Career Tip, Discerning Your Career Path!

What is discernment? Why does it matter for a corps member? The most frustrating and at the same time most exhilarating question of a U.S. person’s life is, what should I do with it? And that is what discernment is all about.

Discernment is the process of figuring out where your passions and values are leading you in your career and life. It may take any of these forms:

  • A bolt of inspiration
  • First-hand experience
  • Reflection
  • Observation
  • Conversation
  • Research
  • Meditation or prayer

Done right, at the end of the process of discernment you should feel confident making decisions that influence your career and education. You should be able to articulate the direction you are headed in, and why.

And why does discernment matter to a service corps participant?
Your term of service can enhance your discernment process by exposing you to all-new experiences, giving you time and a forum to reflect on these experiences, and put you in touch with new networks of people whom you can observe and talk with about their paths and choices.

Discernment during your term of service can help your career because the process will narrow down your many choices and make your search for work or school more efficient. Once you have a sense of where you are heading, you’ll know better which networks to join, what questions to ask, which skills to build.

Careering towards your future
You may have come into your service term with an unwavering sense of what you’ll do when the term ends, you just want help getting there. On the opposite extreme, you may have no idea at all, period, and were hoping the term of service would offer you a refuge from thinking about it for a year or two. You may be somewhere in the middle.

It’s probably best not to feel that you have to find one career choice that fits the rest of your life. That’s old-school thinking, though you may get pressure from your parents to find a single career path and stick to it.

If you are participating in a service term at mid-career, you already know that career changes are almost inevitable in the United States today! People change jobs more frequently now than ever before, and the concept of “career” itself is ever-changing.

Steve Pascal-Joiner, author of The Idealist.org Guide to Nonprofit Careers for Sector Switchers likes to point out that an old version of the word to careen is to career, as in:

Career, (verb): move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way in a specified direction (The car careered across the road and through the hedge.)

Career, (Archaic phrase): “in full career” meaning “at full speed.”

He adds that in his own career can be described similarly: moving swiftly and in an uncontrolled way in a specified direction.

Indeed, how long you stay in a job may be pretty closely tied to your generation:
•    Baby boomers (born between 1946-1964) stay in a job an average of 5 years (and thus have held about 5-8 jobs in their working life times)
•    Gen X (1965-1980) stay in a job an average of 3 years (and thus have held about 3-7 in their working life times)
•    Gen Y/Millennials (1980-2000) stay in a job an average of 16 months (and thus have already held 2-6 jobs in their working life times)

While you may be more prone to move from job to job throughout your career than your grandparents were, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will always be free to launch yourself in new directions.

Recognize that once you have invested in specialized education, started making a living salary, and taken on expenses such as a mortgage and/or family, backing out of one path and embarking on another is quite a challenge. The more you can do to think through your options and personal compatibility with career choices, the better.

Tools for Discernment
Chapter Chapter Three (PDF) of the Idealist.org Guide to Nonprofit Careers offers a couple very good exercises to help you figure out the trail head to the career path that resonates with you, and to see what opportunities are out there for you.

  • The Tracks exercise, developed by David Schachter of NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, gives you a way to explore job openings that inspire you — either because of the position description or the organization. (Listen to the Idealist podcast featuring Schachter.)
  • The Four Lenses approach, also developed by Schachter, aims to help you think more clearly about your career prospects by narrowing down what exactly it is you mean when you say “I want to work in education,” or “I want to work on the environment.”

So read that chapter.

But, what else can you during your term to help you discern what’s next for you? Fleshing out the list I drafted above:

A bolt of inspiration isn’t exactly something you can do. It is something that strikes you when you least expect it. Echoing Green’s book Be Bold talks about the “moment of obligation” — when change agents identify what means the most to them, and then commit to carry out their dreams. You can read about Wendy Kopp‘s bolt of inspiration to create Teach For America in her book One Day All Children…: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For American and What I Learned Along the Way.

First-hand experience includes what you have done in the past and what you are doing during this service term. The more, varied experiences you make for yourself, the more information you have to go on. Challenge yourself to try things you never thought you would enjoy, volunteer in new roles or on new issue areas.

Reflection is key to discernment. Someone wise once said, “It’s not experience that is the best teacher—we learn nothing from experience. We only learn from reflection on our experience.” Consider keeping a journal, or setting aside time weekly to debrief and evaluate your own experiences. What kind of activities, people, and environments have given you more energy? What activities, people, environments have served as your own personal Kryptonite (sapping your strength)?

Observation gives you a chance to see for yourself what different opportunities entail, and give you an idea if it’s for you. You may have never had a chance to work on an organic farm, but if you could spend a day or two seeing farmers in-action, maybe even working alongside them, asking questions about their work, you’d get a more vivid understanding of farm work. Public interest law may sound good to you, but it’s not something you can practice without a huge intellectual, financial, and time commitment. But shadowing a lawyer, observing in a firm — these are ways to give you a clearer sense of what you’d be doing as a lawyer.

Conversation with mentors, peers, and professionals in your target field gives you a chance to introduce yourself to potential colleagues and employers, listen to advice, and ask questions of people who are already engaged in careers you are considering. Informational interviewing is one format for these conversations (see Chapter Four (PDF) of the Idealist.org Guide to Nonprofit Careers). Informally, you can chat with people about their work and education at parties, community events, family reunions, etc.

Research is the way to find out what jobs, organizations, and/or degrees exist, what benefits you can expect from different career paths, how much your skill set is worth on the job market. The Tracks exercise is one kind of research in Chapter Three of the Idealist Guide mentioned earlier is a spirited way of doing the research; conversation is another.

Meditation or prayer can play important roles for some people when making major life decisions. Consider using vacation time away from your service site to take part in a retreat or solo exploration time, if that would help you gather your thoughts. Or consult with leaders of your faith community about resources and traditions you can tap into that will help you unearth your life’s calling.

Discernment during your term of service strengthens your service experience by sharpening your senses and encouraging you to agree to new opportunities and responsibilities.  The process can bring direction to your work, and confidence in your response to those pesky “What will you do next year?” questions.

Having a direction also helps you to prioritize which additional skills you need to develop, and which additional relationships are important to nurture.

This blog post has been adapted from a section of the forthcoming Service Corps Companion to the Idealist.org Guide to Nonprofit Careers, due out this coming spring from Idealist.org.

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2 thoughts on “Career Tip, Discerning Your Career Path!

  1. Very useful and informative post, Amy! I truly believe in the coming years, the nonprofit industry will see an even greater surge in interest.

  2. Thanks, Andre!! I think you are right — at least that’s we are working for. Thank you for reading!

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