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Uncovering your priorities

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How do you figure out what matters most to you?

Maybe that question feels intimidating and overwhelming to consider. Sometimes we’ve spent the first half of our career ignoring that question in pursuit of other goals – which is perfectly fine! I think it’s valuable to take time to answer this question, at whatever point in your life it pops up and really demands your attention.

Getting clarity on what you value is a powerful way to help define what might be next for you, or what might need to shift a little in your current set-up. We’ll start there, because often the idea of “finding your purpose” is what’s most overwhelming: as if there’s just one thing you’re meant to do in this life.

My own view on purpose is that it’s more important to have a sense of meaning in what you do, and that definition of meaning can shift over time, and look different from one job to the next, or one phase of life to the next. There are variations of what “purpose” will look like depending on your circumstances at the moment, so don’t stress about finding one particular magical job that is your answer forever.

Here is a simple process to follow to do a deep dive into what matters to you:

Step 1: Reflect on Your Values

Use these questions to prompt your thinking:

  • What are some formative stories from your life that taught you some lessons that still resonate?
  • What are some of the things you want to impart to your kids, nieces and nephews, or other young people in your life? What messages, or what qualities are important for them to know about?
  • What do you think we need more of in the world? What ways of being, what behaviors, what choices would make a difference?

Additionally, you can use lists like this to see what else might resonate with you as priorities in your life – or in your life moving forward.

Step 2: Uncover Your WHYs

Once you have a list of values – whether they’re single words, or stories, or phrases – for each of them, consider why these are important to you. Understanding your WHYs will help with prioritizing – knowing which ones are the most important to you.

Step 3: Prioritize and Analyze

Out of your list, however long it is, identify 3-5 of these values that you want to focus on in this next phase of your life. And then use those to do some introspection on how they match with what you’re currently doing – or to help guide you in making some decisions about where you want to be.

Step 4: Use Values as an Anchor

As you keep these values top of mind, even posted on your wall somewhere, they can be a true anchor to you as you embark upon a shift of any kind – whether changing jobs, pursuing a side passion, or reordering your life priorities. It makes decision-making simpler, if not necessarily easy (there isn’t often an obvious answer, without potential downsides). But the upside is that the decisions you make will feel congruent with who you are and what’s most important to you.


When I interview candidates, I can immediately tell if they’ve done some of this introspection – they are clear about why they’re interested in this particular job, and in that particular organization. They are deeply engaged in the conversation. And they ask thoughtful questions – because they want to do their part to see if there’s a match. They’re not just looking for any job, but the one that will be the right next step for what matters to them.

Why you don’t need a new job

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At a party recently, I found myself in several conversations over the course of the evening about work. In each of these separate discussions, I heard people describing their work with a certain degree of blerg – even for those with new jobs, or those who’ve been quite successful for a while.

We all have to work. We are expected to work, to provide, to contribute.

And yet, more and more people I’m talking to are feeling mildly dissatisfied with how things are. That there’s something missing, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is. Especially those in or approaching mid-career, in our 40s, are reaching a point of having checked off many accomplishments and benchmarks – titles, certain salaries, teams, projects.

These same people, having achieved things their parents would have been satisfied with, are left wanting more. (But, we don’t want a mid-life crisis…)

Often, that nagging feeling of dissatisfaction translates into saying yes to a headhunter’s call, or scrolling through job postings for one that seems just a little better than the office politics or crazy CEO they have to deal with.

A few months into that new job, after the initial buzz of excitement wears off, the malaise creeps back in. What happened? And why did it come back so quickly?

The problem is – you don’t necessarily need a new job.

The job isn’t always the problem. Instead, it’s about finding more meaning in your work. Looking at what’s underneath all those perks and accomplishments to answer some deeper questions.

Why do you work?

Certainly, there’s a degree of practicality about it – we all need financial resources to live the lives we want. But for you, that’s not quite enough.

And chasing another job isn’t going to fill that hole you feel going to work every day.

You need to go further: What really matters to you? How can you bring that into the work you do (whether the 9-5 part, or outside of that)? How can you create more meaning in how you spend your time? And ideally, also in how you get paid?

These are questions I’ve wrestled with myself in the course of my career – in addition to coaching clients to figure out the right next step for them.

Why does this matter when you could just click the “apply” button on the latest job hunting site?

In my work as a recruiter, I want to hire people who have a hunger to do something bigger with their time and gifts than just check some boxes or find the easy way out.

Because I know those are the people who contribute more and stay longer, who really care about the place and the people they work with.

If you are one of those people – and you want to dive into these deeper questions to find more meaning in your work, schedule your career inventory with me now.

The Value of Clarity

Last year, I finished up a career coaching engagement with a client when we reached the point where he needed to move from thinking about what it would look like to find a career with meaning, to actually landing in a new place – with my support there if he needed it.

Frequently, the work we do together is comprehensive enough to give my clients the clarity they need, and the confidence and support to make that leap. And sometimes, time needs to do its work for a little while longer, for the client to really believe that they can find what they’ve identified – and for the right network or connection to help the opportunity show up.

