At various times in our careers, we may feel directionless. This is particularly true when our skills are rendered obsolete or industries have died.
In my case, it was when I made a career pivot to being a high school math teacher, teaching Algebra I and II, in an inner-city school in 2004. I pursued this after a near fatal bicycle accident created a moment of clarity for me.
I taught for 2 years and was highly successful. The reality was I could not be a successful school teacher AND stay healthy. The experience drained me of my strength and sparked multiple bouts of depression.
I left teaching after the fall semester of my 2nd year drained but, more importantly, directionless.
This is one of my three career failures that I wrote about in my posts My 3 Biggest Career Mistakes and Recovering from My 3 Biggest Career Mistakes.
When Directionless – Do Something
As an engineer by training and I am pretty darn good at solving problems. Heck, I taught problem determination classes at IBM. What I learned from my problem-solving experience was when you do not know what to do, just do something.
After leaving teaching without a plan, I was completely directionless. Six months of not knowing what to do, getting depressed, and feeling pretty miserable, I started to network. Like I said earlier, I am an engineer by training, therefore, I started to put together a process. You can read more about my process in the post, Strategic Networking Playbook – Who, How and When!
I have a large need to help people, which is why I had spent so much of my career in training. The non-profit sector seemed to be a worthwhile target to investigate. I created a plan to interview every educational non-profit in Austin. Notice that I was to interview them and not vice versa. This process helped me determine that there were a lot of dysfunctional organizations which did not work together. Most problems were created by how these organizations were funded. They were funded largely through public and private grants that completely tied their hands on how the money was spent. This was eye-opening!
Pick a Direction
I picked the direction of finding a fundraising position for a non-profit.
Why this direction?
I chose a direction to go rather than sitting and doing nothing.
What did I do?
- Attended a large, non-profit conference in Austin.
- Researched which non-profits would be sending people and who they planned to send.
- Arrived early, scanned the sessions, reviewed the attendee list, and made my plans.
- Met five key leaders at this event.
To make a long story short, I met the head of local Jewish Community Center, where I was a member, and within a month I was hired as a junior-level, fundraiser responsible for building a corporate funding-raising program.
Was it a great fit? No.
The funny thing about this job is I am not Jewish. I like to joke that being a non-Jew and being the “face” of a Jewish organization was …. interesting.
This position lasted one year. Was I happy I took the position? Yes! I was paid to network for a year! That experience has changed me forever.
This also was one of my career failures that I chronicled in my posts My 3 Biggest Career Mistakes and Recovering from My 3 Biggest Career Mistakes.
Just Do It!
Sometimes you have to follow the Nike slogan Just Do It! I will probably never go work for a non-profit again. Having served on multiple non-profit boards I know I cannot work in these organizations. The slow pace of decision making drives me nuts.
The lessons learned was invaluable, and I credit the path I am on now to that experience.
I give the same advice to young people who tell me they do not know what they want to do. Just try something.
There have been a number of times in my career that I have felt directionless. Each time that I chose a direction and just did it, I was happy I did. I did not always choose the right direction but I was better off doing something rather than nothing.
What did you do when you were directionless?
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Like you, I am a teacher at heart, but with no desire to work in the classroom. My previous experience working for a non-profit as led me to the disorganized (and highly political) conclusion you reached.
It helps me to see you further in the process than me, knowing that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel.
I had a spur spur to just do it come to me from an external force over the weekend. The universe sent me a paying client in an arena I’d continued pursuing. I took the job, and it has helped me start the process. I’m moving. I’m not sure it is the direction I really want to go, but it does feel better swimming in a direction as opposed to treading water. It’s much less tiring!
This story really resonates with me, Mr. Miller. After working my way up to a cushy (if demanding) design job, I lost it to te recession and changes in the industry. It must have taken me a year to snap out of the shock. After reading a couple helpful books, I started just going out and networking. I wasn’t sure of what I wanted – a job? a business? – but being out there started exposing me to opportunities, and meeting people that are now proving to be key in my new career direction.
You are correct, ACTION is a great first step, as it informs one’s future.
I’m hoping you’d still get this reply, so two years on – how have your career in design shaped up?
I’m in the same lurch at the moment and even thought about taking sabbatical from the design industry for a year. Feeling a general fatigue and depression.
Marc Miller says
Thanks for your comment. What I have found in the last year is your experience is not unique. A lot of people have been pushed out of the their comfort zone. When this happens you can either sit and be a victim or take action.
