Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How to Build a Career You’ll Love (Through All of Life’s Twists and Turns)

happy woman at work
Hero Images/Getty Images

Peering out of the window of a skyscraper in New York City at the people hurriedly rushing to their jobs, I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. Just moments ago, I was one of them, and this had been my routine every day over the course of my career: dash to work to do a job that, even on the best days, felt like I was spinning my wheels. Deep down I knew something needed to change; I just couldn’t put a finger on it. I sat back in my chair, looked around at the white walls of my office, then back toward the window again. I thought: Is this really all there is?

At that point, I had a secure job in advertising backed by advanced degrees, I was making a good amount of money, and I was positioned to keep moving up within my company. To others, I had “made” it—but to me, I felt disconnected and disappointed day after day.

Wow, I thought. I was only five years into my career, and I could already sense that I was headed for crisis. Perhaps you can relate? Or fear that one day you’ll find yourself at that point?

Many of us start out our careers with lofty ambitions, high expectations, and optimistic pursuits, yet somewhere along the line we hit a lull of confusion, frustration, and feelings of failure. Although the stereotype is that this crisis hits folks in their mid-40s, it is also known to happen (as was the case for me) in your 20s and 30s. As a career coach to people of all ages throughout the years, I have seen this happen many times to individuals who were able to successfully navigate their way through it.

If you’re feeling on the brink of a job crisis or in the midst of one right now, you’re definitely not alone, but there are things you can do to help prevent or mitigate the event. No matter where you are on your professional journey or what age you happen to be, here are four steps I’ve found that will help you avoid the dip or get you through to the other side.

1. Take Time to Build Your Foundation

The best careers are built on a critical foundation that will stand the test of time and can weather the inevitable pitfalls you’ll encounter—things like your core values, passions, and strengths. Unfortunately, many of us dive straight into a job that we think looks good on paper and don’t take the time to build this foundation, which can lead to upset down the road.

But it’s never too late to go back to the basics. If you’ve never gone through this process or it’s been some time since you did, start by blocking out some quiet time to hone in on or revisit a few important things about yourself:

  • What are your core values? Or, in other words, what matters to you most in life? Identifying your values can feel overwhelming, but there are plenty of resources to guide you along the way. Two of my favorites: the free core values workbook offered by Dawn Barclay of Living Moxie and Danielle LaPorte’s resources for finding your “core desired feelings”—essentially another way of identifying the same thing.
  • What are your strengths? Sure, you probably know some of these offhand (hello, interview question prep), but sometimes it can be most helpful to get other people’s impressions of you. Try asking 10 friends, colleagues, or mentors what they think your three greatest strengths are, and you’ll likely start to see some patterns. And, truthfully, the answers might surprise you—often our strengths are the things we do so innately that we don’t even recognize them as something special.
  • What are your passions? For some, this might seem like the easiest to answer, but a lot of people struggle with it. If you’re not 100% sure, ask yourself questions like: When do I find myself in the zone, both at work and in my personal life? What skills or talents come most natural to me? What gets me out of bed in the morning? What did I love as a child that still excites me?

Collect your answers to these questions in one central place so you can start to see a clear vision of yourself. Consider your current job satisfaction (or lack thereof), and see how this foundation relates. If you realize that key aspects of your situation aren’t aligning with your values, strengths, and passions, that’s a clear sign that it’s time to start making some changes. On that note:

2. Make Choices Based Off Your Core

Whenever you find yourself at a crossroads in your career—be it about accepting a new job, taking on new responsibilities, handling a conflict at work, or anything in between—remember to return to your foundation to help guide you. This way you’re not making decisions based on whims or out of stress, but on how you intentionally want to build your career for the long haul. Here are a few questions worth asking before you make a choice:

  • How does this decision align with my core values, strengths, and passions?
  • How do I truly feel about the decision I am about to make?
  • How would the person I want to be handle this situation?
  • How would I feel tomorrow if I make this choice today?

For example, I worked with a woman who was offered a promotion at a higher salary, but the new position would increase her already intense travel schedule. While she was excited about the idea of moving up, she was conflicted about spending more time away from home. She was able to assess her decision more thoughtfully, with her values and professional aspirations as a guide, and decided to negotiate the terms of her promotion to an arrangement that was mutually beneficial. She is much happier with her decision, and her employer gets to grow the company. Win-win!

Without this level of clarity, you may make a decision that will disappoint later on. When making choices from your core, you can even start small: As you face day-to-day decisions, like whether or not to delegate a task, do a quick gut check about whether it aligns with your core before proceeding.

3. Find Ways to Follow Curiosities

Even if you’ve chosen a career, a job, and a company based on your foundation, it doesn’t mean you’ll always feel like that’s the only gig for you. In fact, you’re bound to have other things pop up that spark your interests, and I always encourage people to find ways to pursue them.

After all, we tend to want what we don’t have, and ignoring these curiosities or letting them fester could leave you with a sense that there is something missing and cause you to make some drastic career decisions. But by giving them a little bit of attention, you can quiet that sense of FOMO and maybe even become more inspired at your day job. For example, early on in my career, I became curious about photography and took some lessons on evenings and weekends. Picking up the camera and tapping into my creative side satisfied a need I didn’t even know I had. After a couple of months of playing with the camera in my spare time, my co-workers even noticed a change in my mood and overall energy at work. I felt more inspired and less stressed because I had other interests in addition to my main gig.

So look for opportunities to explore other interests in your free time. Whether it’s picking up a book, taking an evening class, attending a meetup group, or starting a side project, a few hours each week is usually all the time you need to dip your toe in. Or, you could look for opportunities to bring these activities into your job by taking ownership of special projects and initiatives. If you have an idea for a new sales strategy or a women’s leadership program, for example, follow it! You never know where your curiosity might lead you.

4. Don’t Get Too Comfortable

Even if you’ve built your career based on your foundation, you’re making core-based decisions like a boss, and you’re following your side interests in your spare time, don’t stop there! When things are going well, it’s easy to coast and get a little too comfortable. While you should enjoy the ride, it’s equally important to resist the urge to become complacent and continue to seek out opportunities that will stretch you and keep your mind fueled with inspiration.

Continually checking in on your career journey allows you to stay on track or course correct if necessary, as well as explore the areas you want to push yourself to grow in. I recommend bi-annual career check-ins (put it on your calendar to stay accountable!) to think about:

  • Your long-term goals, how you’re progressing toward them, and what next steps will get you even closer
  • Your accomplishments from the past six months
  • Areas or skills you’d like to learn or develop in the next six months
  • What’s working in your career and what’s not (and how you can change that)

Of course, even if you’re doing all of the above, you may still find yourself in a place of uncertainty or unhappiness. If this happens, think of this as a great opportunity to slow down, reflect, and re-evaluate some things in your life and career. One way to move through this time is to revisit your core values. You may discover that somewhere along the way, you’ve drifted away from them—or that they’re actually not your values anymore! Set aside time to do a quick inventory: List out what is going really well and what is missing. For the items in the latter category, see if you can create mini goals that will allow you to actively address them.

Going through a professional crisis happens to the best of us and is just a sign of being human. For better or for worse, the pain brings with it an incredible gift to re-examine our lives and make better decisions. So while we do our best to avoid pitfalls in our career, rest assured that this period in time is a sign of better things to come.