The majority of the work that I do with clients involves helping them to first identify and then explore promising alternate career paths. To give structure to this process I frequently use one of several career exploration books that contain what I have found to be useful exercises. These exercises identify factors that I then explore with my clients through questions and dialogue, clarifying, and narrowing possibilities.

There are 5 books that I particularly favor: Roadmap (by Roadmap Nation), Designing Your Life (by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans), Getting Unstuck (by Timothy Butler), The Startup of You (by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha), and I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was (by Barbara Sher). Based on my assessment of my specific client’s background, career history, and personality I will recommend one of these to utilize. They each come at the question of “What’s the best new career direction for me?” In different ways, but what they all have in common are probes to illuminate the likes (and dislikes), strengths (and weaknesses), and values that will help pinpoint the right next career direction. Some use the concept of “flow” (first identified by Michael Csikszentmihalyi), asking readers to think about situations or activities in which they were so engaged that they had little sense of time passing.

There is one area that they don’t explore/explain as well as I’d like them to, though, and that is the core EMOTION that is triggered by certain work. Likes and strengths, for example, are generally focused on things like specific fields (e.g. business, education, travel, politics, or science) functions/activities (e.g. analyzing, writing, designing or organizing) or outcomes (e.g. contributing to the creation of a finished product, advancing a cause, having a positive impact on others, making a lot of money).

As a result of many years of self-examination and working with many hundreds of clients, I have come to realize that what may really be central to figuring out the optimal career direction for some folks is identifying the feeling that underlies their enjoyment of various fields, functions, and outcomes. Barbara Sher calls it your Touchstone. Roadmap Nation terms it your Foundation. In my own case, I have quite recently come to realize that what brings me the most enjoyment is just about anything that makes me feel smart. Over my lifetime that has manifested itself in numerous forms: raising and waving my hand frantically because I had the answer back in elementary school (yes, I know, obnoxious!), often speaking first during a case study class at Harvard Business School, taking particular pride in my win on Jeopardy, and currently absolutely loving the work I do instructing others on ways to improve their careers and more broadly their lives.

I’m not sure how many people have this kind of significant underlying emotional touchstone but my guess is that it’s a fairly substantial number. This is something I will be exploring going forward, but I would ask you to contemplate whether such an emotional touchstone could exist for you. Think about those situations, those moments, when you felt particularly great about what you were doing – not just in your work life, but in life in general. Then try to discern what emotion was triggered. Perhaps you felt brave, noticed, or superior. Helpful, popular, or inventive. Put your candidate emotion to the test – see how broadly it applies to various circumstances of your life. You may uncover an important key to helping you discover the ideal ultimate calling for yourself, and an aid in chart a nearer-term career path forward.