How to Find Clarity When You’re at a Career Crossroads
Five research-backed steps to figure out your next move
In elementary school, you studied five subjects. In college, you picked a major but spent your elective credits learning about Heidegger and housing policy. You embarked on a career or got a graduate degree that added some letters after your last name, but despite having found a foothold on your professional path, your other interests nag like a pebble in your shoe. You’re ready for a change but not sure what that exactly means.
There are, unfortunately, no signposts when you’re at crossroads in your career. Other people’s advice tends to justify their past choices, and your family and friends’ definition of success may not be your own. You were told that choosing a lane would lead to clarity, but all it seems to be leading to is a healthy serving of existential angst.
If it sounds like I’m working through my past trauma, it’s because I am. Before I turned 30 I worked in four different industries—tech, journalism, advertising, and design—exploring each in an effort to find my vocational soulmate. Whenever I felt too antsy on a path, I swerved in search of another.
Thankfully, I found a channel for my listlessness in the form of a research project that became a book. Over the past two years, I interviewed over 100 workers—from Wall Street bankers to kayak guides in Alaska—and pored over dozens of academic papers to uncover insight into developing a healthier relationship to work.
Though I can’t point a stethoscope toward your soul’s deepest yearnings, here are five research-backed principles that have helped me in my exploration.
Find a compass, not a map
A map might give you directions from A to B, but a compass will help you find true north wherever you are. Often when we seek out career advice, we look for maps: follow the morning routine of this highly successful person. Reverse-engineer your way to the C-Suite, one LinkedIn cyberstalk at a time. Even the metaphors we use with regard to careers—ladders, stepping stones, paths—assume a linearity that is rarely consistent with lived experience.
Our career maps may be distorted by other people’s preferences and our own outdated ideas of what we thought we wanted. Take prestige. Prestige “warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy,” writes investor Paul Graham. “It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Instead of planning a route from the get-go, we benefit from first taking a step back to determine what matters, irrespective of any particular job or direction.
Figuring out what you value is different from determining what you’re passionate about. As Cal Newport argues in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, passion is often the result of, not the precursor to, good work. Whereas passions come and go, values remain core to who you are.
Following your passion is a luxury. Following your values is a necessity.
Passion is a fickle magnet: it pulls you toward your current interests. Values are a steady compass: they point you toward a future purpose.
Passion brings immediate joy. Values provide lasting meaning.
There are countless studies that have proven the benefits of reminding yourself of what you value. Doing so has been shown to lead to better learning outcomes in school, more decisive decision-making, and higher levels of resilience. And there are many ways to uncover your values—like journaling, card sorts, and online quizzes, to name a few. Regardless of how you determine them, clarifying your values will help you connect any career choice to what actually matters to you.
Learn through action, not rumination
Ruth Chang is a philosopher who studies how people make hard decisions. She defines a hard decision as one where one option is not clearly better than the other. Though that distinction may seem obvious, it’s important to acknowledge—especially when we pressure ourselves to get decisions “right.”
A hard decision is not hard because you can’t seem to “figure it out.” Hard decisions are hard because option A is better in some ways and option B is better in others. “When alternatives are on a par, it may matter very much which you choose, but one alternative isn’t better than the other,” Chang writes. “Rather, the alternatives are in the same neighborhood of value, in the same league of value, while at the same time being very different in kind of value.”
This is often the case at a career crossroads. Once, I was deciding between a job at a digital magazine and another at a prestigious design firm. The journalism job felt more aligned with my passion but the design job paid 50% more. If one job were better than the other in every way, it wouldn’t have been a hard decision. Yet I was convinced there was a “correct” choice that would reveal itself if I banged my head against the wall at a certain angle.
Chang sees hard choices as an opportunity to put ourselves behind an option. Rather than try to perform endless thought experiments to gain clarity, we can choose a direction and then create the reasons for why we did so. That is to say: instead of making the right choice, we have the power, through our actions, to make the choice right.
Play the long game
We often view career decisions as trap doors—that is to say, once we make a choice our lives will be irrevocably changed. Sure, a job might determine how much money you make, who you work with, and what you work on for a certain period of time. But we often discredit our ability to course-correct if things go off the rails.