Bridgett Rawls Bryant says
Good Evening Marc,
I came across this post after doing a Google search entitled: directionless at 40. At 43 years old, and having worked in Fashion Retail Management for over 25 years, I have found myself wondering what I want to do next. Per your blog I have done something and started working at an event design and floral company, and am preparing to teach my very first class as an adjunct professor in the Fall of this year. While these things are great, I still feel a sense of confusion; I have no idea what I want my ultimate goal to be with any amount of certainty. Is there any other advice you would render to help cope with the feelings of total inadequacy and aggravation over being unable to answer the question: “So what do you want to do?”
Thanks so much,
I will contact you via e-mail to discuss.
It would be fantastic if we knew what we wanted to do next in our lives and work. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out how to get there. It’s kind of ironic that the longer we’ve been working, it’s often more difficult to answer the simple questions; “What’s Next? What do I really, really want to do?” One thing that can help is to choose a DIRECTION that aligns with your top strengths and interests and begin to take small steps of exploration. Don’t get too detailed and overanalyze it. Find one person who is involved in that direction and ask if you could spend 20-30 mins with them to inquire about how they got started and any advice they may be able to share. You could also ask if they know of another individual who they would recommend connecting with to continue your exploration. I could go on but you get the idea. Just pick a direction for now, explore, learn, adjust as needed. Repeat….Over time, you will likely be much better positioned to tackle that question; “What’s Next?”. In the end, DIRECTION will lead to clarity on what you really want next. It’s a zig-zag path.
I’m encouraged to see you’ve been able to try so many different career paths and take something positive from the journey. I’m in the process of “just doing something” right now, which is teaching. I’d like to find out more about that particular part of your experience. I feel like it’s a common direction for people who are unsure of what to do, and it happens to be a huge undertaking. Many people are trying to encourage me to stick it out because it’s “supposed to be difficult at first,” but I just don’t feel any passion for it (or anything else). Is that the realization you had? If so, how did you process it and how long did it take?
Follow your gut. Teaching is really hard at the start. You are doing something you have never done every single day. You do not get to try it again for a whole year.
I tell people when they get into teaching you have to be there for the right reason and that is to help kids. If you want to talk contact me through the contact link on my website.
Hatem Kotb says
Like I said in a previous comment, so far I’ve worked as:
– Project Coordinator (Telecom)
– Software Developer (IT)
– Business Analyst (IT)
– Data Analyst (IT, Startup)
And on the side:
– Taekwondo Athlete and Part-time Coach
– Photographer (sometimes Lecturer)
– Social Media Specialist
So yeah, I’m pretty much “doing it” but I get frustrated a lot :).
What gets you frustrated?
Oddly enough, I had my dream job for several years at a large software company. The team was doing amazing things improving products and the customer experience from a tech support perspective. The company was in constant leadership turmoil for many years with multiple CEOs constantly changing direction. My team had been stable until one day the group president looked around and thought the bigger team we were a part of was bloated and ordered half the team to be laid off. He didn’t say which half and ultimately left my boss with 24 hours to pick which 20 of his 40 people were to go. There was no guidance on cost, roles, or anything, just cut half. My boss chose to cut a particular role which meant 5 of my 7 people had to go. I was devastated! This was 5 years ago and I still struggle with it. Ever since, I have desperately tried to figure out my passion and what I should do. I spent 15 years trying to be the BEST at the specific thing I did and didn’t realize everything else in my industry was changing and I was getting left behind. After I laid off my team, they laid off my boss, and many reorgs later, they got rid of me too. Another former boss hired me immediately and then the same scenario happened there-new CEO, reorg, I’m out. Throughout all these struggles, I have desperately tried to figure out what I want to do, that I’m good at/qualified for, which will provide a reasonable income for me family. I keep finding things that meet 2 of the three, but never all three. 40 years old, back in school to finally finish my BS and freaking out over where life has gone! Thank you for your blog, it has helped reign my emotions in a bit today!
Something that has helped me is to accept that no one job will satisfy all my passions (those things that matter the most to me at this season of life). I chose to be satisfied enough with using my giftedness/skills/experience to do the work/job so it could also fund and allow enough time/energy to pursue other passions (travel, art, family…etc…). Often, it takes a mix of work for fee (salary) and work for free (other stuff I enjoy) to experience fulfillment. Hope this helps.
