OK. So never mind software. Or User-Centered Development. I use software development as a reference because it’s my domain, my particular expertise. The method, however, works more universally. I know from hindsight. From what I didn’t know I wanted. From what I didn’t know I was good at. From what I didn’t know I couldn’t bear to do at all. I can tell these stories now that I am sitting on my sofa, at 52. I didn’t tell myself these stories when I was in my 20’s and 30’s because the stories of I want to have babies and the stories of I want approval and the stories of I am afraid to be turned down from what I really want were telling themselves too loudly in the back of my mind.
It turned out OK anyway. I’m not complaining. High WASPs really hate complaining unless they are as good at it as Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker. I am just giving you the benefit of what I know here on my sofa, since had I known it in my 20’s I imagine my path might have taken me further in a direction somewhat more native to my self. A luxury, but hey, I’m all about luxury. So.
Write stories about yourself. The tasks you like. The environment you are comfortable in. Write them in detail about specific tasks you enjoy. Write several. For example. “I wake up early in the morning, sit quietly at the kitchen counter reading the financial news and drinking tea. I think it’s fun to pay my bills – I can figure my weekly budget without using a calculator. I love this time alone, no one telling me what to do, my schedule is my own.”
If you are this woman you are great at numbers but I don’t think you would be happy at an investment bank. You might be good as Director of Finance at a start-up however.
Write more than one story. Write lots of task stories, about all aspects of your life. If you don’t like to write, tell stories to a friend, “I go to a party and find myself in the family room with 6-7 kids, reading stories. I listen to the sounds of the party goers and am glad to drop the burden of adult conversation. I have read these books 25 times before but I still enjoy them because it’s new every time a different kid hears the story for the first time.” Um, way big clue.
You also have to write or tell your goals. The goals you have for what your job brings you. Not the rewards of liking what you do, the task and life stories will make that clear. I mean the rewards you get on top of liking your work. Or, in many cases, instead of liking your work. Let’s be honest. The salary, the prestige, the identity. You have to be honest and comprehensive in this part of the process, just like you have to be accurate and detailed in the life stories part of the process. You can say that you just want meaningful work that benefits society but if you feel a bitter burn in your gut every time someone in a BMW drives by then you have lied to yourself. And you can say you want fame but if you cannot stand constant scrutiny you are setting yourself up for distress. And if you say you don’t care about achievement, or recognition, when really you are afraid to admit your desires because you fear failure, again, future distress is pretty much guaranteed.
All these many words are based on the assumption that what we want is some kind of peace, some kind of resting shape, to our work lives. Even if it’s a really busy peace. That we don’t want to live our lives with a constant, restless, dissatisfaction. That we don’t want an ongoing lifelong internal dialogue of shame, humiliation, anxiety and resentment because that above all sucks the soul out of you. That we want life to align and provide the opportunity for moments of sheer joy at doing some things well that reward us as we want to be rewarded. Or close enough. I never did believe the flyers that say “Make $100,000 in one month at your kitchen counter!” I have spent a lot of time at my kitchen counter on the telephone and no one ever walked up to me and gave me $100,000.
Let me be clear. Looking at what you want and what you are capable of you may realize that you aren’t going to be able to get everything on your list out of a career. The sheer joy of doing something well that you love may not happen in your formal job. But if you disaggregate your conceptual “Career,” you can find other sources for what your actual career isn’t going to dish out. To my way of thinking that’s a reasonable outcome, as long as you can come to terms with it, but you won’t know unless you tell the stories.
And no, I’m not done yet.