies that give way to some desires that lead to a few passions. When we are pursuing a passion, we are on the path toward a peak experience. There is great loss, to be sure, as we winnow our abundance of feelings into an elite few career options, but a passion-driven life is the surest route to creating an essence. We are at the top of our game and the view is simply terrific from here!

The missing link

Spirit is the will to become whole.

That sentence may seem like a non sequitur, but stick with me a moment. What I need to help you do here is restore your spirit with respect to the world of work in service of your will to become whole. You want a career that will fulfill you – that creates for you daily a sense of wholeness. You have within your psyche the machinery to do that which is the wanting system described above. That machinery must be restored, repaired and well oiled in order for you to proceed smoothly through the pragmatic process described below. All that is to say, the missing link most of us (85% probably) need to put back in place is the understanding that our messy and very human desires are to be taken seriously and, when we can trust them, they will lead us to the professional land of milk and honey.

So. Please. Take a while to sit just here with that linkage in mind. What you have to want to want before you proceed with this most crucial of projects is the mindset that what you may think of as your silly little self with its silly little dreams is actually on to something.

The homework, the hard work, the important work

You can consider all that has gone before in this article to be an introduction to what follows, an introduction designed to clear your mind of all the rusty, old junk that has been cluttering up your thinking when it comes to career choice. Hopefully you are now in a position to approach the career selection process with a fresh, new openness, because, if you are seeking clarity in regard to taking your next professional step, what you want to do now is to regather all the old data that were hidden underneath the old detritus. So, please, please, please take a moment to check in with yourself. If you do not feel open-hearted toward yourself and your efforts to find yourself, and if, instead, you remain riddled with shame, doubt or self-loathing, you will need to get some professional help healing those toxic states in order to get the most out of what follows.

What follows is an amazing paper-and-pencil project that can clarify for you, in an almost magical way, the aptitudes and gifts you have that are most in need of being taken seriously with regard to your next move. Once identified, these unique aspects of yourself will actually define one of those 12,000 occupations cataloged by the Department of Labor.

Building on a career counseling technique created by psychologists Elizabeth Yost and M. Anne Corbishley, I recommend the following process: First, get an appealing-looking notebook that you can dedicate to this process and a handful of brightly colored pens. Start by writing down all the things that intrigued you as a kid. Nothing is too simple to include – from tracing comic book art and peeling apples to growing vegetables and going to the library. Try to cover several pages with this information. With another color ink, describe the things you did that got you into trouble. (Often our aptitudes and gifts show up early in untrained forms that can be off-putting to the adults around us, drawing, tragically, their anger rather than some training.) Next, write out all the jobs you have had, including chores around the house, and list all the components of those jobs. For example, if you worked in a gift shop throughout high school, write out all the tasks you were called upon to do such as assisting customers, gift wrapping, ringing up sales, taking inventory, and so on. Take a different color pen and circle the tasks that brought you the most satisfaction. With a fourth color, explain why they were satisfying in the margins of the page. It can also be helpful to jot down tasks that you were not allowed to do that looked intriguing to you. On a fresh page, write out as many of your childhood fantasies as you can remember, especially around the world of work. With another color ink, describe the components of the fantasy. For example, if you dreamed about being a famous artist, include details like the setting (a sunny attic workroom), the smell of turpentine, a group of fellow painters, an intense art teacher, and so on. Finally, interview as many people as possible to find out what they remember about you as a youngster, including what kind of mischief you got into and what they think your greatest strengths are. It is also helpful to interview more recent acquaintances in terms of how they see you. Write all this down. At this point you should have a colorful notebook full of data.

Next, take a black pen and circle all the words or phrases that are the most appealing to you. You should have 70-100 of these. Transfer them to a new page entitled Big List and give them a good looking over. Let these data sit and ferment for at least a week or so.

While these data are aging in the oak barrel of your mind, you can engage in two additional exercises to collect additional career-finding data.

First, find a therapist or on-line service that will administer the career instrument called the Strong Interest Inventory. This test uses statistics in the most clever of ways to help you identify categories of work that would be a good fit for you. Read over the results and transfer all the most appealing information to your notebook. Let these data age at least a few days in order for your brain to have enough time to sort through them and put them away. (This process happens during sleep, so it is the purest form of self-definition we have. Your brain uses your deepest truths to process the data as it decides where to put each bit of information. Here, of course, is where the magic comes from.) Take that black pen out again and circle all your favorite words or phrases from the page(s) of information from the Strong Inventory. Add those items to the Big List, which should be several pages long at this point.

Second, take advantage of the exploration exercises in well-respected self-help books such as the oddly titled What Color Is Your Parachute? or the awkwardly titled I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was to add even more key career elements to your Big List. Each of those books is the equivalent of getting several hours of an experienced clinician’s time for the price of a paperback.

Please do not read beyond this point in this article until the above steps – including the aging process – are completed because the information below will contaminate the process described above.

