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How values help determine your career path

I went to my college reunion this past weekend and was struck by how many of my classmates were doing incredible work -- projects they are passionate about and that contribute to the overall good in the world (generally). While it was fun and fascinating to talk to them, I found talking to the people grinding away at jobs that they hated because they'd put themselves on a track and don't know how to get out of it was even more interesting.

One classmate said, essentially, "We're on a bus that won't stop and it's going 95 miles an hour. How do you get off without breaking every bone in your body?"

My answer is to get clear on your values.

I've written previously about how you need to unpack the role of work in your life and heal from past work damage before finding your way forward, and values are a huge part of that. Values, as I define them, are the ideas and principles that you use to guide your decision-making. Sometimes you're aware of them and sometimes you're not. Either way, they are like the operating system on your computer. They decide which apps will and won't work, how much battery life is left, and whether you've been infected with a 95-mile-an-hour virus. But so many people walk around completely unaware of their own operating systems. They make very important decisions without determining whether the new course of action aligns with the values they've developed since they took that job x number of years ago.

What I often do with new clients looking for a career change is to help them clarify their values. What concepts, ideas, characteristics, or qualities are important to have in their lives, and what do each of those mean to them.

One way to rate and rank your values is to do a card sort -- online or off, there are lots of them. (See an earlier post about values and you'll find several online sorts and some other ideas for ways to identify your own values.) Once you've done that, though, you're not done. Say "family" comes out as a top value. That can mean a wide array of different things. So I ask clients to put together a string of words that clarify the original value.

For example, the way I see family is as love/connection/belonging. But I've had clients define it as support/protection/team or togetherness/warmth/laughter. All three are family, but different facets of family. And the nuance is important. If your value of family is more about support and protection, then it might be ok to have a job that requires long hours and lots of effort because you know that your work is supporting and protecting your family. Or, conversely, if family is about togetherness and laughter, then a job like that will cause more stress.

What I've noticed is that, for many people, the top ten values stay the same over their lifetimes. But two things happen -- the way they define those values (using the three-word chain) changes, and the top five tend to change. Being specific and clear about which five are the top five now (and how you can honor them) is critical before considering a career change. No point jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

It's especially hard when you're going 95 miles an hour to stop and assess your choices. But it's the only way to slow down the bus. Take a sick day. Take a vacation day. Take a lunch hour, even, and put time on your calendar to sort your values. It's an investment that will pay huge dividends, but you have to do it.

And I'm here to support you if you want. Book a free sample session and we'll chat. (But quickly, though, because I know you have a million other things to do.)

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Jun 20, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

So true! The 95 mph bus is my life!

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