How to Find a Dream Career Opportunity: 3 Journaling Exercises

This is part one of a two post series by guest writer Michelle Martin.

It’s been my experience that most people look for a new career by thinking about jobs that already exist. They think “I always wanted to be a teacher” or “I’d love to go back to school to be a nurse.”

While this method isn’t completely wrong, it is limiting. It’s based on what you know of various jobs (which usually isn’t much) and it assumes that the job you want is a job that exists right now. In today’s economy, this is decidedly not the case. By some estimates, 75{54c12dad2cc2b53ae830e39915b1a3e70288dbcbbeb8bbf8395437c5dc3c512c} of the jobs that today’s kindergartners will hold don’t yet exist. Trying to decide what you want to do based on the jobs that are available will automatically limit your opportunities. There are plenty of other career barriers that you’ll have to deal with. Avoid creating new ones.

Start With Who You Are

Planning your next career move has to start with who you are. There are many ways to go about planning your career and a million online assessments. Some people advocate starting with what you know how to do, others with what you WANT to do. My personal belief is that you should look at the intersection of Your Purpose, Your Talents, and Your Passion.

At The Crossroads

Dave Pollard of How to Save the World has written a beautiful summary of the process of self-discovery necessary to find your place in the world. This crystallizes my own thoughts on the subject, and I’ve found that people are most successful when they follow this path.

He writes that you need to consider three things:

  1. Your Purpose — What’s needed in the world that you’re uniquely poised to provide?
  2. Your Talents — What are your gifts?
  3. Your Passion — What do you love? What would make you wake up every morning, excited and ready to work?

For a truly fulfilling work life, you need to start by understanding your talents and your passions. You can then see where those gifts are needed and discover your purpose.

In my next post, I’m going to spend some time helping you think about your passions. I’ll share some exercises and some assessments for you to take. In the meantime, here are a few exercises to get yourself “limbered up” for digging deeply into who you are and where you want to go next.

Get a Journal

First thing — get a journal. Ideally this will be a new, blank journal that will allow you to start with an “uncluttered mind”. The type of journal you get is up to you. I prefer 8×12 Artists Sketchbooks. They have no lines and the pages are large, leaving plenty of space for rambling and pasting in articles, pictures, etc. to help you organize thinking. Go with what makes you comfortable. Some people like beautifully bound journals with handmade paper. Others go with the 69 cent marbled composition books that we used in school.

Now that you have your journal, try to find at least a half hour for some quiet thinking and writing. Go to a space where you will feel relaxed and comfortable. Try listening to music. Have a cup of coffee or tea. Not to get all New Age on you, but it’s really helpful to get yourself into a mental space of being open and uncritical. Then try these exercises.

1. When I Was 10 I Was Passionate About . . .

Most of us were at our most “authentic” when we were 10 years old. This was before we learned or cared much about what society expected us to do.

So what I’m going to ask you to do is this. Think back to who you were at 10 or 11 years old. What did you spend your time doing? What were you interested in? Imagine your 10-year old self and write down everything you can remember about what you loved. Don’t worry that this means your career will have to involve Barbies or tree forts. What you’re looking for are the patterns that reveal your passions and talents. Write down everything you can remember.

Once you’ve completed that, go back through what you’ve written and start thinking “big picture.” Find the key themes. Do they involve other people or solitude? Were you passionate about animals or art or taking care of things? Did you like to write? Chances are, at least some of these things will be buried treasure that you haven’t considered in a while. Reflect on these ideas and summarize what you’ve discovered. Which of these areas would you like to explore in the future?

What I found was that I was into reading (that hasn’t changed) and more specifically, reading about what makes people tick. I also loved making art and playing “pretend” games where I was a pioneer (I was very into “Little House on the Prairie” at that point).

From those details, a larger picture of who I am began to emerge. Part of what I love is understanding people and the transformations they go through. I love accessing my creative side and using that creativity to improve my work. These were pieces of me that were apparent from a young age, but that I lost sight of as I got older. Going through this exercise helped me to unearth them.

2. My Ideal Day

Another way to begin accessing who you are is by thinking about what you would do if you could do anything you wanted. Imagine that you don’t have to worry about money or children or spouses or friends or parents. You were able to do just what YOU wanted to do. How would you spend that time? Would you spend it alone or around other people? What activities would you engage in? How would you organize your time? What projects would you start?

One caveat here — think of this ideal day in terms of your work life. My ideal day would be spent getting a massage, napping, reading and making art. While I might be able to glean some ideas about myself from the reading and art-making, I’m pretty sure that napping and getting a massage aren’t going to help me figure out what I want to be when I grow up. As you think through how you would want to spend your time, think about it in terms of work, not strictly leisure. Again, watch to see what patterns emerge and try to reflect on what they mean for you.

3. Free Write on “I Want . . . “

It can be hard to bypass that internal judge who makes you question things like my “ideal day.” I’ll do the previous exercise and then watch as my brain tells me all the reasons that I can’t have that ideal day. One strategy for bypassing this internal critic is stream of consciousness writing. Just let your brain go without giving the critic time to comment.

Write the phrase “I want . . . ” at the top of a new journal page. Then just let yourself go without thinking about what you want from work. Don’t try to analyze or think. Just write. Let your mind flow from one thought into another. Keep the pen moving across the page. If you get stuck on what you want, then write “I don’t know what I want . . . ” or “I think I want . . . ” and just keep things moving until a thought of what you really DO want comes to you. You may have to write “I don’t know” 10 times before a new thought emerges. That’s OK. The point is to keep the pen flowing to bypass that critical brain.

Keep this up until you’re certain that you’ve written down everything you can think of. Force yourself to keep going until you’re truly empty. Then go back and read through what you’ve written. Underline, circle, highlight key phrases. Make notes or add to your thoughts. This will become valuable fodder as you think about your passions and your gifts.

Now What?

Now that your brain is flowing, get into the groove of thinking about yourself. As you go through your day, let your mind explore what you’ve written. Jot down notes or ideas as they come to you, but don’t become obsessive. Your ideal career is something that can’t be forced — it needs to be discovered. Just let things happen. Try to capture your thoughts, but not to control them.

With this started, you’ll be more open to our next topic — exploring your passions.

Michele Martin has been helping people figure out what they want to be when they grow up for over 10 years. Currently she is a consultant to government agencies and nonprofit organizations where she designs and implements career exploration and training programs for young people and adults. She’s also begun to explore how to use new technology tools for organizational effectiveness, personal learning and professional development.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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