This post is excerpted from Liz Ryan, a LinkedIn influencer and founder of Human Workplace. She writes and illustrates her thoughts (how cool is that?). [Bold emphasis is our own]

We have to drive our own careers today – but how do we decide which course to follow? How do you begin to find your path?

The first question is “Am I doing what I’m meant to be doing professionally, right now?” If you love your work and are thrilled to be able to bring your creativity and intelligence to the job, you’re in a terrific position. If you’re learning something new and every day and working among switched-on people who value your contribution and tell you so, rejoice!

Lots of working people aren’t sure they have a path, much less confident that they’re on it. We haven’t been taught that it’s our decision where to work and what to do for a living. We’ve been taught just the opposite – that Degree X leads to Career Path Y where you’ll spend forty-five years and get a fat pension when you retire and that’ll be the end of the questions, thank you! We teach college students to get a job ‘in their major,’ as though jobs and majors were inextricably joined, as though it were 1950 all over again.

After a young person leaves school and begins working, the conversation “What should I be doing professionally?” stops cold. We never bring up the topic again.

The way we teach people to manage their careers is an embarrassment and a disservice to both job-seekers and employers. We don’t tell people receiving unemployment compensation “Hey, instead of pitching five more resumes into the abyss this week, why not stop, get some altitude and decide what you really want to do?”

We tell them “Take any job you can get, and be glad to have it.” We disempower people just when we should be building their muscles and mojo to fend in the brutal new-millennium talent market.

As a result, most working people find themselves mid-career on a path someone else set for them. They don’t realize that they can change course any time, and that the opportunities open to them will only get greater when they seize the reins and run their career like a business.

Your path is tied less to your college major and your traditional functional arena than it is to your passion, but passion isn’t something that gets a lot of airtime at the typical job-search prep workshop. My recommendation for every job-seeker and anyone in reinvention is to begin to find your path not by taking an aptitude test or trolling the job ads — those fanciful-bordering-on-delusional wish lists – but by reclaiming your own powerful story.

When you tell your story to yourself or another person, you learn from it. When’s the last time you walked through your life story with anyone, or reflected on it yourself? Most of us don’t dwell on the past, but your life and career story hold incredible value in the path-finding arena.

Here’s how to start reclaiming your path. Starting with your childhood, write about your life or tell your story to a friend. What did you love to do when you were little? What did you plan to do as a career, back then? What influences shaped your life and career so far, and what learning have you accumulated along the way?

When you write or speak your story, pay attention to the nudges the universe sent you — an unexpected shift in the wind, like a company going bust or a hoped-for job offer evaporating at the last minute.

Those bumps in the road are painful when we run into them, but years down the road – right now, for instance – you may think “Man, it’s a good thing that job offer didn’t come through. That would have been a horrible job for me, knowing what I know now. I sure didn’t feel that way at the time!”

As you recall and reclaim your life story, you’ll see patterns emerge. You’ll spot themes that play through your movie, from the people who inspire you to the projects that keep you plugged into your power source. Notice those trends. They will help you see what’s next in your career.

You can draw your path on a blank sheet of paper — like the curving path in the kids’ game Candyland – and use it to jog your memory about the events, people and situations that made you the person you are now.

You can draw pictures on the path or makes notes on it about the big events in your life. Reclaiming your path is a great exercise when you’re thinking about career change or updating your resume. It’s amazing how much of our past we forget when we’re busy with day-to-day concerns. There is tremendous power locked up in your path, and our goal is to let that power out!

You can tell your story in words. You can use story prompts to help you get your life story on paper and get “Aha!s” from telling it. You can work on your Path alone or with friends. Reflecting on your life and career is a wonderful group activity, if you’ve got a friend or two with a few hours to invest in gaining Career Altitude. Here’s a bonus: working on your Path is a mojo-builder for most people.

By far the most common reaction we hear from people telling their stories for the first time is “I really hadn’t thought before about how much I’ve accomplished in my life, and how many cool things I’ve done at work. I’m always so busy and stressed that I’ve never stopped to appreciate how far I’ve come!”

You have a path. Your confidence, your professional credibility and your earning power will all improve when you figure out what that path is and get on it. Telling your story to yourself or someone else is the first step. You are more than a bundle of Skills and Competencies – you have an incredible story that no one else will ever have to tell.

You’ll get that message loud and clear when you get the story of your life and career out of your long-term memory and onto the page. Here are some of the first benefits you’re likely to get as you take a personal trip down memory lane and reclaim your Path:

  • You’ll remember professional triumphs (we call them Dragon-Slaying Stories) that you’d forgotten about and that illustrate how you make a difference at work;
  • You’ll see old events in a new light – noticing things like the early leadership training you got from your first boss (either what-to-do or what-NOT-to-do leadership training – it’s all useful!);
  • You’ll recall projects and activities that you loved and would be happy to dive into again — these are huge signals about the next step on your Path; and
  • You’ll see how your calculated left-brain decisions and intuitive right-brain decisions got you where you are today. Where are your head and your heart nudging you to go next?

We are all entrepreneurs in the new-millennium workplace. A characteristic of entrepreneurs is that they make their own decisions. They’re guided by forces ranging from data to instinct and many points between, but they know that the buck stops with them. Your career buck stops with you, too, not your employer or the union you belong to or any other person, place or thing. It’s a new work world. You’re in charge, and you’re driving the bus. Where would you like to go?

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