The question for this week came from several readers, all of whom asked, “what if I don’t know what I want to do with my life professionally? How do I figure out what I REALLY want to do?”

While it may seem that most people have known all of their lives what they really want to do professionally from the time that they were young children and they simply followed a plan straight to the top, the truth of the matter is, most people don’t REALLY know what they want to do when they finish high school, college or even graduate school.  Most of us figure it out along the way as we gain experiences in different internships, jobs, or by talking to other people about what they do and conducting follow up research on those professions.  If you are lucky, you will start to crystallize your goals while you are in college or graduate school and experiencing summer internships. If this does not happen during those years, it may take a few jobs before you can start to discern what you really like, dislike, and would like to focus on.  Here is an exercise that you can use if you are trying to figure out what you would like your career to be or if you have made the decision to switch careers and you are trying to figure out the next step.

You will need 3 blank sheet s of paper for this exercise.

On the first piece of paper, answer these questions, “If money was no object and I told you that I would pay you whatever you want to get paid, what job would you do every day? What job content would get you excited to get out of the bed every morning to run to that job? Describe the content, describe the people that would be involved at the job. Describe the environment that you want to work in. Is it a formal environment where suits and traditional business attire are required or is it a dress down, casual environment? Describe how people work together, how the relationships interact. The aforementioned questions are targeting the questions, “What is the dream job? What is the nirvana opportunity for you? If you don’t know what the specific job is, then identify certain qualities that you like, i.e., the job involves working in teams, working alone. Does it involve problem solving or project management? What industry is it in- medicine, entertainment, operations, marketing, and academia?  Does it involve being on call, or working specific hours? Does it require a lot of writing, no writing, a lot of presenting, no presenting or public speaking, etc. ?

On the second sheet of paper, describe the skills, the experiences, the knowledge that you need in order to qualify for the dream job. If you don’t know the answer to this question, then you should do research on your own and you should try to talk to people who are currently doing the job or parts of it. If you don’t have direct access to someone who is doing the job, use your network to gain introductions or go to conferences where you can hear the experts speak about the proficiency needed to do well in that job or seat. You should understand what you need in order to be successful in the seat that you aspire to.  For example if you want to be a banker, you need strong analytical and quantitative skills. You need to perhaps, have a few prerequisite classes in finance, accounting, or economics. If you want to be a film maker, you need to know something about films. You need to know where and how to access good properties that would make outstanding films. You may need to know producers, directors, or sources of financing. If you want to manage a large group of people, you should know something about leading and motivating people. What knowledge, skills or experiences would make you an attractive candidate for the dream job?

On the third sheet of paper, ask yourself, “what classes, jobs, or experiences do I need in order to acquire the skills or experiences that I need to get the desired job? What people do I need in my network to introduce me to the right people that can give me the knowledge or the experience, or exposure needed?   Or that might be able to provide me with the dream job?  How do I get in their way, make sure that I intersect with them? Where do I need to be geographically to get this opportunity? If you want to do popular filmmaking or you want to be in film financing, you may need to be in Los Angeles, whereas if you want to be exposed to the most deal activity in investment banking, it might be most expedient to be in New York. If you want to be in politics, it is probably most advantageous to spend some time in Washington to build out your network of political personalities. If you eventually want to manage a large group of people you may want to take classes about leadership or human resources management. Better still, you may want to get a job that will give you the experience of managing a small team where you can gain essential management skills that can prepare you for the bigger opportunity.

Once you have done this exercise, you have an answer or maybe several answers to what career might be appealing to you. You also have some idea of how to start to pursue it. On page one, you identified the desired job, on page two, you outlined the critical skills, networks, and experience needed to be an attractive candidate for the dream job and on page three, you have articulated the classes, academic credential, people and location that are required for you to go after the right skills or networks that will connect you to your desired opportunity.