Four Tips for Graduates Who Want to Clarify Their Career Direction
By Tracy Fitzpatrick Posted 04-09-2018

Too often, when job seekers look online or ask career professionals for help in clarifying their professional goals, they are given generic assessment tests or referred to job market data or job sites-none of which are that helpful in figuring out what’s a good fit for YOU.


Here’s a different approach--one that begins by tuning in to who you are. If you’re willing to put in a bit of reflection time, you will discover that you already know a lot about the qualities you want in your career and in your life.


Here are four ways to get started:


#1. Observe your aliveness each day. Make notes about what brings you alive even just a little bit. “Aliveness” is your sense of engagement and interest. What piques your curiosity? What draws your attention over the course of each day? What gives you even a small boost of energy because it’s fun or interesting?


Often, small things in life bring us alive, yet they can easily be ignored if we don’t pay attention. Perhaps there’s an interesting blog post we read all the way through, a conversation that engages us, a TV show that brings us to tears, an invigorating walk or a calming yoga class.


Once you notice what taps your vitality, ask what about this experience has brought you alive and caught your interest. Maybe it is the activity itself--for example, you love to read, be physically active or talk one-on-one with other people. Maybe it’s the topic--you will watch anything about film making or world history, for instance. Perhaps it’s the setting-those quiet times sittingin a café are perfect for you or the people--you get charged by your friend’s sense of humor or your teacher’s thoughtful questioning. When you imagine your future career, which fields or jobs spark your curiosity and make you want to know more?


Look carefully at these day-to-day experiences and after a few days or weeks, you will start noticing patterns. One person is fueled by her creativity--the art project or the new recipe. Another enjoys connecting with others in meaningful conversations. Another finds a sense of belonging as a member of a sports team or the school newspaper. Note to self: these are the activities, processes, environments or topics that engage you!


#2. You can reflect about past experiences of aliveness as well. Often, peak moments in your life say a lot about what you really value. Close your eyes and imagine times when life was especially sweet and rewarding. Re-enter those memories with all your senses. Then jot down some notes about what made these experiences so fulfilling.


#3. You also want to reflect on your strengths. Make a list of six to eight accomplishments, big or small and in any arena. Ask yourself what it took from you to accomplish each of these. List the skills, character traits and areas of knowledge and experience you tapped in to in order to achieve this result. Dig deeper to go beyond the generalities. For example, if you list “study skills,” elaborate on that more. Maybe your study skills include memorization, project planning, synthesizing material or good writing. Go beyond “I’m good with people;” instead, describe how you listen, reflect back what you hear, provide validation and appreciation or empathize. Look back over this list and see which strengths appear multiple times. Do you enjoy using these capacities of yours? There is magic in identifying a strength that you really enjoy using.


#4. Finally, reflect on what you yearn for. As you approach graduation, you may be grieving aspects of college or graduate school that have meant the most to you. Does that tell you something about what you yearn for in this next phase of life? Those yearnings can be painful but also full of information about what you wish for. Perhaps you are yearning for more travel like you enjoyed during a semester abroad or for the sense of community you have had in your sorority or on student council.


These exercises require that you take some quiet moments to ponder, a practice that goes against the cultural norms of constant doing and always being connected to technology. If you buck that norm for a few moments each day and take time for deliberate reflection, useful discoveries about yourself will emerge in just a few weeks.


A cautionary note: Don’t be shocked if you notice a lot of fear and self-doubt when you tune in to yourself. We all have those negative voices constantly yakking in our minds, and that anxious, insecure chatter usually gets louder when we face a big transition. These Inner Critics or Gremlins, as coaches like to call them, can undermine anyone’s hopefulness and confidence and thus must be managed if a person is to come across as a capable, secure job applicant. Remember: don’t believe everything you think. Usually those negative thoughts grab on to a tiny grain of truth and inflate it until we feel inadequate and worthless, which, of course, we are not. So be discerning by asking yourself what the grain of truth is and what is not true about those critical thoughts.

Put the positive insights about yourself together and you have a lot more information about the qualities you seek at work and in life-your values, interests, strengths and wishes. The next step is to follow your curiosity and gather information about those jobs and fields of interest. You will do research and talk to professional contacts. As you proceed, use the tuning-in tools you have become good at to choose a more specific path that could lead to those qualities and then develop a step-by-step plan for getting there. Your goal: to land a job that you believe is a stepping stone to your dream career. Your first job out of school is not likely to fulfill your every dream, but if it puts you on the road to enhancing relevant skills and getting good experience, then you are on your way! Even if you change direction-which, of course many 20-somethings do-as you learn more about yourself and the professional world, you now know how to steer using your own internal compass. Congratulations!


Tracy Fitzpatrick is a career and life coach with 15 years’ experience, three certifications in coaching and three in personal branding. To learn more, visit Each June and January, Tracy offers a live webinar series for soon-to-be and recent college grads and other 20-somethings called Career FIT.


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