Use these exercises to help you discover your dream job.

Some people are fortunate enough to know exactly what they want to do with their lives from the time they are young. However, not everyone has such a clear set of career objectives.

According to a recent Gallup report, over 67 percent of the American workforce is either not engaged or actively disengaged at work. If you fall into this category, this article is for you. Whether you're 25 or 55 years of age, there's still an opportunity to pursue a career that you will find meaningful. Below are some of my favorite job-goal exercises to help you narrow down your search for a rewarding career.

1. Inventory your work history

Take a piece of paper, Word document, or Google document and make three columns. In the first column, make a list of every position you've held over the course of your career. This includes paid and unpaid experience, full-time, part-time, and temporary positions, internships, and volunteer experience.

In the second column, write out what you liked about each position you've held. Be as specific and detailed as possible. What about the work environment, nature of the work, company culture, industry, pay, your boss, your colleagues, etc. did you like?

In the third column, list what you disliked about each position you've held. What was frustrating, upsetting, or limiting? Again, be as specific as possible.

Once you've filled out all three columns, take a step back and review your findings. Look for themes or clues that will help you understand the types of work and work environment you enjoy most.

2. Pretend you have 9 lives

I originally adapted this exercise from Karen James Chopra, a career counselor and owner of Chopra Careers. The rules of this exercise are simple:

  • Assume you have nine lives, and in each of those lives, you must work.

  • You will not win the lottery, marry rich, or receive a huge inheritance.

  • Whatever skills and education are required to perform each job, you possess them.

  • However much money you need to make to be happy, you make it.

  • Every job has equal prestige.

What nine jobs would you hold? The idea behind this exercise is to remove all the barriers the “But…” statements create so you're free to choose professions that truly interest you: 

  • “I'd love to be a doctor, but I can't afford to go to medical school at this point in my life.”
  • “I want to be a ski patroller, but the pay isn't enough to support my family's lifestyle.”
  • “I've always dreamed of becoming a country singer, but I don't have raw talent required to be successful.”

Ignore the “but” that immediately pops into your mind and write down the nine jobs that you're attracted to, no matter how unrealistic you believe they are.

Once you have your list, take a step back and give it a good look. While many of these careers may not be realistic options today, they can help you identify important themes, such as a love of art, the need for autonomy, or an altruistic spirit, that will guide you towards your new career path. Remember, the types of jobs that didn't make the list can be just as telling as the ones that did.

3. Build your own job post

If you could create your own position, what would it look like? Write out what you're hoping to find in the perfect job ad. Brainstorm a list of responsibilities you'd hold in this role and which of your skills you'd utilize in order to be successful. For some people, this may be a blend of the jobs they've held in the past or a combination of their recent position and a hobby they're passionate about. Don't forget to describe the company where this job would be held. Think about the corporate culture, the industry, the size of the organization, and where it may be located. Write these details down as well. The more specific you can get, the better.

You can also run searches on job boards to find opportunities that interest you. As you browse the listings, copy the portions of the job descriptions that appeal to you and paste them into a Word document. Use all these different pieces to construct the ideal job description.

4. Create your billboard top hits

Consider your proudest moments over the course of your lifetime. Think about your college career, your professional work history, your volunteer experience, and other extracurricular activities you've been involved in, and brainstorm the top five accomplishments that you found to be rewarding and satisfying.

Once you have that list, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why were these achievements so important to me? What about them did I enjoy most?

  • What was my involvement? Was I tasked with the project, or did I initiate it on my own?

  • What was my key motivation? (e.g., recognition, pay, a promotion, contributing to the greater good)

  • What was the environment like? Was it entrepreneurial and fast-paced? Slower but controlled?

  • What was the focus of the project? (e.g., the arts, new program development, social consciousness)

  • What core values drove my work during this project? (e.g., collaboration, empowerment, accountability, innovation, efficiency, diversity, service excellence)

This exercise will help you identify the key skills, core values, and ideal work environment in which you thrive. Use this information to brainstorm possible career paths and associated job goals.

