Several times a month, I get on the phone with a potential client for a discovery session. My job is to assess what the individual is struggling with and what type of support I’d advocate for.  Sometimes, it’s an invitation to work with me. Other times, I recommend something else. Either way, before I share my thoughts, I ask them this question—

How are you hoping that I can help you?

I hear lots of responses— Help me stay focused. Help me let go of self-doubt. Help me figure out which steps to take when. 

Last week, I heard a response that I occasionally hear. The individual I was speaking with wanted me to listen to what they’re good at and what they’re passionate about, and tell them their career options

This sounds like a perfectly reasonable request, doesn’t it? Of course. 

If I were facing a big transition, I’d love it if someone handed me a list of possible jobs tied up with a bow. 

The problem is, I won’t do this. 

You see, most of my clients are trailblazers. Rather than fitting neatly into a mold, they typically want to create something new, whether that’s a new business or a role within an organization. When someone wants to chart their own course, what they need to create work they love is not typically a list of prefab options, comforting as it may feel.

Instead, what you need is an evidence-based approach that produces reliable results, regardless of the sector you want to work with. 

This is what I teach my clients. This approach basically comes down to five steps:

  1. Identify potential careers or projects or roles that you’re interested in.
  2. Identify people who know a lot about the paths you’re interested in.
  3. Have conversations and try out your ideas with the people who know about these paths.
  4. Use what you learn from the conversations to inform your next steps.
  5. Rinse and repeat.

How do I know this approach works? 

For starters, I’ve guided dozens of clients successfully through these steps and have witnessed the results first-hand. Second, I’m a nerd. I’ve read nearly every book out there on career change. What I discovered is that there is very little academic research into how people change careers, and few books out there follow the research that does exist. But there is one book that I refer my clients to, over and over again.

Action Leads to Clarity

Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organizational Behavior, wanted to look closely at what people who successfully change careers really did, and she published the results of her interviews in a book called Working Identity. What she discovered runs counter to conventional wisdom. 

Most people think that to change careers, you first need to know which job you want and then take action to get it. What Ibarra discovered was that, in reality, people got clear through taking action, not the other way around.  She recommends that readers create a list of possible jobs that interest them and then have lots of conversations and doing lots of tiny experiments to discover what works. Although this approach doesn’t necessarily make the uncertainty any less uncertain, she writes, it does increase your chances of successful reinvention.

So, how do you put the action-leads-to-clarity principle into practice? 

Although you’ll eventually need to get more nuanced than this, I invite you to start by doing the following. This could take a couple of hours, but for now, I invite you to get a timer and give yourself three minutes for each of the following steps. 

Ready? Here we go—

  1. Write a list of the possible work paths you’re considering.
  2. Next to each of these paths, write the names of people who might know something about the paths. These might be people who do this type of work, ideal clients, or people who know a lot of the type of person you want to work with.
  3. Make a plan to reach out to a couple of these people in the next week.

Then, interview the people on your list, asking them about what words of wisdom they might have for someone considering this path. After you talk with several people,  reflect on what you’ve learned, and then repeat. 

It’s impossible to predict how many conversations you’ll need to have or how many baby steps you’ll need to take to move through this time of transition. But I can assure you that action leads to clarity. If you keep moving forward, you will keep moving forward. Onward!

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