The answer often lies in this question: What are things you can't not do? Which tasks do you do even though they're not part of your job? The answer will give you valuable clues about the types of career where you’ll thrive.
Confused? Here’s an example from my own career:
At the start of my working life, I couldn't stop myself from rewriting my employer’s form letters, publicity materials, even internal documents. It wasn't my job, but I was so drawn to it that I couldn't help doing it anyway, to the point that I once found myself rewriting the office phone manual late one night. I paid attention to those instincts and soon found myself working as a staff writer at a different organization. And—this is the important part—my quality of life skyrocketed. Just like when I snuck in those activities at my first job, writing didn't feel like work at all.
Later, I found myself increasingly unable to stop becoming a thorn in the side of my manager until all of our organization’s problems were addressed, from inefficient procedures to morale issues. I spent more and more time thinking about how I'd restructure things if I were in charge and finding ways to get my ideas in front of my bosses, who—luckily for me—were receptive and indulged me, rather than telling me to get back to what they had hired me to do. Eventually I moved out of writing and into managing, where again, work doesn't feel like work. Looking back, that move was inevitable. Once again, these were things I couldn't not do.
I’m far from unusual. One employee I worked with, an entry-level worker, maniacally analyzed the cost-benefit ratio of every new project the organization took on, without being prompted to do so. After identifying cost-saving measures, he moved into a position where his job was to do exactly that. In another situation, one of my fellow employees used to suggest ways to make one of the company's research series more user-friendly and engaging. She ended up in charge of that project.
(It's worth noting you probably can't engage in this behavior without irritating some people. But if you're good at what you're doing, truly good managers and co-workers will see your actions as opportunity, not an irritant.)
This isn't just about taking initiative. It's about the things you can’t help but get involved in, how your brain works, and tasks you’re willing to spend time on even when it means working into the night to fit it in.
Maybe you’re the woman who can’t keep herself from organizing events. Or the guy who can’t not run the numbers when a project is launched. Or the employee who stays up half the night sorting out the company’s server issues, just because. Those signs point toward your innate talents and interests—and that’s where you’ll find the right career for you.
So take a look at the things you can't keep yourself from getting involved in. Those will likely point you toward a far more satisfying job.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.