Figuring out what to do with your life can be excruciatingly hard— especially if you don't have oodles of time or buckets of money. If you're stuck in a career you hate, you're (unfortunately) not alone: According to a Right Management survey, almost two-thirds of Americans are unsatisfied with their jobs.
But don't write off career happiness as a lost cause. Try these four steps to decipher what you should really be doing with your career:
1. Complain about it. Complaining about your current job/classes/situation can be a surprisingly useful tool. Next time you're grumbling to your best friend, use that negative energy to pinpoint precisely what's wrong. What specifically isn't working? What exactly would you have to change to be happier? Knowing what you don't want to do can be just as illuminating as determining what direction you do want to take.
2. Explore everywhere. Yeah, yeah, everyone says you should explore career options. But it's hard to wrap your head about how many choices are really out there. There are literally thousands of possible careers—some of which might be at the perfect intersection of what you love, what you're good at, and what the world needs.
For one week, invest an hour every day to research. Check out top job lists, browse career exploration sites, or just read your favorite section of the newspaper. Your goal? Write down any career that catches your attention. This exercise can stretch your vision of what opportunities actually exist. And don't worry if you're coming up with jobs that seem impossible to land. As Arthur C. Clarke puts it, "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."
3. Take it for a spin. Hands-on experience can be the sharpest teacher. Career coach Jennifer Turliuk put it this way: "I realized that, although I could predict and pontificate about a career path that might make me happier, I could never actually know until I was into the thick of it."
The trick is testing out different career options without committing too much time and money. One straightforward option is to find people you admire and ask to shadow them for a day or a week. Mini internships, short-term volunteer work, and informational interviews can all work, too. You may be surprised by how many people are happy to give you time and share their passion.
4. Turn off your lizard brain. Sometimes the best—or only—way to figure out the right direction is to make a choice and just go for it. But here's where your lizard brain kicks in.
The lizard brain is a prehistoric part of your gray matter that's in charge of fear, anger, and reproductive drive—and it hates change. It hates risk. It's that little voice in the back of your head that says "Stay right where you are. It's comfy and safe here." While the lizard mentality might be helpful for surviving in caves, it can kill your momentum.
To take a leap in a new direction, you've got to turn your lizard brain off—or at least down a few decibels. As entrepreneur Seth Godin writes: "Your lizard brain is here to stay, and your job is to figure out how to quiet it and ignore it."
What steps are you taking to find your direction?
Annie Favreau is the managing editor for Inside Jobs—a site that helps career changers and choosers discover strong career options + find the right education to make it happen. Follow her on Twitter @InsideJobs.