Your career probably hasn’t worked out as you intended. Sure there are numerous external factors beyond your control (mortgages, kids, time), but your interests also may have changed over the years. What you wanted in your twenties may not hold true now.
Most people have a deep desire for a meaningful and fulfilling career, yet according to a widely cited Gallup study, over half of the American workforce is disengaged – meaning they feel no real connection to their work and therefore do the bare minimum.

Furthermore, though job satisfaction overall has increased in recent years, more and more promotions are due to tenure and success in previous jobs, which may not have entailed managing people. Thus, many employees state that the reason for their disengagement lies with their boss! It’s therefore hardly surprising that most people are yearning for a career – not just a job.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a career that’s right for you. After all, you’re going to spend over a third of your life at work. It’s incredibly important that this time is spent on activities that are truly rewarding and engaging.

But what if you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up? Surprisingly, millions of mid-career adults struggle with this question. And the answers don’t come easily. If you’re struggling too, ponder these 5 clever questions. What you reveal may even spark a career change!

1.) What 5-10 things are you most proud of? Though this is a version of a fairly common interview question, the way you answer it truthfully to yourself reveals what you value most. How you answer this question will give you an opportunity to reflect on significant people and events in your life, which will give you a sense of pride and activate the fundamental Emotional Intelligence element of Self-Regard. Additionally, this activity should also remind you that accomplishments don’t necessarily entail productivity, promotion, or profits. The most fulfilling things we do tend not to yield monetary results or widespread recognition.

2.) What compliments (other than appearance) do you receive most often? Think about it: most compliments we give and receive tend to be about physical appearance. But the ones that stick with us the most are the intangible compliments, like “You are so supportive”, “You always make me laugh!”, or “Thank you for being a great leader without being bossy.” One of the best compliments I’ve ever received is, “Edythe, you have a tremendous presence. When you walk into a room, people pay attention.” Not only did this compliment instill confidence, it helped me realize that teaching, training, and speaking to large groups are things I’m naturally good at and enjoy.

3.) What movies, books, and/or TV shows do you gravitate toward? Whether you love sci-fi, historical biographies, or can’t get enough of the ID channel, you surely have a favorite genre. There may be a psychological link between our personalities and our favorite reading material, as well as the movies and TV shows that appeal to us the most. Think about the individual characters or heroes you’re drawn to, the dynamic between characters, or the themes that resonate with you. A client I once worked with had a bookshelf full of classics – from “Canterbury Tales” to “Jane Eyre.” When I inquired about his choice of books, he revealed that he only read them because he thought he should. His parents were both academics who advocated reading and other intellectual pursuits over sports and art, which he preferred. This realization began a journey of self-discovery that led to a career change. For the record, he’s much happier now that he’s found a balance between doing what was expected of him and following his heart.

4.) What was the earliest childhood ambition that you can remember? Whether it was an astronaut, dancer, or president of a large country, that aspiration reflected what you enjoyed doing and who you were before the external world “corrupted” you. Before you dismiss those dreams as unrealistic, think about what they represent. An astronaut, for example, could indicate a sense of adventure and exploration, while leaders inspire and direct the work of others. I’ve worked with many clients who dreamed of becoming musicians when they were younger. Though most decided that the time and energy they’d need to spend was more trouble than it was worth, several now play in bands, and others have found ways to incorporate their love of music into their lives, including regularly going to concerts and learning instruments. Remember that though it may, in theory, be great to get paid for what you love to do, it’s still important to have hobbies and interests outside of your day-job.

5.) What did you enjoy most about each position you’ve held (both paid and unpaid)?
You’ve likely worn many hats over the course of your career, and it’s a good idea to have a list of them – and to remind yourself why you did (or didn’t like them), and what you learned from the experiences. One of the activities I use with my career counseling clients is what I call a “Professional Chronology.” Make a list of every role you’ve had (starting with your first part-time job as a teenager and including every volunteer and paid position until now). For each, think about what you liked, disliked, and your greatest accomplishment. Not only will patterns begin to emerge, but you’ll have a chronology of positions and accomplishments for your resume!

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but hopefully you’ve noticed some recurrences. Make note of all the repeated themes, or any words or action items that show up more than once. Pay attention to these themes, as they are calling to you! Make sure you “dig deep”; though you may find that it’s important for you to help others, does that mean teaching elementary students, mentoring low-income adults, or devoting time to planting a community garden? The more specific your answers, the more you’ll reveal about your values and needs.

If you find yourself surprised that a complete career overhaul isn’t in your future, fear not! Sometimes all we need is a little perspective.