The majority of clients that I work with are unclear as to their career goals. They almost all uniformly admire those people “lucky enough” to have a clear career goal, or a passion, that guides them in their professional lives. But the fact is that a lot of those “lucky people” wind up at midlife (or sometimes well before) dissatisfied with their careers and searching for a new direction.

Essential to plotting a truly satisfying and long-lasting career path forward – whether career advancement or career alternative – is knowing yourself as well as you can. Now, most of you will understandably think “of course I know myself,” and in many respects you undoubtedly do. But I will wager that relatively few of you can claim to understand yourselves as fully as necessary to maximize career success (or, for that matter, maximum success in just about any realm).

A good place to start a deeper examination of yourself is to identify your Life Goals and Values. By this I mean broad goals and the values that inform them. goals such as these dozen:

Healing the environment


Helping those less fortunate


Creating works of artistic merit

Proving your worth / Impressing others

Building a happy, healthy family

Having an impact on the world

Serving your nation

Spiritual enlightenment

Creating a Successful, lifelong marriage

It can often be tricky to sort through the multitude of possible results that would equal “success”to you. Friends can help – people who know you well, and ideally for a long time, who have a good combination of intuition, experience, and information about you that makes them excellent, fairly objective sources of reflection.

Many books on career development can also help clarify the picture: some have extensive exercises that stimulate reflection – “What Color Is Your Parachute” (by Richard Bolles) and “Pathfinder” (by Nicholas Lore) are two particularly good ones. Others are compilations of case histories that can often stimulate new ways of thinking about your career (e.g. “Working Identity” by Hermione Iberra and “What Should I Do With My Life” by Po Bronson) and yet others approach career from a distinctive enough angle that they may generate new insights (“The Startup of You” by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha, and “The Renaissance Soul” by Margaret Lobenstine come to mind).

Finally, a very valuable exercise is to imagine publishing your own obituary. Which of your values and achievements would you like it to highlight?

Having decided on one (or more likely a combination) of these goals), dig a little deeper. Where did these goals originate? How and when did they emerge? What outside factors influenced you to select them?

Why is it important to understand the origins of your career goals? Because many people BELIEVE that the goals spring from genuine inward passion as opposed to external factors. For example, if from your infancy you’ve heard messages from your parents that medicine (or teaching, or business, or law) is a great career choice and highly admired there’s a good chance that a part of your “inner passion” is in fact externally generated. Perhaps just as commonly, many people never even consider a career path crafted around their passion because they were told by their parents or other relatives that the path wouldn’t work out, or didn’t make sense financially.

Family of course can have this kind of influence but so, perhaps less obviously, can the culture you’re raised in: the culture of the community or your economic, racial, or religious group, as well as the culture of your nation. American culture glamorizes sports and entertainment, which draws millions to pursue those career paths. But are people in those careers truly happier than the average person? Having worked with many people at all levels in these careers, and observing the levels of divorce, infidelity, drug abuse, physical abuse, and suicide that exist there, I can confidently answer “no!”

Another factor to consider in examining the source of your career goals is to remember that many of these goals may have been formed at a very early age, and so are very much the goals of, say, an eight year or a thirteen year old as opposed to a mature adult.

But isn’t career testing a good way to determine your true passion? To some degree, yes, but far less than is generally believed. As I’ve often written before, career testing by itself does not possess very good predictive value of ultimate career satisfaction. Test results tend to confirm strengths developed in the career followed to date, rather than identifying strengths previously unrecognized.

Clearly it can be very difficult to tease out the deep sources that shape career preference. I have found that my skills in psychology as well as in career counseling can often shine light on the often obscure, underlying factors that create career direction pressure, and can help pinpoint the inherent qualities (stimulation/challenge, autonomy, purpose, interpersonal fulfillment, creativity, etc.) whose presence are most likely to magnify your career satisfaction.