How to Discover and Develop Your Career Path

Career path tools: a today planning pad and a planner open to a page for January goals.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

If you’re like the average American, your answer to that question has probably changed drastically over the course of your life. In fact, according to the Department of Labor, the average person will change careers 5-7 times in their lifetime. 

And frankly, it’s okay if you’re working full-time and *still* don’t know the answer to that question. Careers — and lives — are full of changes; the important thing is that you identify the general direction that you want to end up in, and make sure that every step you take gets you a little bit closer to that goal.

Today, we’re going to be talking about career paths: how to identify and develop the ideal career path for you, how to set — and stick to! — your goals, how to find help along the way, and what to do if unexpected changes or challenges arise (because they will). 

Think about your goals

The first step to any big planning session is to ask yourself some big-picture questions:

  • What do I want my life to look like in 20 years? 
  • What do I want to be doing for work in 20 years?
  • What do I hope my day-to-day looks like in 20 years? 
  • How much money do I need or want to be making by then?
  • What kind of work-life balance will I need in the future?

If you’re starting your career path planning from scratch, thinking about the answers to some of these questions can really help you narrow down your goals and options. For example, if your plan is to have a big family, you might need to think about fields or careers that will enable you to enjoy your family without being stuck at the office 24/7. Or if you want to be retired and living in France in 20 years, you might need to consider what kind of salary you’ll need to get to that point. 

The important thing to remember when you start this exercise is that there are no wrong answers. This is your time to jot down anything and everything that you want your life to encompass. 

After you’ve written down the big picture items for your life in general, it’s time to spend some time honing in specifically on the type of work that you want to do. A few more questions to ask yourself:

  • What type of work is fulfilling to me?
  • What are my favorite parts of my job now?
  • What are my strengths?
  • Fill in the blank: If I could do _____ all day long, I would be happy.
  • What are my *least* favorite types of work? 
  • What are my weaknesses?

Once you have your answers, you can start identifying the types of industries, roles, and careers that might check all of your boxes. Next it’s on to the plan.

Make a road map

Once you’ve identified your big goals, it’s time to start breaking those down into smaller, more actionable steps. You’ve sketched out what you want your life and career to look like in 20 years, now what do you need to do in the next year, or even the next three months, to set yourself on the right path? 

This is where a good planner comes in handy. I love the Ink+Volt Goal Planner for this type of planning. It helps you set bigger-picture, year-long goals, and then break those down into more actionable goals for each month and week so you can approach every single day with intention and purpose.

If starting out with a full year planner seems like more than you can manage, the 3-Month Planner is a really great alternative that helps you focus on the major changes that you can make in just 90 days. 

Never stop learning

The only way to continue growing and making progress is to view everything that life throws your way as an opportunity to learn.

Are there training courses, certifications, or special classes you might need to take to progress in your career? If there’s nothing required, are there things that might help you or give you a leg up? For example, you might not be a professional designer, but would it be helpful to have a basic understanding of Photoshop? Or web design? You can often find low-cost general knowledge courses like these through companies like Skillshare or Course Horse.  It might also be worth checking if your current company will help you pay for some of these professional development courses since the more you know, the better you will be able to do your job.

Having a growth mindset and being open to learning is key to success. That said, it’s not always about learning a new skill. Sometimes it’s about learning from your own experiences and mistakes. 

Let’s say a project didn’t go the way you hoped it would. After you take some time to recover from the disappointment, it’s important to think about why it happened and what you can do differently next time. The Lessons Learned pad is a great tool for this type of self-reflection and assessment — it guides you through a sequence of prompts that can help you identify the roots of the problems and opportunities for learning and improvement next time around so you can bounce back better than ever. 

Find a mentor

Who you know can make a huge difference in the trajectory of your career. 

Of course, it’s important to cultivate good relationships with your own boss and your colleagues, but it’s also okay to look outside of your own team or even your own company to find someone who might be able to mentor you along your career path. 

Do some research and find the person who’s doing exactly what you want to be doing twenty years from now and reach out. Send them an email, message them on LinkedIn, or ask a mutual connection to introduce you. Ask them if you can take them out to coffee or even just have a brief phone call or informational interview — the worst they can say is no!

Communicate and ask for what you want

The only way you’ll get what you want at work is if your manager knows what your goals are. Your boss’s job is to be an advocate for you — to help you learn, grow, and mature. So that means it’s important that you clearly and professionally indicate your goals when appropriate with your boss

Quarterly or annual performance reviews are a great place to have conversations about your big picture goals and the steps you might need to take to get there. These are a natural opportunity for your manager to reflect on your progress thus far and provide some guidance in terms of opportunities you might need to take advantage of in the near future to stay on the right path.

Your regular one-on-one meetings are also a great place to have these types of conversations. (We love the 1:1 Pad to make sure you come to every meeting prepared!) These touch-bases can be chances for you to volunteer for a project, ask for advice, and more.

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