When I was little, my grandmother gave me a beautiful, ornately made key. The craftsmanship was amazing. I loved turning it over in my fingers, hefting it from one hand to the other marveling at its weight. When I asked her what it unlocked, she didn't recall. It remained a mystery, long after I grew up and moved out. I lost track of the key, as often happens with childhood treasures, but I can still remember how it felt in my hand.
Some start career advice with "What makes you happy?"
I'm currently reading a career advice book (a favorite pastime of mine). It discusses the importance of knowing yourself and includes some helpful exercises in which you reflect on what gets you out of bed in the morning, what excites you, and what you actually want to get out of your professional life. This section of the book basically asks, "What makes you happy?"
In my career coaching sessions, self-reflection is an important part of the process I guide my clients through. It's critical to spend a bit of time examining what nourishes you. However, learning what makes you happy is only half the equation. Each of us is like a key, shaped in a unique way. We have a unique combination of skills, knowledge and abilities but we also have our own mix of history, passion, and conviction. The key fits into an equally unique lock. This lock is like the second half of the "know yourself" equation:
Know how you can be of service.
The distinction I'm making is subtle but important, as it can be the key to feeling fulfilled in your work. For example, suppose you enjoy research, exploring answers to scientific questions. You know yourself well enough to describe yourself as conscientious and detail-oriented, but positive and flexible when faced with unexpected obstacles. You believe that nothing is impossible.
You are at a crossroads in your educational and professional journey and you face a choice. Would you be more fulfilled working in a laboratory, or would field research be a better environment? Your interests and passion would apply to either area, but you're not sure which path to choose.
To help you decide, ask this question: How can I best be of service? In this example, perhaps your ability to adapt to the unexpected would be a key asset in field research, where variables in the environment can't easily be controlled. You might consider whether the field researchers you've observed could benefit from your positive attitude and work ethic. With your conviction that nothing is impossible, field research might be where you can be of service.
You are needed somewhere.
Your skills and talents are the exact combination necessary to serve a community, industry, or institution. Knowing what makes you happy is important in career development, but knowing where you can be of service is like the lock that fits your particular key. You are needed somewhere. Consider where you are most needed as you chart your career path.
I still wonder what that key my grandmother gave me was meant to unlock. Maybe it wasn't meant to open anything at all, but was simply intended to become a treasured gift that brought beauty, wonder and love to the child who received it.
In that case, it was a perfect fit.