Now. I want you to sit with your Big List in front of you and put yourself in this mindset: think about all the items on this list as belonging to someone else…someone you like a lot and respect a lot. Keeping that other person in mind, write the positive characteristic that would enable a person to be very skilled at that item on the line next to each bit. So, for example, if the first dozen items on your Big List look like this:

1. Love the outdoors

2. No boss

3. Fun coworkers

4. Attention to detail

5. Responsible for balancing cash drawer

6. Nice workspace

7. Influence other people

8. Untangle problems

9. Lots of vacation time

10. Always a new challenge

11. Never know what to expect

12. Constantly meeting new people

You could respond with:

1. Love the outdoors: strong

2. No boss: self-directed

3. Fun coworkers: outgoing

4. Attention to detail: painstaking

5. Responsible for balancing cash drawer: diligent

6. Nice workspace: sophisticated

7. Influence other people: bold

8. Untangle problems: clever

9. Lots of vacation time: lots of different interests

10. Always a new challenge: plucky

11. Never know what to expect: brave

12. Constantly meeting new people: confident

The next required tasks may be tedious, but they are the closest you’ll ever get to working magic. Grab some paper from the recycle bin that’s still blank on one side and cut it into squares about the size of a small post-it note. Write each item from your Big List and each characteristic on its own square. Put the items in one stack and the characteristics in another.

Sitting on the floor, take the first stack with the Big List items and sort it into five piles – from the most important to you (pile 1) to the least important (pile 5). And you have to put the same number of items into each pile. On your Big List, write the number of the pile next to each item. Your first 12 entries might now look like this:

1. Love the outdoors (3): strong

2. No boss (1): self-directed

3. Fun coworkers (2): outgoing

4. Attention to detail (4): painstaking

5. Responsible for balancing cash drawer (5): diligent

6. Nice workspace (4): sophisticated

7. Influence other people (1): bold

8. Untangle problems (1): clever

9. Lots of vacation time (5): lots of different interests

10. Always a new challenge (3): plucky

11. Never know what to expect (3): brave

12. Constantly meeting new people (2): confident

Put those pieces back into a stack. Take the stack of characteristics, shuffle them a bit and distribute them the same way into five piles. Write down their ranking number on the Big List like this:

1. Love the outdoors (3): strong (2)

2. No boss (1): self-directed (1)

3. Fun coworkers (2): outgoing (1)

4. Attention to detail (4): painstaking (5)

5. Responsible for balancing cash drawer (5): diligent (3)

6. Nice workspace (4): sophisticated (5)

7. Influence other people (1): bold (2)

8. Untangle problems (1): clever (1)

9. Lots of vacation time (5): lots of different interests (3)

10. Always a new challenge (3): plucky (5)

11. Never know what to expect (3): brave (1)

12. Constantly meeting new people (2): confident (2)

Put both stacks together and shuffle them up a bit. Now you’re going to sort them into roughly 12-15 piles in a way that makes sense only to you. Don’t try to out-think this process. Trust your intuitive mind to know what it’s doing. Simply take each piece of paper and place it in a pile with other pieces that go together. When you have finished, look through the items in each pile and put a name to each pile. Transfer the names of these piles to the next page in your book, which you can title Master List. Paper clip these piles with the labels attached because you will need them again. (I’m not giving examples of these steps because I don’t want to influence your imagination.)

Read over the Master List until you are very familiar with it. Let these data sit at least a few days.

Again, please do not read on here until you have let some time pass.

What’s next is to rank the Master List items from the most favorable to the least favorable. Then eliminate the bottom half of ranked list and transfer the top half to a new page, which you can title Dream List. Again read over the list and then let the list sit in your mind a few days. Re-rank the list and keep only the top four. Put these top four on your final list, which we will call The Final List.

Unearth your saved stacks of items and pull out the four stacks that correspond to the four entries on The Final List. On each piece of paper, transfer the score from your Big List that is the sum of the two items on that line. So, if diligent was one of the items in the stack its number would be 8 and fun coworkers would be 3. Keep only the four items under each category with the four lowest scores. Write them out next to the four categories on The Final List.

You now have a list of four categories with four items each. These sixteen pieces are what you need to fit together to describe some desires that need to be investigated. Between this sweet sixteen and the recommendations from the Strong Interest Inventory, you ought to be able to surmise what a good next step is for you to take professionally. Sometimes it clicks right away as you recognize within these chosen words a professional truth.

For other people it may take a little more germination. If your next move doesn't make itself immediately known, get yourself into your most open-hearted state and let these 16 concepts marinate in the deepest part of yourself. Ask yourself again and again: what desires would I pursue if I knew I could not fail? You might first find yourself answering the question as if it were: What would you do if you won the lottery? Or: What would you do if you had magical powers? These are not the right questions. Oddly, it takes a considerable amount of practice to sit with the actual question. If you stay with it, eventually little voices will start to chime in to tell you what you have probably known all along – that there is a passion waiting for your courage to pursue. When you answer this question, and the answer rings true, you have found a big piece of your inner, unique core – your essence.

If you remain stuck, there are probably still some historical roadblocks preventing you from dreaming true. Take this information you have gathered to a psychologist who has had training in career counseling and let them help you put it all together.


Your next step is to gather the people who are intertwined with your life and tell them what you would like to try next. Enlist their help. You may need to wait for a while to get your turn, but if the people around you care for you, they will be willing to assist you in getting powered up. People who are misemployed are hard to be around. People on the road toward their passion are not.

If your next step takes training, figure out how to get it.

If your next step takes courage, marshal some.

If your next step is still too vague, start moving in the right direction and trust that clarity comes with forward movement.

Just don’t do nothing.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.