When you’re not clear on the next move in your career, it’s unsettling and maybe even frustrating or scary.

This is especially true when you’re already mid-career or even at senior executive level where the stakes are higher. You don’t want to make a wrong career move because people are relying on you.

You have a reputation to uphold and responsibilities to take care of. And the people around you may be vested in your continued success right where you are.

If you’re at a crossroad in your career and you’re not clear on what to do next, here are three ways to get clarity on your next career moves:

  • Listen to your inner voice
  • Gather input from others (it’s not what you think…)
  • Do small experiments

Listen to your inner voice

We each have an inner voice that knows exactly what we want and need at any time. The inner self that has your best interests at heart. You’ve had it since birth. But the growing up process teaches you to conform to societal norms.

While this is useful for getting along in the world, it also makes it easy to lose touch with your inner voice. And the better you are at achieving societal definitions of success, the more buried your inner voice can get.

Develop the skills to get recognized, promoted and paid more

In my case, as a “nice Chinese girl”, I wanted to make my family proud. And I had a lot to live up to with ancestors who were university presidents, government officials, generals and even a king back in 900 AD.

So I looked around and figured out that the formula for success was to get good grades, go to the most prestigious college I could get into, get a job at the most prestigious company I could get a job at, and basically rinse and repeat. Never mind that I was stressed out and miserable for first nine years of my career. And so what if I was on the verge of burning myself out. I was too busy achieving to listen to my inner voice.

Instead of ignoring your inner voice, it’s time to listen for it when you’re not sure of your next career move. You’ll have to get very quiet and still and put aside all the societal messages, and allow that quiet inner voice to emerge and be heard.

It might be through breathing and meditation. Or taking long walks in nature. Maybe through journaling or a trip away from your usual environment where you can get back in touch with your true self.

Whatever it takes, listen to your inner voice and let it be your guide.

Which brings us to the second way.

Gather input from others

I know, this sounds like exposing yourself to more of the “societal norm” thinking. But it’s not. Because you’re not getting their input on what they think your next career move should be.

It starts with identifying a handful of people who know you in different ways. They need to be people who you trust. They could be family members, close friends, colleagues, former bosses or professors. As long as they know you well and are from a variety of contexts in your life.

Then, you ask for their observations about what you’re like when you’re at your best and happiest self. What they’ve seen you doing in those times, what environment you were in and when they’ve experienced you being clear about what you want. And conversely, the things they’ve seen you do that you’ve disliked.

This kind of input is useful in two ways.

First, it gives you an external view of what you like and dislike which you can compare to what your inner voice is telling you about your next career move. This is useful if you’re still not sure you’ve uncovered your inner voice.

Second, hearing about times when others have experienced you being clear can give you confidence that you are capable of having clarity.

Like the time I was struggling with what to do next and lamenting to my mother, “why don’t I ever know what I want?” She looked at me and said, “May, you have always known what you want.” She then rattled off examples including the time when I was seven and wanted to learn to play the piano (up until then we had no musicians in the house), when I was 18 and knew I wanted to go to Harvard, when I was in my twenties and determined to go into banking.

I had gotten into the habit of second-guessing myself, and my mother’s reminder gave me the confidence to change my unhelpful self-talk and replace it with her highly assured statement that I have always known what I wanted.

Which brings us to the third way.

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Do small experiments

An experiment is the smallest possible step you can take that doesn’t risk your entire career but still gives you information on whether you’re on the right track. You could call it a “baby step”.

So let’s say you’re considering two or three possible paths for your next career move. Maybe it’s staying in your department and going for a promotion versus moving to a faster growth part of the company versus looking externally for opportunities.

Instead of forcing yourself to decide on one path when you’re not yet clear on what’s best, it’s the perfect time to devise a few experiments. For example, you could have a conversation with your manager about your career aspirations. That’s a pretty normal thing to do, and it could give you some useful information on your promotion prospects and whether your boss is supportive.

As another baby step, why not set up a coffee with a colleague you know who works in that higher growth area to find out what she likes about working there? Or volunteer to join a cross-divisional initiative where you’ll get to meet people in other departments?

And maybe it’s a good time to check in with your fellow gym member whose partner is a headhunter.

It’s ideal to run multiple experiments at the same time. That way, you’ll get clear on your next career move sooner.

There are so many small “experiments” you could devise to see what’s possible and what you’d like. And it’s equally valuable to discover what you don’t like so you know what to say “no” to.

But what if you’ve taken all those steps and you’re still not clear on your next career move?

Don’t feel like you have to commit to anything for the rest of your career. What you do next is just what’s next. It doesn’t have to be your final resting place. And whatever move you decide to make, you’ll get information and learn something valuable from it, even if it’s “that is not what I want to do”.

So take a step, any step, and allow those insights to emerge. When you take steps, new insights and avenues are likely to open up. Plus, things are constantly changing, which means new options can appear at any time. And remember that not deciding is also a decision… to keep doing what you’re doing.

Just don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s an either/or choice

When you face two options that are equally unattractive to you, it’s time to look for the third way. In most cases, it’s not just ‘stay or go’. There are so many varieties within those artificial goal posts.

So ask yourself whether it’s really an either/or. Maybe it’s a “yes, and…” where you can do a bit of both. Or you can make it a “not now” for the options you didn’t choose. Think of it as just a question of timing.

So, when you’re at a crossroad in your career and uncertain about your next career move, use these strategies to gain clarity:

  • Listen to your inner voice – put aside the distractions of societal expectations and get back in touch with the quiet voice of your inner self… the one that’s always clear on what’s best for you.
  • Gather input from others – make sure it’s focused on what they’ve observed about your likes and dislikes, not about what they think you should do.
  • Do small experiments – take “baby steps” that don’t bet your career but still give you information on whether you’re on the right track.

Which of these strategies would most help you get clear on your next career moves?

Leave a comment and let me know.