This is a tough situation. After you’ve spent so much time digging into a career, it’s very hard to poke your head out of the hole and get a new perspective on what else you could be doing. All you know is that you invested a lot time getting where you are, that you earn a comfortable living, and yet, you really don’t like where you’re going. And the idea of backing out of the hole and starting anew is not only unappealing, it’s confusing.
So where do you start? What do you scrap? What do you keep?
My own career journey
I faced this same issue a few years ago. I had taken a job — a good, well-paid job at PayPal — that took advantage of my unique talents in technology and marketing. Unfortunately, it was often more technology than marketing, and if there’s anything I dislike, it’s spending a whole week trying to get Computer A to talk to Computer B about Database C. I like talking with people instead.
I wasn’t happy, and I needed a career change, but I didn’t know in which direction. What made it harder still was that PayPal was a great place to work. The company’s culture was humane and balanced. The people were intelligent and collaborative. Best of all, there was free breakfast cereal and milk available all the time.
Luckily, Susan Phillips, who was then VP of Marketing at PayPal and is now VP of Human Capital at Omidyar Ventures, graciously took time from her busy schedule to show me a great process using StrengthsFinder 2.0 to help guide me in a new direction — or perhaps more appropriately, to help me select the best path from the many options I had. For me, it was a crucial intervention, and since then I have led several friends through the same process. All of them have found it clarifying if not transformative, and I’ve also learned some unusual lessons along the way. This post is about sharing all of that.
StrengthsFinder in a nutshell
The process is based, in part, on the very short book StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath.
The premise behind StrengthsFinder (yes, I hate the unpronounceable name) is that people are happiest in jobs that take advantage of their core strengths. In some cases, these strengths are obvious to us — that is, they are professional or intellectual skills that we are good at and enjoy. But strengths may also include emotional tendencies or interpersonal preferences, and you can’t ignore those either. To put it simply, you will be happier in jobs that exercise as many of these strengths as possible.
In contrast, jobs that don’t exercise your strength “muscles,” that require you to constantly shore up your weaknesses, or that force you to interact with others in unpleasant ways, will eventually lead to boredom, alienation, and unhappiness. More often than not, this is the root cause of job dissatisfaction for professionals.
StrengthsFinder is designed to help you find the right path by clearly identifying what skills you like to use in your work and how you like to relate to your colleagues. This process is designed to help you figure out these “strengths,” reflect on what’s important for you, and most importantly, to move forward on a new path.
How to use StrengthsFinder to find your next job
You can use StrengthsFinder right away as recommended by the book, but I have a better process that helps you get more insights from the exercise. Here’s how to do it:
1) Buy a copy of StrengthsFinder 2.0. You’ll have to buy a NEW copy of the book to do it, since the book includes a code for the one-time use of its online quiz, and that’s part of the process. You can find a copy at most any mainstream bookstore, and if you care about keeping your local bookstores in business, I strongly recommend you buy one there, NOT at Amazon. Of course, if you’re lazy, here’s a link to buy StrengthsFinder 2.0.
2) Read the introduction and quickly flip through the book, but DON’T take the online test yet.
3) Find the top 4 to 5 strengths that you think apply to you. Again, do this BEFORE taking the online test. Just skim each individual strength, one by one — it should only take 30 minutes or so. When you read about a strength that applies to you, you will often feel an immediate sense of self-recognition. If you’re not sure, read further, but if you don’t feel anything, or you feel repulsed or confused, move on to the next one quickly. Write down the ones you like the most, and winnow them down to no more than five. Let’s call this List 1.
4) Take the online test. This is a very brief psychological test, but take it seriously. Do it in a quiet place with no distractions, because it is timed and there are no do-overs. Just to repeat: you get only one chance to take the test, so follow the instructions and do it right the first time. Note that no specific answer is right or wrong, so just choose the answers that are most meaningful to you. DON’T choose the answers that you think will make you look good — it’s a waste of time and you’ll get less insight into yourself. You’ll get your results of 3 to 5 strengths almost immediately. Let’s call the results of this test List 2.
