How to Reverse Engineer Your Career Path

Blooming by Carlos PortoDuring the recession, workers hung on to the jobs they had, even though the work was no longer fulfilling. Job descriptions changed to include my job, your job and his job, because your job and his job no longer existed. Company loyalty became a confused commodity, and the word “pension” was relegated to the dictionary. Change is  constant, but the speed is accelerating, with no sign of slowing down.

This is a challenging time. Do you see “challenging” as a condition fraught with risk and obstacles? Or is it a time of opportunity, with a bit of risk thrown in to make the heart pump faster?

Are you truly where you want to be in your career? Do you remember how you arrived at where you are?

What compelled you to take the position you have now?

Some people take the first job offered out of college, and don’t think about leaving until circumstances make it difficult to stay. Sometimes people stay out of a sense of gratitude to the employer for offering a job, especially if one had difficulty landing a position in the first place.

Grinding through the day like an automaton, watching the clock, and turning out the same old product is not fulfilling your potential, and will eventually sap your energy and creativity.

If one was fortunate enough (or talented enough) to have several opportunities, what was the determining factor for selecting the job? Money? The project? The culture? Is that factor as important now as it was then, or have circumstances changed, either within the company or outside of it?

What makes you stay?

This is the hard question; it requires you to be honest with yourself. If you are afraid of exploring this question, then you probably already know the answer. Or you may be afraid you know the answer, but on further inspection, you may discover a different answer.

Here are some possible reasons for staying:

  • I make a really good wage. I don’t know if I would make that much with another company.
  • I have a family now. I need the benefits.
  • I don’t know what else I could be doing.
  • I may need to relocate, and I’m afraid I couldn’t sell my house.
  • I don’t know why I’m here anymore.

All of those reasons are valid responses. It may not feel good to acknowledge any of those excuses, but once you do, you are free to take the next step.

Start a list

Actually, you may be making several lists, but start with a list of the pros and cons of your current position.

It might be a good idea to take some time off before you begin your list. A few days’ vacation might provide some perspective as you think about your situation.

Your headings might include:

  • What it is about my job that I like
  • What I don’t like
  • What I can change
  • What I can’t change
  • What I need

You may find creating a mind map is more conducive to developing your list. Use whatever works for you; there are no hard and fast rules here.

When you’ve reached a stopping point, put the list away. Forget about it for a week or two. Other points may come to the surface now that you’ve started investigating your feelings. Jot them down. Use an app like Evernote®, or a notebook for your notes – something that is easy to carry around with you.

Revisit your list or mind map, and incorporate the notes you made. What does it look like now?

Make a plan

If you decide that staying is best for you, but you still have some reservations, talk to your manager about some changes that would improve your work. Try to turn the negatives into positives, and make the job the one you want.

If it’s time to leave, then you need to make a plan. Don’t make any decisions in a vacuum. If you have a family, you need to share with them your conclusions. You’ve probably telegraphed your unhappiness to your family and close friends. You will need their support. Taking your partner or a mentor into your confidence now can help you figure out a path that will make your exit plan a reality.

But I don’t know what I want to do!

Go back to the beginning. Why did you take that job in the first place? Was it really what you wanted? What did you want when you were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and not yet overwhelmed with the real world? When you think about that dream, does it still have the same pull?

If that dream still resonates with you, then make it happen! You may have to reshape it a bit – space shuttle flights are in short supply right now. Start networking, and find a mentor who will support you. Keep it under your hat at work, though. Be judicious about who you share your goal with. Take baby steps, knowing that even one step forward puts you closer to your goal.

Are you flummoxed? Do you feel absolutely clueless about your next steps? Few of us are in a position to just up and quit, although some people find that’s a workable solution.

What you don’t want is to land in the same situation.

Try before you buy

Having a good portable skill set can open opportunities for you to try some different situations without making a long-term commitment. Working as a consultant or contractor will bring in a paycheck – a good one – while giving you the time to decide where you really want to be.

As a contractor, you have the opportunity to work in a variety of environments. You can learn from new people, and use your skill set on different projects.

Contract lengths run from very short term – a few months – to a year or two. Some contracts are renewed on a year-to-year basis. Other contracts are true “try before you buy” opportunities, when at the end of a trial period, you and the employer decide whether the position is a good fit.

The best time to look at contract work is while you are employed. The fewer periods of unemployment between jobs, the better your chance of landing a contract.

Although working as a 1099 or independent consultant is an option, you may find working through an agency recruiter is a better transition. Many agency recruiting firms offer medical benefits and retirement savings options.

It’s a choice. Make it your choice

Don’t stay in a job that doesn’t take you where you want to be. You do have options. Wouldn’t you rather be in charge of your career? Don’t wait until the inevitable poor attitude and performance that is born out of unhappiness in your  career make the decision for you. Start making your list today.

Questions about making the switch to contract work? Ask us in the comments, or send us an email. We work exclusively with Information Technology professionals.

Image courtesy of Carlos Porto /

Corporate Media Specialist, DPP 

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