I sent this client a note to check in, and shortly thereafter got this response:

I landed a management position for an expanding pet supply company… I work 8 min from my house… Most people bring in their dogs so half my time is spent engaging with the animals.

My stress level has been reduced by about 85%, I feel valued and appreciated in my new position, and because they are rapidly expanding there are lots of opportunities for further growth!

Last but not least, I laugh to myself every shift as our location has “giant windows” for the front of the retail suite, and if you recall I said if I were to work inside, big windows were a very big deal to me. Crazy how things work out right?

(A few edits made for brevity and confidentiality.)

Needless to say, I am elated to hear news like this – and I know there’s always some element of faith, believing that my clients will find just the right fit – after we spend the time to construct their personal roadmap.

Why did our coaching work?

  1. He knew he wanted to do something really different than his previous job (owning a stressful business), but didn’t even know what the options could be. Through our work together, we unpacked what he was really great at – customer service, engaging with people, helping to build something.
  2. We also spent time exploring how he wanted to work, not just what he was doing. This anchored for him some key factors like 1) walking his dog during the workday; 2) working outside – or at least in a space with lots of natural light; 3) minimizing stress and taking work home; 4) money and growth opportunities.
  3. We took those strengths and quality of life elements, and identified multiple potential jobs for him to explore – via informational interviewing. Being able to test out potential paths was essential to finding the combination of “what” and “how” – a pet store manager job in a big box store wouldn’t have fit the bill.
  4. We practiced interviewing to build self-confidence. He got tripped up trying to answer standard interview questions because of his unusual background, so we strategized about how to get across what they were really looking for, and how to feel more confident in what he had to offer.

When you have clarity on what you’re great at, what you love to do, and how you want to work, it’s much easier to find the just-right opportunity falling into your lap.

Being open to an unexpected path

My unplanned summer internship turned out to be truly life-changing – in ways I never could have predicted. I found my people. I found the work that made me cry it was so powerfully impactful. I found a level of fulfillment I had dreamed of.

And by the end of the summer, I found the confidence to advocate directly for them to hire me full-time, in DC – because I knew what I brought to the table, and I knew exactly how I could help them in that stage of growth. When I showed up to the small headquarters that fall, I even found the manifestation of what I had imagined my ideal office to look like – down to the mismatched chairs and cramped, collaborative space.

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All the clues I had gathered led me to the place I needed to be.

I stayed with this organization for seven years, trying out several different jobs during that time. It was where I grew up professionally, where my strengths were truly seen, where I was offered opportunities to step into leadership roles and positions I wouldn’t have imagined for myself, but that have put me precisely on the career path that was the right fit for me. (And, I also got to meet my husband!)

The journey that got me to this “right place” took nearly a year, and many applications sent, interviews completed, days of unemployment and dissatisfaction, informational interviews and coffees and emails, and plenty of discouragement and rejection.

These clues added up to something, because I was paying attention.

By going through all of that time and reflection and action and frustration, I gained more and more clarity about what mattered to me, what I was good at – and what I enjoyed doing. When I was offered the internship, there was that voice telling me I shouldn’t walk away from it, even though it wasn’t quite what I wanted. I knew in my bones it was where I needed to be.

This is my own story of finding work with meaning, which was a requirement for me from the beginning. I’ve continued to follow the clues to keep that sense of meaning, which has meant an evolution in my career path over time, as I’ve continued to evaluate how I can best use this sense of purpose and calling to serve others in different ways.

I’m grateful to have participated in the career stories of those I’ve worked with over the past two decades. I know the power of feeling called to be in a new place (as well as the fear that goes along with that), and how you contribute differently when you’re in that place.

My calling now is to be that voice of encouragement, the expert guide along the path to a fulfilling career.

How can I help you follow your clues?

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How to listen for the clues

Getting stuck along my journey of finding a job with meaning was the best thing that could’ve happened to me (in retrospect, of course).

During that time, some guardian angel recommended What Color Is Your Parachute, and another the new-agey yoga retreat center Kripalu. I am eternally grateful I had the opportunity that summer to go to a workshop at Kripalu about life transitions, and to dive into that book – both of which were instrumental in helping me see what really mattered to me, and to envision (in quite a lot of detail) what I wanted to do with my life, who I wanted to be surrounded with, and even what I wanted the office to feel like.

Now, I had lots and lots of clues…

However, these clues didn’t spell out how to actually find the right job – there wasn’t a particular cause I lived for, or a specific role I felt called to do. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was really a generalist – fairly good at a wide range of things, and especially at bringing different things together. But that made it harder to find anything that felt like a good next step!

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Even though all those exercises and reflection helped me build more confidence and clarity in what mattered to me, it took many more months to effectively narrow my search – and more months after that to actually get the right job.

It wasn’t for lack of trying – and in fact, I think my ability to keep trying was critical to understanding how a search process can work.

But first, I had to deal with applications that went nowhere, interviews that felt awkward, and eventually settling for temp jobs – first, handing out pamphlets at a trade show, and then (at least getting closer) as an administrative assistant for a large nonprofit.