5. Pinpoint your core skills and talents

When considering skills and talents, it is critical to think outside your job description and industry. Go beyond what you can do (e.g., reconcile cash accounts, answer the phone) and identify your underlying abilities.

Are you amazing at diffusing tense situations with irate customers by actively looking for a win-win solution? Can you put small details together into a big picture that tells a story and highlights patterns? Do you naturally and easily inspire the team to make that last bit of effort when everyone is discouraged and tired?

Some of us have a difficult time seeing talents and superpowers inside ourselves. If that is the case for you, ask people you trust what they think you are great at.

6. Recall your childhood passions and dreams

Think back to when you were young. Before you were limited by what was rational and practical, you had a dream. What was it?

Now, you may come back with a dream of “wearing dinosaur costumes in Japanese monster movies” or “an administrative assistant.” Reflect on what those meant to you as a child. Did you connect to the fun of creating make-believe worlds? Your desire to help others? A flair for showmanship and drama? What is inside this package of a childhood dream that reflects who you are?

A way to clarify your thinking is by completing this sentence: “As a child, I wanted to be someone who…” Perhaps you wanted to be someone who puts a smile on other people's faces. Think about the impact you want to make — whether in a technical field or in the lives of others.

7. Research the professionals who inspire you

If after, all this work, you have identified some potential career paths, look for professionals who are involved in your areas of interest. Start by digging through your personal network.

Your goal should be to connect with at least five people who work in that field. Set up phone calls or face-to-face meetings, and get their thoughts on what their professional lives are like.

How did they get to their current position? What advice do they have for the younger version of themselves? What do they love about their jobs, and what is their least favorite thing? What challenges should someone like you expect on the path, and what is the best way to deal with those challenges? What pay can you count on in the beginning?

Play detective and pick up on the small details that Google won't mention to you.

For this step, don't limit yourself to just one or two conversations — with your future on the line, you want to gather as many perspectives as possible. If what you learn is exciting and a little terrifying, you have some good early signs to keep investigating that direction. If you discover that the real-life version of the intriguing career path is nothing like the brochure and you have a difficult time getting excited about it, switch your focus.

Map out 5 ways to get there

In the early stages of the dream job-discovery process, it is best to keep judgments out of your thinking. Sure, your logical mind might pipe in with all sorts of helpful tips, such as “But you don't have the degree for this!” or “You could never break into that field!” or “You are too old to start this.” Do your best to ignore it for the time being. There will be a time for the feasibility analysis, but that time is not in the beginning.

Challenge yourself to imagine at least five ways (more is better) of how you could find yourself working in a field of interest. The scenarios could range from totally logical to far-fetched. What you want is many possibilities. They may not play out exactly as you imagine, but see that there are multiple ways to get what you want.

Determine a small next step

With your mind and imagination primed, you are ready for your next step toward a dream job. Start small. Most change happens gradually, so identify the smallest action you could take today to get closer to what you want.

It does not have to be involved, expensive, or dramatic. Perhaps you love flowers and want to be someone who puts a smile on other people's faces. How about picking up a weekend shift at a local florist's shop or volunteering to do flower arrangements for a friend's baby shower? Or maybe you are pulled toward writing, and your next step is to launch a blog. Do you think that being a yoga teacher is your calling? Make a commitment to go to at least four yoga classes next week.

Final thoughts

Discovering your true career goals is not easy. As you go on this journey, try to keep your focus on what you really want — what is fulfilling and makes you happy. It is OK to not know where this road will take you right away — the commitment of walking a few steps every day is enough.

If you want more resources to help you on your way, try these:

Once you identify your dream job, you'll have to land it. Get a free resume review to find out how your resume stacks up.

This article was updated in February 2021. It contains work written by Natalia Autenrieth.

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