Know who you are before doing what you love

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Generation Y (born roughly between 1980 and 2000) is the most educated and innovative generation in United States history; it is also the most unemployed, depressed and in debt. The media refers to Gen Y as narcissistic, lazy and entitled, but the reality is we have been sorely misled. This generation was raised with the belief that “finding your passion” is necessary to a happy career. Unfortunately, this mission distracts millennials from a more significant journey: finding who you are. At TEDxBerkeley on Feb. 8, I shared three key questions that empower millennials to unlock their authentic career: What am I good at? What do people tell me I’m good at? What’s holding me back? These three questions guide my practice as a career coach to Generation Y.

Number one: What am I good at? At age 22, I completed my master’s degree in international relations, and much like many other millennials, I was eager to use my education. I networked my way into the Pentagon and was soon en route to becoming Maya from the movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”  My job required me to spend some time on military bases, where I was immediately mocked for my positive attitude and femininity. That was when the truth hit me like a ton of bricks: My passion for this niche did not guarantee my success (or happiness) in a career with it. Hello, quarter-life crisis.

Statistics indicate that I was not alone. A new Gallup poll found that 70 percent  of Americans are unhappy at work. I argue that this number is largely a result of too many millennials trying to do work that aligns with what they love rather than who they are. So here’s my advice to you: Instead of minimizing your passion into a nine-to-five job, preserve it as a prized hobby. Submitting yourself to the pressure to turn your passion into income is the fastest way to turn your passion into your enemy. If your passion and identity align, that’s great, but your intrinsic gifts should be the primary guide for your career. For me, this meant embracing my femininity, sensitivity and positivity.

Get clear on who you are. I don’t think I ever asked myself, “Am I going to be a great spy? Is it aligned with my strengths and who I am?” I was way too blinded by passion. If you’re not clear on what you’re good at, ask those around you. This brings me to my second question.

Number two: What do people tell me I’m good at? Many Gen Y’ers are still learning what their natural talents are, and that’s why you should take an inventory of what people tell you you’re good at. Do friends often ask you for particular advice? Do professors praise something special about your work? Are you often asked to teach people something? These moments shed light on your natural talents.

Countless millennials come into my office in distress over the fact that they cannot “find” their passion, and they cringe when I tell them the only way out of this dilemma is into their heart. Everyone has something unique and special that he or she offers to the world. Think about what people notice about you.

Looking back on my job-hunting days in Washington, DC, I see now that I was the career coach of networking events. And everyone noticed it except me. It seemed as though people were drawn to me, and when they found me, they’d immediately share intimate details about their lives and careers. I would light up when I got emails from these people, who told me that our brief exchange completely shifted their careers. Some quit their jobs, some asked for raises and others made the major life change they were afraid of. People embraced the exact innate strengths and traits — femininity, positivity, emotion — that didn’t serve me so well in the national security world.

Number three: What’s holding me back? According to research by UCLA, we have roughly 70,000 thoughts each day. What’s even more striking is that up to 98 percent of these thoughts are repeat offenders. We live on autopilot, giving insufficient attention to our entrenched thoughts or beliefs, some of which hold us back in our careers. In my line of work, I find many people’s thoughts are initially guided by fear: fear of financial struggle, fear of being seen as an imposter and fear of failure. Again, the only way out of this is in. Get curious about your fear-based thoughts, and record them in a journal for a couple of weeks. I read these journals and ask people, “What would you do without these thoughts?” And that’s what I empower them to do. The results have been fantastic. Pay attention to your thoughts; you are so much more than them.

When you’re feeling lost, ask yourself, “What am I good at? What do people tell me I’m good at? What’s holding me back?”

The shoppers don’t need to become fashion designers, the movie-lovers don’t need to become film directors and the bookworms don’t need to work in publishing. There’s more to your career, and there’s more to you. Don’t be so blinded by passion that you overlook who you are.

Ashley Stahl is a motivational speaker and career coach for millennials, or Generation Y.

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  • George Holmes

    Does it ever occur to anyone to ask What is it they want me to do?