5) Review the online test results. If you aren’t familiar with the List 2 strengths that the test came back with, read the descriptions. You may not like some of them. They may not comport with your self-understanding, or your ideal of yourself. Maybe you’ve been even trying to suppress some of these feelings. However, there is a reason these strengths came up. In any case, don’t bother retaking the test. I’ve had friends do this, and the results don’t change.
6) Compare List 1 (your self-selected list) and List 2 (the online test list). This is the most interesting part of the process. Having administered this process to several people, I have learned that each list reveals something different but complimentary about a person.
List 1, the self-selected list, is your list of Ideal Strengths. It reveals the skills that you would most like to be using now. Sometimes, it reveals the skills you most wanted to use when you were starting your career. Remember then, when you were all bright-eyed and optimistic about your future?
List 2, the online test list, is your list of Deep Strengths. When there are strengths here that are not on List 1, the strengths are often skills that you may have been suppressing, or that have become ingrained in you due to the educational or career path you’ve chosen. Do not ignore these “hidden” strengths, because they reveal something deep about you.
For some people, List 1 and List 2 are nearly the same, and so the results are not surprising. (I was one of these.) For others, there is a marked contrast, and this is a cause for self-reflection on the sources of happiness and unhappiness. The different skills may also explain why it is hard to leave a current job.
For example, a doctor friend of mine learned from List 1 that she wanted more personal interaction with her patients — interaction denied her by the business model of her employer — and that this was a source of unhappiness. At the same time, from List 2 she realized that the highly regimented process of becoming a doctor had made her very risk-averse and somewhat fearful of change. While she didn’t like learning that about herself, it helped her understand that if she was going to make a change, she needed to do it with small, incremental, low-risk experiments. Eventually she undertook those experiments, taking work in a different kind of facility, for example. The process helped her understand that, on balance, her current job was the best path for her, but that she would need more free time to find new sources of satisfaction and personal interaction outside of her job.
In another case, a consultant learned from List 2 that she had a more “spiritual,” people-affirming side. This helped her realize that going from one “hired gun” job to another would never bring her ultimate satisfaction. Rather, she needed to think over the long term about how to increase her opportunities to help people achieve their potential through her work. This led her away from straight management consulting and into work that had more opportunities for organizational and leadership development.
7) Reflect and write. Write down what you think about each strength. Then give yourself a week or two off. Reflect on your work, and what makes you happy or unhappy, in light of your List 1 and List 2 strengths. After 2 weeks, read what you wrote, and edit it. See if you have additional insights to add. Write down ideas for how to incorporate more strengths in your work. (The book itself provides a few ideas for this.) Think about what long-term career direction your might go into to eventually do more of what you love.
8) Act. This is the hardest part, but the most essential. Tell your boss and your colleagues what you want to do more of. Push your work in that direction. Explore other professions through hobbies, informational interviews, classes, or “real” (job) interviews.
In my personal case, I did act. I decided that it was important for me to focus on marketing with a strong strategic aspect — not technology, not product management. While I’m good at those latter activities, they just weren’t stimulating in the right way for me. (I’m a Strategic/Ideation/Input/Intellection/Relator person, by the way. Yes, some of the “themes” aren’t exactly proper English.) I couldn’t find the right job at PayPal, so I eventually found my way to Zecco, where I eventually became of head of marketing, and now I do lots of marketing consulting.
This turned out to be the right decision. And even now, before I face a new gig, I ask: will this work stimulate me? Will it allow me to relate to people the way I want to relate to them? Will I be happier for having taken this job? I recommend that everybody ask these questions of themselves.
Whatever you do, don’t let the old you stand in the way of the new you. Remember that changes happen slowly. Also, other people can help you best if you can tell them what you want, not just what you’re not happy with.
One last thing: it’s not unusual for people to take the StrengthsFinder assessment and wonder whether their strength themes should guide them to a particular career. You can read more about this in my post on StrengthsFinder as a career guide.