With a secure job finally in place in November, I took a breath, but it wasn’t long before I realized this very old, national nonprofit was way too bureaucratic for me, that my skills weren’t really valued, and that the staff wasn’t treated particularly well. So I went back to my Parachute instructions, and started working my connections for more informational interviews in the nonprofit arena, now having more clarity about the type of organization, or the culture, that would be a better fit for me.

These clues – about where and how I wanted to work – would be game-changers.

The people I met with were genuinely willing to hear about what I was looking for, to share what they knew about the nonprofit sector, and to introduce me to other people they knew – because (I imagine now) they knew that finding great people was a challenge, and they wanted to do what they could to make connections.

It was one of those connections who had a job posting on his desk from an organization that was opening an office in Chicago, and who made an introduction for me. By February, that turned into a job opportunity I was really excited about, and an interview I felt great about… and then, a job that I didn’t get. I was crushed.

I took some time to process and grieve – I had done all the right things! I had clarity on what I wanted and what I was good at, had used all my networking skills (even though I am an introvert and networking is hard!!), and kept meeting with people… and it didn’t work out! And in the meantime, the job that I actually had was getting worse – more mindless, with more turnover in the organization, and a fax machine behind my desk that was straight out of Office Space. I felt stuck. Again.

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A few months later, I got a call from the organization that had rejected me so heartlessly, offering me a summer internship. That almost felt worse… I was now almost a year out of college, and my best prospect was a paid internship, with no clear sense of whether that could turn into an actual job.

But, I had really loved what this organization was doing, how they were approaching the challenge, and the way they welcomed creative thinking and leadership from everyone. The opportunity to do something that better aligned with what mattered to me made it worth the risk. That May, I quit my job and took the internship.

What is a risk – whether small or big – that you could take to move you closer to what you seek?

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What do you want to be when you grow up?

Almost 20 years into my career, I’ve reached a place of clarity on my passions, my strengths, and how I can contribute to the world through my work.

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Now that I’ve built deep experience on all sides of the hiring process – from trying to find the right fit for myself, to being that HR person reading resumes, to consulting with organizations to help them find the right people, to coaching individuals who are wanting to switch careers or step into more challenging positions – I know the hardest aspects are really knowing what you want, and then figuring out how to get it.

We might work through lots of personality tests, exercises in books, core competencies of jobs, or stacks of resumes. But in the end, finding the right fit is much more art than science, and usually takes time and stepping out on faith that the decision you make is the right one (for right now, at least).

I know this in my bones – because I’ve been there. I’ve held a number of different jobs with different organizations (and worked for myself), consulted with 50+ organizations, hired for well over 200 positions, interviewed close to 2000 people, and read through many thousands of resumes.

But the path I’ve taken hasn’t ever been straightforward – nor did I have any real sense of direction for a long time.

The answer to that (really annoying) question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was never clear to me.

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In high school, I was friends with people who were already great at something – music, poetry, science, math, theater. I was okay at a lot of things, and not great at forcing myself to work really, really hard to get an A in any of them. I felt lost.

The first time I experienced something that lit me up was in the summer before senior year of high school, when I did a program designed to expose us to the issues facing cities, partly through working with local nonprofit organizations. This was when I first connected with my peers who wanted to make a difference, even if we didn’t exactly know how. It was an eye-opening experience to break out of my cushy suburban world and see what was really happening in neighboring Boston, what dynamics were at play, and who was working to help.

This was an important clue, and gave me concrete examples of what meaningful work – for me – could look like.

In college, I majored in history because that was the subject that attracted enough of my interest to focus on it for several years and a 50-page thesis (on Victorian British and Irish history – very practical for job prospects!). But the biggest investment of my time really went into the community I had joined – whether volunteering on Saturday mornings or working in an elementary school in the adjacent neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago; conducting campus tours and helping prospective students to find out if our school was a good fit; being a resident assistant in a dorm; or serving on and then co-leading the student-run crisis hotline.

Another clue: I gravitated much more toward doing rather than academics.

Nearing graduation, I briefly tried to land a lucrative consulting job (until I bombed that interview – and also realized the only part of that work I wanted to do was the pro bono piece), and then tried to get a nonprofit gig, only to strike out by the time I graduated. I went back home for the summer confused about my direction, and locked into a lease that I had to find a way to pay for.

Some people have the benefit of knowing early on what they love to do, and what they are great at. But I think the vast majority of us panicked inside when we got the inevitable question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” – and maybe we responded with a quick answer, or something that made the adult asking smile.

As we get further into our careers, we’re supposed to be grown up – to already be settled on our career path. We have responsibilities. We have expectations to uphold.

But what if, underneath all of that, we’re still wondering, or wishing, what else is out there?

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What if we could ask questions that invite possibility of something better, something that would make that younger version of ourselves proud: What makes you light up? What brings you joy? How can you bring your experience into a new realm? How can you do work where your expertise is truly valued?

These are the questions that light me up…because I know how they’ve unlocked the clues that have brought me to the work I get to do every day.