Defining my career values

If you’re thinking about changing careers, or want guidance in determining whether your career is right for you, I hope this post can help you! It’s all about how I defined my career values and reframed how I thought about my career and my future.

Why I needed to define my career values

A couple years ago I was comfortable in my position at work. After four years in my career, surrounded by talk of the importance of having a growth mindset, I thought maybe I was too comfortable. As a technical writer, I was contributing to product management conversations, and thinking intensely about customer needs, and realized I wanted to be even more involved in what we were choosing to build. I took a training course, and found a job on the product management team in my company that appealed to my interests. 11 months later, I went back to documentation, after realizing that that pathway better suited my career values. Throughout those 11 months and in the time since, I’ve worked to determine what I really want to get out of my career, and make sure that what I am doing fits those values.

Ask myself some questions

I started by asking myself some questions, common ones that people recommend when you’re thinking about making a job change. I found that I was better able to answer these questions after I’d already made a job change, likely because I didn’t have that much work experience before making the career change. I asked myself the following questions:

  • What makes me excited to go into work?
  • What makes me dread going into work?
  • What helps me feel validated or appreciated at work?
    • Working with others? Contributing in meetings? Reporting project status on a regular basis?
  • What is my working style when working with others?
    • Do I prefer collaborative, consultative, or independent work?
  • What do I like producing when I’m at work?
    • Ideas, or tangible things? Concrete concepts or future-oriented concepts?
  • Do I prefer hands-on management, consultative management, or completely hands-off management?

After changing roles, I realized that many parts of my technical writing position, and the way that my team and my duties were structured, were very well suited to my working styles. However, since I hadn’t had much experience with other types of work, I hadn’t identified them as vital to my work. Switching positions forced me to reexamine what parts of a role were vital to my happiness at work, and in what way.

Find strategies that have worked for others

I found several strategies that worked for others by listening to some You 2.0 episodes from the Hidden Brain podcast.

I realized there were options to transform a job I was already in by finding more enjoyable aspects within it by listening to the You 2.0 Dream Jobs and You 2.0 How to Build a Better Job podcast episodes of Hidden Brain. The dream jobs episode helped me consider whether I was looking for too much meaning and validation within my job, and if I needed to separate those pursuits more. The how to build a better job helped me consider what I could shift within my day-to-day job in terms of focus or duties so that I could enjoy it as well.

I also looked beyond work-specific strategies. The episode You 2.0: How Silicon Valley Can Help You Get Unstuck taught me perhaps my favorite tidbit, which is to apply iterative methodologies to your life. Yes it’s kitschy, but one example he mentioned resonated deeply with me: the notion of creating multiple five year plans. Whenever I’d previously considered how my future might look, it was easy to get stressed about the fact that I have one future available to me and ~ people ~ expect me to have a plan for it. But this philosophy helped me realize that I can have multiple plans for it, and test them out.

I put together several five year plans to speculate about where I spend my time and how my life  might look if I stayed pursuing product management roles, or how it might look if I was doing tech writing for those years, as well as what it might look like if I took a different role entirely, moved cities, or even moved countries. This helped me consider what types of futures excited me, and position my work priorities alongside my overall life priorities. They aren’t separate, and I wanted to be sure that I didn’t consider them separately. I also realized that this exercise wasn’t about making these plans and then choosing one of them, but rather choosing the elements of each of the plans that made sense to me and got me excited about the future. I plan to revisit this exercise and continue to evaluate the spectrum of futures available to me.

The episode You 2.0: Decide Already! interviewed Dan Gilbert, the author of the excellent book Stumbling on Happiness. Both the episode and the book helped me consider the ways that being anxious about the future and planning for it and attempting to reduce uncertainty about it wasn’t necessarily making me feel better about it—and might actually be making me feel worse. So despite creating some five year plans, allowing room and flexibility in those plans, and welcoming uncertainty in my work and life is also crucial.

Take a values-centered approach

In my personal life I was working on developing and defining my personal values, using a card-sorting exercise similar to this one from the Urban Indian Health Institute. Defining my personal values, and understanding them as a way to assess whether or not my goals and day-to-day tasks were fulfilling or not, turned out to be vital. I attempted to apply a similar framework to my work goals and fulfillment as well, and identify one or more overarching themes that I could associate with my career.

Putting all the strategies together to define career values

After assessing the structure of work that I thrive and find validation in, I was better able to understand what I found fulfilling about a career, and what I could look for in future roles to find fulfillment and the right kind of comfort. A work environment with clear expectations and measurable, tangible results, was vital. A team that I could collaborate with and draw support from, while also working semi-independently, was also important to me.

After creating multiple five year plans, I was able to realize that a career path more similar to the one I had as a technical writer was more valuable to me than one that was closer to product management, where I’d be busier and spending more time and stress on work than on my personal life. In addition, by engaging with the technical writer community, I realized that the futures available to me with a technical writing career were more broad, varied, and flexible than I’d previously realized. I didn’t need the power and recognition within a company that a product management position might offer me, because that power and recognition would also come with added responsibilities, time commitments, and stressful challenges.

I attempted to reverse-engineer my career values based on these experiences and my personal values exercise. I ultimately centered on a core career value of “Information Conveyance”. What this means to me is that if I spend my time at work learning and sharing information with others, I will likely feel fulfilled and be excited to go to work. Defining this as a career value allowed me to move past specific roles and titles, because multiple career paths can help me support this value. Right now I love technical writing, but other functions like communication strategy, developer advocacy, community management, instructional designer, and others align with this value and are available to me as other potential career paths.