Experts Marcus Buckingham, Dorie Clark, and Katharine Brooks offer advice on discovering what's right for you.
By now, you've likely heard the numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that millions of the country's workers have quit their jobs (48 million in 2021). Low pay, lack of growth opportunity, and inflexibility in schedules are just some of the main reasons workers are citing. While frontline and low-wage workers are the majority of those leaving, middle-class degree holders are also reporting this as a chance to move on to new opportunities.
"I was ready for a new adventure," says Tameka J. Harris, a learning experience designer who accepted a new position in May. "I had run the gamut of what was available there [at my last employer] for me. It was time to see what else was out there."
Many have been calling this era the Great Resignation; however, those in the field of career development prefer to call it the Great Inspiration—a time for workers to get inspired and find a new love for their work.
"We've taken the human out of human resources for a long, long, long time," says Marcus Buckingham, world-renowned psychometrician and author of the new book Love + Work. "An awful lot of HR training types report up through legal … which is protecting the company from the people. We're moving away from that, but we've still got a lot of processes and tools … that are deeply disconnected from what it is to be a human."
Career switching is not for the faint of heart, and you cannot rush it. If you want to change careers or roles, you must first acknowledge that your path is as unique as you are. Discovering your loves or, as the European idiom goes that Buckingham has adopted, your "red threads" takes a level of self-awareness and reflection that few people spend the time doing before jumping into a career.
But recognizing your uniqueness, getting granular with your red threads, and recognizing obstacles in your path can help lead you to a more fulfilling career path.
Uncover your uniqueness
No other person now or in the future will ever be an exact copy of you—it's impossible.
"You are incredibly specific in terms of what you love and what you loathe; what you're into, and when time flies by—it's really specific," Buckingham explains. "Once you've taken yourself seriously for once, you've respected yourself, you start to realize that other people will too. You are wyrd—wonderful and unique, distinct and specific."
Wyrd (pronounced "weird") is an ancient Norse word—a noun—that means your unique self. It isn't just you though; it guides you, Buckingham writes.
Current career development and education systems are not set up to celebrate people's wyrdness. We're all compared to each other; we're in competition with each other. Systems are set up to classify, categorize, and reward individuals for their assimilation and to give blue ribbons for being the best. That stifles and de-emphasizes your wyrd, which means the onus lies on you to discover your uniqueness and your career path, like Harris did.
"My 'knower' is on point and never led me wrong so far—knowing when a thing is for me; knowing what to get interested in," she explains. "I know my knower is hot when I am obsessed or curious and willing to learn more and sharpen my skill set in that area."
Do not confuse this message with finding a passion and never work another day in your life. Work is just that—work; it takes focus, can be stressful, and can involve tasks you do not enjoy. Buckingham says that you don't need to love your work 100 percent of every day—only 20 percent. So, if you have something you can point to every day—for at least 20 percent of it—that you enjoy, you are on the right path.
Unraveling your red threads
Start with your gut and note what you are paying attention to. What are you tuning into when a presentation is going on? What articles or blogs do you get lost in? Discover what excites your brain to learn more, and jot it down. Identify the moments when you totally lose track of time. You may be working on a presentation or training course and look up to see the time has melted away or be reading a journal on the science of learning and discover two hours have passed—those are red thread moments. When something comes easily to you as if you've done it before and you are really enjoying doing that new thing that you are great at, that's a red thread moment as well.
The moments when you are watching the clock, counting down every minute, and pleading for that task to be over—those are not your red threads, Buckingham points out.
After you have taken notes on where your attention and time go, start writing a love note to yourself, Buckingham suggests. His love note formula starts with writing "I love it when," and follow up with a verb—for example: I love it when I facilitate training.
Now get granular with it. Does it matter for whom you are facilitating the training? Does it matter where? How big of a classroom? What is the training material? Keep going as detailed as you can get it.
Once you have contemplated those questions, continue with your love note to yourself and write "I am at my best when," and continue with another (or the same) verb. Get as granular as possible here too.
If you are still having trouble narrowing down your red threads, try using the power of deduction. "I am a big believer in encouraging people to actually rule out options, because in many ways it's easier than ruling things in," explains branding expert and New York Times bestselling author Dorie Clark. Whittle down your list by doing some informational interviews, talking to co-workers, or gathering research on alternative roles, she suggests.
Another way to think about what you do and don't love is to consider your energy levels. Katharine Brooks, co-author of What Color is Your Parachute? and board-certified coach and counselor, proposes creating an "energy gainer/energy drainer" list. Draw two columns on a piece of paper and list what is filling your bucket and what is draining you throughout the day. Spend more time in the energy gainer stage and rewards will follow.