When I decided to turn down the staff writer position and take the job in design, I felt like a traitor. I thought my former colleagues in journalism would judge me and that no publication would ever let me write for them again. But, in fact, much of my success in journalism came after I formally left the industry. My detour from the newsroom didn’t forever taint me—in fact, now I’m freelancing more than ever.
One fascinating study of early career scientists supports the idea that snags and setbacks are rarely dealbreakers. The researchers focused on two groups of people applying for NIH grants: those who narrowly won and those who narrowly lost. The study found that scientists who narrowly lost early in their careers systematically outperformed those with narrow wins in the longer run. The researchers concluded what we already know intuitively: setbacks are “an integral part” of a successful career.
Craft the story of your job’s place in your life
Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton are management professors whose research focuses on how people make meaning in taxing work environments like restaurants, hospitals, and the military. In 2000, they wanted to figure out why certain workers were so much happier than others with the same job.
Until their report, most research on job satisfaction had focused on external factors, such as how much workers enjoyed their daily tasks or how well they got along with their colleagues. But Wrzesniewski and Dutton developed a competing theory.
They conducted interviews with dozens of people who worked in jobs most would not think of as particularly meaningful—janitors in a hospital. Although the janitors all had the same role at the same hospital, there was a lot of variation in how much they liked their work. The researchers broke them down into roughly two categories.
The first group of janitors thought their work didn’t require much skill. They were less willing to go out of their way to interact with others during their shifts. And they were relatively unhappy with their jobs. Group two, on the other hand, was happy with their jobs. They believed their work required more skill, and they regularly chatted with patients and other members of the hospital staff.
But the most striking difference was that workers in the second group viewed themselves as an essential part of a system whose job was to care for the sick. They saw themselves as healers. Attaching this higher purpose to their jobs made the menial aspects of their work more manageable. The narrative they each held about the impact of their work made it both more enjoyable and meaningful.
“Job boundaries, the meaning of work, and work identities are not fully determined by formal job requirements,” Wrzesniewski and Dutton write. The purpose of a job is not like your eye color or height. You have the ability to craft what a job means to you. And as the research shows, that “crafting” plays a key role in your satisfaction.
But it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between treating a job as a source of meaning and considering it the meaning of life, which brings us to the most important principle of all.
Remember that what you do is part of—but not the entirety of—who you are
Each of us holds multiple identities. We are workers, but we are also siblings and citizens, parents and neighbors. Defining yourself solely based on one aspect of who you are is to balance on a narrow platform, vulnerable to a strong gust of wind.
When we invest in different parts of ourselves, research shows that we’re better equipped to deal with life’s inevitable challenges. For example, in one study, Dr. Patricia Linville found that subjects with a more differentiated idea of themselves—what she calls having greater “self-complexity”—were less prone to depression and physical illnesses following a stressful event.
Though your chosen work is important, it’s equally important to remember that your job is just one-eighth of your life. From all the workers with whom I’ve spoken, those who were most content all had one thing in common: they had a strong sense of who they were when they weren’t working. Perhaps the best career advice I’ve heard is to lower the stakes. When we loosen our grip on the “right” path to pursue, we open ourselves to what the universe has to offer.
That’s why I like to think of careers as less like ladders and more like lily pads. In retrospect, some hops might look as if they were on a path, while others might look like a digression. Some might prioritize work, others might prioritize life outside of work. But whatever you hop to next, know you’ll have the chance to hop again. Little in life is permanent.
Simone Stolzoff is a San Francisco-based author, journalist, and designer. His book The Good Enough Job will be published by Penguin Random House in the spring. If you liked this piece, you can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his free newsletter.
If you want to go deeper in exploring what matters to you and join a community of other like-minded explorers, consider checking out the next cohort of Simone’s course, Designing Your Next Step, where you’ll use the design thinking process to clarify what lily pad you might want to hop toward next. Before November 24, Every readers will get 15% off with the code EVERY. You can pre-order Simone’s book here.