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How to use your values at a career crossroads

Many of my clients come to me because they're unhappy at work and don't know what they want to do next. Should they stay? Leave? Go after a promotion? Change to another department? Another field? Start their own business?

I never tell them what to do -- how could I? But I do help them unpack a lot of baggage around work and investigate what's important to them, both at work and at home.

The unpacking

There are two big questions to kick off your unpacking:

1) What role does work play in your life/what role do you want it to play? and

2) What do you need to heal from your past work life before making a decision about moving forward?

Let's look at each of these in more depth.

What role does work play in your life?

The answers I get to this question range widely -- some people work for money, some for fulfillment, some to prove their education was worth it, some to please their parents/partner/whoever... the list of answers is as long as my client list. But understanding WHY you work allows you to better understand your relationship to it.

It's also important to look at what "itches" you want work to "scratch" in your life. Is work where you get to feel in control? Is it where you get to collaborate? Is it where you get to connect with adults and get positive feedback? Looking at what you expect from work and then also what it gives you is critical to understanding how to think about your next move.

What do you need to heal from your past work life before making a decision?

This is a biggie, and not something people tend to think about. But just as work can be rewarding and fulfilling, it can also be traumatic in a wide variety of ways. Maybe you had a boss who was full of microaggressions. Maybe your CEO didn't value your department. Maybe you had competitive peers who took credit for your ideas. Maybe your workplace simply wasn't safe. No matter what it is, identifying the awfulness you need to leave behind is the first step to leaving it behind.

I've seen people jump from the frying pan into the fire because they thought they could leave their baggage at their last job. It's not possible. Whatever you're hoping to get from your next role, you need to acknowledge how that was not being met in your current (or past) role and how you were participating in it.

Investigating what's important

The next thing to look at is your values. I define those as the guiding forces of your life, the ones that matter most to you, and the fulfillment of which brings you a sense of completeness and satisfaction. When you're clear on what's important to you, it's easier to make decisions.

For example, I had a client for whom learning and hard work were clear values. She had been top of her class in college and enjoyed the process of digesting and synthesizing new information and putting in the hours to get it done. She had persistence and tenacity, and knowing everything she could about her field was important to her. In fact, in her current field, she had become a bit of an expert in her niche. When we talked about changing niches (while staying in the same field), she hesitated. She didn't want to have to start all over and learn a new niche again. That's when she realized that being an expert was also a value of hers.

So here were three values that were important -- learning, hard work, and expertise. By staying in her role, she could maximize only two of them, hard work and expertise. By changing to a new niche, she could, at first, maximize only two of them, learning and hard work. Expertise might come, but not immediately.

Knowing that she couldn't immediately satisfy all three helped her decide to lean into the learning value and see that changing was a good thing.

Very often, people only consider their compensation, title, and new company's reputation when considering a role. But it's also critical -- arguably even more important -- to look at how that new role honors your values. Does it give you the opportunity to bring your full self to the table? Can you do what you do best? Will you experience a feeling of alignment and peace, even on the ugly days? If you are clearly honoring at least one of your major values (though ideally several), it's a lot easier to get out of bed when you know you have to have a difficult conversation, face unpleasant feedback, or talk with a CEO who doesn't value your department.

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