This really speaks to me. I wrote a couple of blog posts about my directionless feeling and – like many of us here – I am a multipotentialite who is feeling lost and like time is slipping away. I definitely hear you on the “just do something”, but I’m finding myself with severe analysis paralysis and unable to even take a next step forward.
You will figure it out. Give it time!
I’ve been directionless for over 20 years. I’m not brilliant or competent at anything My job pays the bills, and I have the basics of living. No meaning, no direction, no purpose I offer to volunteer, and am rejected. I am mediocre at best in my job, if I quit I’m working retail. I’m as far in in my organization as I’ll go.
I wish I was dead.
Richard S. says
Do not give up hope. As long as you are breathing you still have hope. I have been there. I am at a challenging point in my life, where I am trying to figure it all out. If I can do it at over 50 years of age, you can, too!
48Days to the Work You Love, Dan Miller…….At least read the first half and think about it….
Helping make life better for others is very purposeful. The guy who came to my house, climbed up in the attick and repaired my heater on an incredibly cold day for our family…….was our hero….I don’t know what he felt about his purpose in life/work. I don’t know if he felt like his work was mediocre. I don’t know if that was as far in his company as he would ever go……. but he showed up, he smiled, he dis his job and it was Super Purposeful to me.
Keep showing up……
Matt Lovelace says
Great post about the directionless problem. I am working through it.
I also understand about teaching. My Mom taught for 40+ years, my wife 30+, my brother was a teacher and principal and my new daughter-in-law is a teacher. It is an important and thankless job most of the time and typically without proper pay in proportion to what is taught to the students.
After undergoing several bouts of recent unemployment I believe I have discovered a new path that will take me out of the USA. Instead of learning a new career I will try something completely new I have never taught this content but I feel it is a natural fit for my personality.
I have a feeling you are on the right path!
I have been in medical sales for 20 years and have not that well, the stress of sales has thrown me into depression several times. When in depression it is nearly impossible to make a decision. I am 58 and about to lose my job again. I know I need job training but I dont know what to chose…….any tips
I stumbled upon this great career advice blog right after I finished my phone interview an hour ago, and I think I didn’t make it to the next round.
I have been directionless recently. Having been my career for 11 years, yes, I am in my mid-30s, I feel lost and stuck in my career path. I have tried hard to move my career to the next level, and failed for reasons out of my control, company downsize, etc. Having changing jobs almost every year, I feel tired of the cycle, again and again. It’s not my choice to quit most of the time. There were re-org, team change, product was killed and so on.
Should I switch career, given my preferred job will not give me the comfortable life as I have now? Working as a software developer does give me a solid financial resource for the last decade. I have to admit that I went into this field mostly for the money, not 100% of my passion.
I ‘d love to hear your advice/insight/recommendation.
You do not say what is your preferred career.
So what is that and maybe I can get some insight.
My preferred career is horticulturist, hopefully owning a farming business. Due to the location where I live in the NE area, I need to relocate south. This is going to be a big change if I take this path and with all my savings for the investment.
For me to get there, I need to accelerate my incomes somehow. Owing a rental property has been in my head for a while, for the possibility to get some home equity. I plan to pay off my primary mortgage in a few years.
Too many options and planing required for every single thing to happen.
I appreciate your advice, Marc.
In exchange, if you need to rebrand this website someday, I can help you with that as I work with web pages design and coding.
The first thing to do is to do some first hand research on what it is like to own a family farm. I have had a client or two, who thought this was their dream only to discover it is physically draining to do the work, which they had to do before they could hire any help.
First locate where you would want to live south and then what are the options. I know from my experience in Austin that micro farms are now viable because of the organic farming trend and the farm to table initiatives. This did not exist even 10 years ago.
Thank you so much for all the posts! I just got done with an interview and don’t feel I did well at all. They hire specialists and guy wants to know my specialty. … well I’ve been working in high tech for over 20 years. My technical skills are not what I’ve focused on. I’ve spent more time managing projects and people. I feel I’m good at that but I too am a generalist. I get bored in 3 years and high tech is totally stressful. Anxiety and depression are inevitable intermittently and I’m just needing a change @ 43. I think my ideal career would be working in nature. I’m driven and smart but don’t want to be a specialist and enjoy people.
It was helpful to hear I’m not alone, just show up, and do something!
Now what is that?!
I feel your pain. I have left high tech twice and I do not have to go back.