4 Steps to Taking Your Career Off Autopilot

Do you feel like you’re drifting along in your career without any meaningful focus or direction?

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Curt Rosengren
Do you feel like you’re drifting along in your career without any meaningful focus or direction? Do you feel stuck or uninspired, but you keep showing up for work day after day without taking any significant action to jump out of your rut? If you do, you just might be on autopilot. And if you want to make the most of your career, the time to break out of that mode is now. Here are four ways to take your career off autopilot, put your hands on the wheel, and jump-start the journey to a career that lights you up.

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Remember how to dream. I’m consistently amazed at how many people look at the idea of having a dream through cynical, jaded eyes. I’m not one to suggest that all you need to do is click your ruby slippers together and all your dreams will come true, but I can tell you that if you look at dreams as the stuff of fairy tales and fools, you are guaranteed to be right.

Others haven’t become cynical, but they have lost faith in the potential of their dreams (and in their own ability to come anywhere near achieving them). They have stopped paying attention to what they could be and settled for a compromised version of who they are.

If any of this rings at all true for you, the first step to getting off autopilot is just remembering how to dream. Just let your imagination start to roam. Explore where it takes you. Make a once-a-week date with your journal to write about what your ideal-world career would look like. Find friends or colleagues who are natural dreamers. Share your ideas and listen to theirs. The intent isn’t so much to put your finger on exactly where you want to go. It’s to help you lift your sights up towards the stars again.

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Don’t worry about becoming a “true believer” in your dreams just yet. If you’ve forgotten how to dream, the first step isn’t learning to wildly embrace those dreams, it’s remembering that you don’t have to say "no." Simply explore them. Let them exist.

Find your vision. Once you have gotten reacquainted with the ability to dream, it’s time to find your vision. Explore what lights you up: First ask, “What do I love doing?” Then ask, “Why?” Brainstorm different paths you could take that would allow you to do what you love. You may already have some ideas from the previous step. Come up with multiple options, and resist the urge to say no immediately. There is no risk in simply allowing them to exist.

In the career exploration process I have developed to help my clients find paths they love, I leave any evaluation using the criteria people typically use for career decisions (e.g., earning potential) until the very end. Why? Because while we’re culturally conditioned to focus on those criteria, none of them have anything to do with where the energy comes from. Earnings potential and other feasibility factors are important, no doubt about it. But too often they eclipse the question, “Would I love this?” Leaving those external criteria until the end ensures that the client focuses only on the potential paths that are chock-full of what energizes them.

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Think long-term. I often hear people say that they would love to pursue a new career, but it’s just too late. They’re too old to make a change. They’re too far along in their career. When I hear that, I occasionally have some variation on this conversation:

  • Me: How old are you now?
  • Other Person: 45
  • Me: OK, just for the sake of exploration, let’s say you plan on retiring at 65. Does that sound about right?
  • Other Person: Sure.
  • Me: How many years is that before you retire?
  • Other Person: 20
  • Me: Do you seriously mean to tell me that you’re willing to commit to being unhappy with what you do for the majority of your day for the next twenty years? I mean, really? Because if you have the clarity that something is wrong and you do nothing, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
  • Other Person: [Silence and fidgeting] Well…no.
  • I’m not suggesting that there are no challenges to changing careers midstream. And I’m not pretending that everything is possible. But if you’re unhappy where you are, you have the potential to start taking action today towards a change that will let you be happier in the long-term.

    Take a two-track approach. It would be nice if you could wave a magic wand and have the career change delivered to your door wrapped in a bow. But guess what? It ain’t gonna happen. Unfortunately, far too many people look at the fact that it’s not possible right now and decide it’s not possible ever. And that’s a huge mistake.

    Instead of taking a black-and-white look at building a career that energizes and inspires you, think of it as a two-track process. The first track has to do with the here and now. You're answering the question, “How do I make my work and my life better, more energizing, more enjoyable right now?” The second track asks the question, “How do I move towards my dream? What steps can I take both now and down the road?”

    Work along both tracks can happen simultaneously. On the first track, you acknowledge that you are where you are right now, and that is unlikely to change with a flip of the switch. You step up and start taking responsibility for making the changes you can make right here, right now. The second track acknowledges that you aren’t stuck where you are right now forever. It opens up the door to possibility, and allows you to start taking steps toward a career and a life that is more fun and fulfilling.

    After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As a speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About Work, and his E-book, The Occupational Adventure Guide, offer people tools for turning dreams into reality. Rosengren's blog, The M.A.P. Maker, explores how to craft a life of meaning, abundance, and passion.