"My first job was in HR," Brooks states. "The only part of the day I liked was when I interviewed candidates for nonmanagement positions in the store. I specialized in interviewing people with disabilities, hoping to find their strengths and a good placement for them. So, when I sought a new job, I found a great one as a social worker in a nonprofit agency supporting people with disabilities. That experience led me to graduate school and many other jobs in the future."
Once you can narrow down and interconnect your loves and strengths, you could create a vision or action board. A vision board helps to connect you to your future self and keep you on track toward your goals—even if those career goals could change over time.
In 2008, an fMRI study of people's brains showed just how disconnected people are from their future selves. Doctors at Stanford University found the same region of the study group members' brains lit up when discussing themselves five years into the future as it did when subjects were discussing famous people. Creating a vision board helps your brain connect your current and future self and highlights a desired path forward.
"I think vision boards are a great way to learn about and focus on what is important to us," Brooks says. "If you put visional images of your goals and dreams in a place where you can see them every day, it's more likely you will encounter events and circumstances that will help you succeed because you will be looking for them."
Creating goals and developing a focus for your career helps to create expertise and excellence in your craft. But do not become so fixated that you do not pivot when needed. Creating too rigid an outlook does not allow for real life to play out, like, say a pandemic.
Tailor your current role
If you do the self-reflection and find that your current role isn't meeting your standards, you don't necessarily have to jump ship for another company or job. So, how can you customize your current role to make you feel more love for what you are doing? The answer is simple: Meet with your supervisor once a week.
A weekly meeting to go over your love notes of when you did your best work and when you felt the most love for your work can help you tailor your job. Collaborate with your manager to create more red threads at work every day.
"That once-a-week check-in is just everything," Buckingham notes. "Just 15 minutes every week, two questions: What did I love and loathe last week, and what priorities do I have this week? How can you help me? So it's kind of like a little past, a little future, a little past future."
Checking in with your manager enables you to explain where your energy is going, pinpoint in which areas you may need some upskilling or reskilling, and identify what other stretch opportunities there are at your organization. Take that weekly meeting to make a case for your red threads and how they benefit the overall team and organization. Turn your manager into an advocate for you. Armed with an advocate and the Great Inspiration on your side, you are in a prime position to lobby for more of what you want to do.
Beware of derailments
"I think some people get comfortable with their routine and stop being curious or trying new ways of thinking or acting. They stop challenging themselves, which can lead to boredom and burnout," Brooks notes.
Self-doubt and the fear of the unknown are two of the biggest hurdles when it comes to switching careers or progressing in a career. Sometimes your career path gets so derailed, such as getting laid off, that you wind up on your head. However, if you can come out the other side and follow your red threads, you can overcome what Buckingham calls the Seven Devils of derailment and wind up successful.
"The one we hear most about at the moment is this feedback," says Buckingham about the seven derailments he details in his book. "Everyone's supposed to learn how to give it and receive it, and … that one's really tricky, because it just seems so virtuous, and then when you sort of reject it and it's your fault, you should be open to feedback … the whole thing is problematic."
What works for one person does not work for another. Because your supervisor did something one way and it worked for them does not mean it will help you in your career. Listening to other people's feedback is often necessary in one's career growth—but be wary to indiscriminately take the advice and run in the same pathway your supervisor, mentor, or friend did.
Following in lockstep with someone else doesn't pave your own pathway. Rather, it copies someone else's path, which may or may not be right for you. Taking feedback and not allowing your wyrd to guide the way can lead you down the wrong path.
We all need to keep ourselves open to learning more, but asking for advice and help is much different from unsolicited feedback. When your well-meaning mentor or supervisor tries to give you unsolicited advice, steer them into a reaction-based statement—for example, say: "I was really confused by …" or "I had a hard time understanding you when …," Buckingham explains. If you can steer the feedback you receive that way, you can stop yourself from potentially swerving into the wrong path and still take into account diverse perspectives on how you affect others.
By getting feedback so the emphasis is on the reaction of the person giving it, you uphold wyrdness, and their wyrd reactions are irrefutable. A reaction is something you can reflect on more deeply to find your own wyrd solution forward.
You are as unique as your career path will be. Find and create a role for yourself where your wyrd is celebrated and not derailed, compared, and categorized. Take the time to find your red threads, and build your career from there.
Job vs. Hobby
Do not kill a joy of creation by turning it into work. Not all red threads are work threads.
While many people love creating music or art or enjoy reading or hiking, loving the process is different from loving the creation aspect. Constant repetition of creating that very thing you love can kill your joy for it.
Both Marcus Buckingham, author of Love + Work, and bestselling author and branding expert Dorie Clark agree that you can truly love something, but if what you love is not going to make any money for you, you may want to consider it a hobby—at least until you can figure out how to earn money with it.