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3 Questions to Ask Yourself When Making a Career Decision

Making a career decision can be tricky. Next time you’re faced with doing so, try asking yourself these three questions and consider how useful and clarifying the answers are in your work, and life.

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When I am faced with a career decision or question, or when I’m deciding whether or not to pursue or accept a new project, I envision a set of three circles: impact, joy, and financial sustainability. The three questions I ask and answer are:

Does my work have positive impact?

Does my work bring joy to me and to others?

Does my work provide financial sustainability?

Of course, these three categories can be seen as being in opposition to one another — more joy may lead to less impact and less money. A job that earns more money may lead to less joy. Ideally, I want a situation that elicits a strong positive answer to all three questions. I don’t need each aspect to be literally equal. I’m not expecting perfect balance. Many times I’m willing to sacrifice money and joy for impact. Often for me, however, impact is the most important. It’s why I work. But, I also need to pay the bills, and without joy, what impact can I have?

Asking these questions helps me to have more clarity about where I put attention, and to find balance when I experience imbalance. Just applying these criteria shifts my focus away from fear and worry. Asking these questions shifts my attention from my day-to-day concerns to something larger: 

What is it I’m offering? How do I want to show up? How do I want to live?

Impact

Impact may mean helping one person, a team, a company, a community, or a nation. Impact can mean scale or it can mean depth. I remember once being upset when only six people registered for a workshop I was leading. I was hoping for a larger group. When I mentioned this to my son, his response was, “Dad, even if you can positively impact the life of one person, isn’t that enough?” I appreciated the sentiment, but to be honest, in the moment I wasn’t sure. However, the workshop with six people turned out to be wonderful. A small community formed out of it and went on to meet several additional times over the course of the year.

The question of impact asks us to consider what role we want to play and how our work serves others. Answering this question supports us in working effectively. Particularly if you feel “stuck” in a position that, for financial or other reasons, you can’t leave, ask yourself: 

How am I currently impacting others? How can I increase this impact in more satisfying ways? 

Sometimes, our current lives possess more potential than we realize. There are many ways, small and large, to positively impact others in our work.

Joy

We usually don’t think of joy as being important in our work. Why is that? Most of us spend more time at work than any other place in our lives. Why not look for ways to bring a sense of lightness and enjoyment to what we do as employees or employers?

This criteria of joy also raises the question: what do you really like doing? What is nourishing, challenging, and interesting to you? Is what you are currently doing aligned with the answers to these questions? What steps might you take to bring your work more in line with a sense of joy?

Thankfully, joy is the circle that is most within our control. No job, no experience, is perpetually, continually, purely joyful; pain, difficulty, and impermanence will arise whatever our circumstances. Even a “dream” job will have its nightmare moments. So this question challenges us to find the joy within any and every situation. A certain type of joy exists in any job well done, and that satisfaction in accomplishment is often directly related to our self-confidence. Paying attention to and cultivating self-confidence can also be a way to cultivate more joy.

Financial Sustainability

Money and issues of financial stability are complex and personal. We all need to pay the bills, to earn enough income to meet our basic needs. This is no small matter. Indeed, sometimes this arena trumps all others: to earn what we need, to feed and house ourselves and our families, we have “no choice” but to take (or stay in) certain jobs. Considerations of joy and impact may seem like unaffordable luxuries in comparison.

What is financial sustainability? What is “enough”? Would this be a better, more satisfying choice than taking a job solely because of its salary? People sometimes make income-based work decisions with the belief that earning more money brings more joy and impact. Other times, people seek money as a response to fear or a desire for power. What purposes does money serve for you? Even if we are not in a position to change jobs, this is a question that deserves close examination.

Practice:

Making a career decision can be tricky. Next time you’re faced with doing so, try asking yourself these three questions and consider how useful and clarifying the answers are in your work, and life:

  1. What’s the impact?
  2. Does it bring me joy?
  3. Does it bring me financial sustainability?

Notice the tensions and conflicts in your answers. Do they point toward some effective, wise career decision that needs to be made?

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