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How to figure out what you want from your career

How to figure out what you want from your career


by Niamh Ennis
11th Jul 2022

Sheryl Sandberg famously said, “we cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” This is especially true when it comes to our careers. We truck along convincing ourselves that this is good as it get, but as soon as we start to challenge our thinking, we quickly discover that there’s no going back!

Most people talk about a gradual falling out of love with their job, but when it happened to me, my experience was something a lot more instant. I loved what I did, I loved the organisation I worked for and the people I worked with. It had meaning and impact and I was doing something that I enjoyed. Until I wasn’t.

I clearly remember the very morning I felt that unfamiliar feeling of dread. I’d never experienced it before and it took me a little while to understand what it related to. A month later, that feeling had not subsided; it hadn’t got worse but it was still very much present. My mind was elsewhere. And when your mind is elsewhere, you too should be there with it.

At that stage, I honestly hadn’t the first clue about what I was going to do next. I’d always believed I’d stay in this career that I’d spent over twenty-five years building and so I most definitely had no plan B, simply because I never, for one moment, suspected that I might need one!

It was then the questions came flooding in. What next? What new direction would make me happy? What new industry or role could bring me the same joy, challenge, reward and impact that I enjoyed in my current career? What was going to be the best fit for where I was now in my life?

This last question proved to be the most relevant. We can very often forget that as we change, and evolve, so too will our commitment to our careers. How we felt and who we were at the start of our careers is not necessarily who we are today. And that’s okay too.

I was still in the depths of grief, having suddenly lost a number of very significant people in my life, and while I knew that these events were all connected to what I was feeling, I was also smart enough to known not to make a hasty decision. To help me get much needed clarity, I requested, and was granted, a year’s sabbatical and, in so doing, bought myself some time to seriously consider what was next for me. I convinced my husband that we were overdue an adventure and so we packed up the car and drove our way across England, Wales, France until we finally arrived in Spain.

Once there, I knew that I needed time to breathe, but the act of doing nothing didn’t come easily to me and to fill the silence and provide a much-needed distraction, I decided to do some study. Before I knew it, I was re-training and upskilling. I acquired a qualification in Counselling & Psychotherapy which led me to take an Advanced Diploma in Personal, Leadership and Executive Coaching.

Of course with the benefit of hindsight how it all unfolded now makes perfect sense; but at that time, I was simply following the breadcrumbs! Throughout this entire period, I kept asking myself what was it that I, just me, wanted to do? I was slowly coming to terms with the fact that I just did not know the answer. I hadn’t been aware until then, just how much I had been influenced by what my parents had wanted and expected from me, but now that they were both gone, I had the opportunity to go inward for the true answer. It took some time adjusting to being able to make decisions without the worry of letting them down, disappointing them or even shocking them which made for some very interesting self-exploration!

Why is it we don’t know what we want?

As children, we know exactly what it is we want. “I want that ice cream!” “I want to play with my friend!” It’s all part of the process of childhood to begin to understand just what it is we want, and then to unashamedly declare it loudly. And, of course, we absolutely hate being told no and don’t even think twice about hiding our disgust if we don’t get what it is we want.

As teenagers, things start to change. Those in authority step in and they start to tell us what we should think, how we should behave and even how we should feel. Their intentions are mostly good, they believe that they are doing this for our benefit and that their experience and wisdom qualifies them to do this. They totally overlook the fact that the person who knows exactly what we want best is ourselves and by not asking us how we feel or what we think, they remove that chance from us and are in truth doing us a huge disservice.

Then as adults, we think, by now, it should all become clear, but it likely becomes even more confusing, primarily due to an increase in new and competing demands that pull us further away from our own desires and wants.

The narrative around “having it all” distorts our view of what is and isn’t possible. Can we be parents and leaders simultaneously? Can women be as successful as their male counterparts and rewarded appropriately? Can we take time out from our career and come back just as strong? Can we actually have it all? The answer to all of these questions is clearly a big fat yes but we struggle to believe or accept that.

Discovering my purpose

When I reverted back to the question of what it was that I wanted and allowed myself to listen to the answers that came, they pointed me in the direction that I should and subsequently did follow. I wanted to serve others – not in a Mother Teresa, aren’t I great kind of way – but I wanted to use my lived experiences and challenges and what I had learned from them to show others that yes, life can be impossibly difficult but with the right support, and belief in ourselves, we can navigate the hurdles and come through it all. It felt like my doing this work would also somehow make sense of all that happened to me and honestly, that felt like a good starting point.

We recognise that fundamentally people are at their happiest when they are showing up doing what they know to be true about themselves, while also implementing their intentions in a way that helps other people, and that’s exactly what I chose to lead me forward into my next chapter, a space I happily still occupy over eight years later.

I’ll leave the last words on this, to renowned American writer, Maya Angelou, who astutely said “I’ve learned that “making a living” is not the same thing as “making a life”. So, what does making a life look like for you? Do you know what it is that you want?

Niamh Ennis is Ireland’s leading Transformation Coach and author. She’s known for her practical solutions to life’s challenges and her ability to tell you not what you want to hear but always what you need. If you’re struggling to find out just what it is you want, Niamh is hosting a FREE Masterclass called LIMITLESS YOU on July 29.  To grab your free space, click here. Find her on Instagram @1niamhennis or niamhennis.com.