By Randy Hain

I have been reflecting on a recent conversation with a young professional I met who is eight months into his first post-college job. He is eager to grow his career and get started doing work he loves, but struggled in our conversation to articulate what he thought success looked like or clearly defining “work he loves”. He described feeling bored, disengaged and trapped in his current job and was thinking about starting a job search, even though he works for a Fortune 500 company that recruited him out of college and is doing work directly related to his degree. When he expressed an interest in the work I do, this led to a discussion about the difference between learning jobs and doing work we love.

I shared my own professional journey with him and he was surprised to hear about the eclectic path my career took over the years to help me learn what I was passionate about and how it prepared me engage in the work I do today. After graduating from college, I started out as a management trainee in a large retailer and learned how to run a business, engage with customers and lead others as I progressed to more senior roles. I developed an interest in talent and recruiting while with the company and transitioned to a large national restaurant chain where I eventually became a senior executive leading recruiting, training and diversity for the organization in my late 20’s/early 30’s. After four years, I was recruited to join and eventually lead a national executive search firm where I developed a passion for coaching, leadership development and writing. In my mid-40’s, after a dozen years with this great firm, I decided to launch my own company where I could focus exclusively on the coaching and leadership development work I loved…and indulge my passion for writing. Along the way, I was blessed with great mentors and advocates who helped me and gave me wise counsel. Why does this matter?

Each of the jobs I had until I started my own company was a learning job and I am truly grateful for every growth opportunity, challenge and lesson I experienced on the way to figuring out what I was passionate about and loved doing. The first 25 years of my career prepared me in multiple ways to better serve the clients I love working with today. As I shared in my discussion with this young professional, how can we truly know what we love doing unless we experiment and explore different career experiences to see what fits? To be clear, I thoroughly enjoyed aspects of every work experience I had before I started my business. But, as time went on and I acquired new experiences, maturity and hopefully a little wisdom, I began to better understand that I was being drawn to the work of coaching and guiding other leaders which I am so grateful to do today.

I could tell our conversation was both enlightening and frustrating for this bright and talented future leader as he took it all in. He said he understood it might take time, but still felt a degree of impatience that he might have to wait years to figure out what he loved to do. I gave him some ideas on how he might begin to both discern his calling and also maximize the learning experiences in his current job:

  • Make a list of your skills. What are you already good at? Also, what skills do you wish to learn?
  • Make a list of your interests (personal and professional). What do you enjoy? How much time are you investing in doing the things on this list?
  • Maximize your current role. Are you pushing and stretching yourself? Are you fully executing your job and giving it 100%? Have you considered that doing well in the job you have versus chasing the job you don’t have may be the wisest course of action?
  • Ask your boss for help in creating a personal development plan. Express your desire to grow and be intentional with your supervisor about discussing what you want to get out of your career and get his/her input on what you can do to make this happen. Ask them to hold you accountable. Are there high-potential programs, coaching or other leadership development opportunities in your company you can be considered for when you qualify? Would outside leadership courses or an MBA be appropriate?
  • Cultivate mentors and advocates. Who do you admire in your professional and personal circles who can teach you and help you grow? Who will give you candid feedback on how you are doing and what you need to work on? Who is willing to advocate for you and your career when you are not in the room? Helpful Tip: Mentor and Advocate relationships are special and should be treated with professionalism and care. The people who may invest in you are giving generously of their time and they should always feel your gratitude and appreciation.
  • Always be willing to reflect in real time on your ongoing experiences and learnings. Did you enjoy the project you just completed and if so, why? What clicks with you? What excites you? What inspires you and makes you happy? As you gain more work experience, the picture of where you want to go will likely emerge and be clearer if you take the time to reflect on what is going around you, consider how it affects you and savor what it is teaching you. Also, don’t forget to consider how you are helping others and contributing to their success as part of your journey. I know without a doubt this intentional reflection mindset helped me and is a lesson I learned from a wonderful mentor I had at my first job.
  • Be patient and take stock at the end of every year. You may not have to wait 25 years as I did to discern and engage in your dream work. At the end of every year, ask yourself if you have grown. What did you learn over the last 12 months? What new skills and experiences did you acquire? Are you challenged and learning new things? Did you get closer to understanding what you are called to do? Is the dream job or work becoming clearer in your mind? Is it time to pursue it?

Finally, be open to the influence of life, love, faith and family. As you carefully plan this exciting career journey, be mindful that life may throw you a few curveballs. You may fall in love, get married and have a family. In my experience, the adversities I have faced, my faith, my marriage and my children have been crucial in shaping my journey to the fulfilling career I am blessed to enjoy.

My new acquaintance has plenty to think about, but I know he will find his way forward and I plan to stay connected and help him any way I can. To his credit, he encouraged me to share our conversation which you have read about in this post. I have had plenty of learning jobs and I am grateful for all the hard work I put in and every experience that shaped and prepared me for what I do today. Now, I embrace and live by the famous quote attributed to Mark Twain: “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

By the way, I may be doing work I love, but I still learn something new every day and for that I am very grateful.

*This post was adapted from Chapter Four of Upon Reflection: Helpful Insights and Timeless Lessons for the Busy Professional