Dear Dave: I graduated from college two years ago, and I have no idea what I want to do with my life. I am working a dead-end job, and I hate going in every day. I know I am capable of doing much more than I do now, but I don’t know where to start and figure it out. I know you are not a job counselor, but I thought I would ask you for ideas. Where do I begin? — M

Dear M: I think every one of us have gone through what you are experiencing. You work hard in college. You graduate all full of optimism and energy. You look at the job market and start applying for jobs. You face rejection after rejection. Then, you end up doing something that has no connection to your education and talents, and you feel like a hamster in a flywheel. I assume that is where you are.

Yes, there are people and jobs that just come together and people are doing what they were trained for. But, if you come out of college with a degree in English, psychology, history, or bagpiping (nothing against these degrees) there may not be all kinds of wonderfully matched jobs before your eyes. I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, and I ended up in sales. The manager that hired me thought psychology graduates knew everything about people and could sell like a maniac. I let him think that, and I took the job.

Here is my advice: Let your values drive your decisions. Your values are the things that you believe are most important in the way you live and work, and the way you treat other people. Your values are what you hold dear and would never compromise. Identifying and understanding your values are challenging and important exercises – but they must be done, because your personal values are also a central part of who you are and who you want to be. By taking the time to identify these important “direction-finders” in your life, you can use them as a guide to make the best choice in any situation – especially as you craft your career path.

I believe that some of your biggest decisions are really about determining what you value most and why those values are the most compelling in your life. Values determine your priorities and your purpose, and they serve as the measures you use to tell if your life is going the way you want it to. When the things that you do and the way you behave match your values, you will believe that the alignment is working and you'll be satisfied and content. But when these things don't align with your personal values, that's when things slide off the rails. This can be a real source of unhappiness and frustration.

Values as guides

When you know your own values, you can use them to make decisions about how to live your life, and you can answer some of the toughest questions before you. Choosing a job should be the result of identifying who you are, what you do best, what you enjoy most, and where you want to go. I know people take jobs just to get money because they have bills to pay. I get that. But, a good first step toward going from a job to a profession requires that you take the time to understand the real priorities in your life, and then you'll be able to determine the best direction for you and your life goals.

Make a list of your values. When you sit down, think quietly, reflect on your priorities, and define your personal values, you’ll discover what's truly important to you. A good way of starting to do this is to contemplate and look back on your life — to identify and describe when you felt really good, and you were really confident, effective, and fulfilled. Identify the times when you were most-proud and what factors helped you to feel proud. These feelings are what you want to get from a job — and especially a job that is supported by a values-driven company and employees that also practice values-driven behavior.

This values-inventory step is probably the most important and the most difficult, because you'll have to look deep inside yourself. You will probably realize that different values address and satisfy different situations — and how you act determines your likelihood of success. Check your top-priority values, and make sure that they fit with your life and your vision for yourself. Also, think about how your values may have changed as you got older and why they changed. For example, you may have valued money and wealth most when you first left college, but now, reaching out and helping others has taken center stage.

When choosing a job, you must also assess whether or not the company is one of integrity, honesty, fairness, and respect. Simply, you need to get a feel for the most important values the company lives by and if these values match your top values. The presence or lack of specific values will determine the culture of the company. I always tell my MBA students that, if the company culture is not a good fit for you, do not take the job. The money may attract you, but it will be the culture and its values that determine your contentment and commitment to your job, your team and department, and the company as a whole.

When you consider your values in career decision-making, you can keep your sense of integrity and what you know is right, and be able to approach decisions with confidence, enthusiasm, and clarity. You'll also know that what you're doing is best for your current and future happiness and satisfaction.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu. Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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