how to plan your career in alignment with your values

Picture walking into the office some bright, sunny, unspecified day in the future and suddenly realizing you don’t really know how you got there. And, more importantly, why you’re there. Not in the “OMG, am I losing my memory?” sense, but in the “what am I doing with my life?” sense. Seems like a scenario worth avoiding – and you can, by building out a career development plan.

While the “how” of your career plan is relatively easy to solve for, the “why” is less straightforward. Perhaps that partially explains the disengagement many of us feel at work and the burnout that is becoming more common – or at least more commonly acknowledged. It’s hard to throw yourself into your work when you don’t see why your work matters. Even a fat salary eventually loses its luster if you’re only in it for the paycheck.

Now, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to stumble into a role that fills you with a sense of purpose. More likely, you’ll need to be intentional about it. That’s where your personal values come in. Thinking about yourself holistically provides a solid foundation for thinking about your career specifically.

By understanding your own core values and using them to guide your career progression, you can create a plan that is both fulfilling and future-proof. Job roles – even entire industries – come and go, but your values don’t. Looking at your career path through the lens of your values makes it easy to course-correct if a role in your sights goes extinct, or a new role you never imagined shows up on the horizon. They provide the ballast you need to avoid capsizing as you navigate the waves.

Do you know what your core values are?

We assume we do. But when was the last time you listed them out on paper? Probably the day before never ago. A structured thought exercise can help – like this one, shared by Caroline Bartle, a Sr. Product Manager here at Atlassian. Think of it as a chance to gut-check whether the ideals you think you aspire to are indeed the ones you hold closest to your heart.

  1. Sort the cards into three piles: “Not important”, “Important”, and “Hell yeah”.
  2. Tweak your piles until only 10 cards are left in the “Hell yeah” pile.
  3. Boom. You’re done.

Start with a stack of cards representing common core values. (These are easy to find online. Or, you can download our version right here. Just print and cut out.) Your goal is to narrow it down to just 10 values that describe the essence of who you are.

Don’t let the simplicity fool you. The results can be surprising! For example, I like to think of myself as a person who values flexibility and spontaneity. But when I went through the exercise, it was the card about having a life that is well-ordered and organized that I couldn’t bring myself to remove from my “Hell yeah” pile.

Ok, I’ve identified my values – now what about my career plan?

Before doing anything else, snap a picture of those 10 cards or write them down in case you want to reference them later. Then choose the two or three values that you most want to focus on right now, and brainstorm behaviors that will bring your life more in line with them. “One of my top values was self-awareness,” Caroline recalls, “so one of the things I noted was to question my negative thoughts instead of letting them run around my head on auto-pilot.”

Next, still focusing on those top two or three values, consider whether your current industry, company, and role align with them. If they don’t, your immediate task is to figure out how to shift your career into alignment within a fairly short timeframe – say, a year or so. Having to betray your core values for the sake of your job is a daily paper cut to your soul, which bleeds you dry over time. Taking corrective action quickly helps ensure you stay energized for the road ahead.

Your career is your livelihood, not a blood oath. And your values should be the source of your identity, not your job.

Regardless of where you are now, use your top values to identify industries or roles that would foster that all-important sense of purpose. You can also compare your existing career plans against those values as a gut-check. If, for example, “strong family relationships” and “justice” both rank highly for you, a career in the legal field might suit. (May I suggest family law?) However, you may want to avoid the type of high-powered jobs that require sacrificing quality time at home in favor of 70-hour workweeks.

Because mapping values to jobs is such an open-ended exercise, you may want to step through it a few times, using different values from your top 10 list. Pay attention to any themes that emerge. And definitely come back to it any time you’re feeling adrift at work or struggling to cope with its challenges.

Astute readers will notice that I’ve said nothing about the specifics of getting from where you are today to where you want to be 10, 15, 25 years from now. That’s on purpose. The distance between here and there might be a single job change or eight stepping-stone gigs. You might need further education, you might not. Mapping out the milestones and timeline is an important step, but so individualized that I can’t do it justice here. Just know that that’s your next step.

A word of caution

Although we all want to find work we care deeply about, there is such a thing as caring too much. People who are engaged in their work to the point of obsession are more likely to develop problems in their personal lives. What’s more, those problems follow them back into the office. They show up at work fatigued, stressed out, and generally difficult to work with.

So the next time you hear the phrase “passion project” or are advised to “find your passion and make it your life’s work”, take it with a grain of salt. Remember: your career is your livelihood, not a blood oath. And your values should be the primary source of your identity, not your job.

Aligning your career with your values isn’t just about you

Make no mistake, you owe it to your future self to take the insights you uncover through these exercises and develop them into a full career plan. Older generations viewed a sense of purpose as a luxury that most workers couldn’t afford and passed that idea down to their children, who make up most of the workforce today.

We were raised on messages of pragmatism, industriousness, and a consumerist definition of success. (Malibu Barbie Dream House, anyone?) We’ve been taught that optimizing for fulfillment is frivolous. But it’s not.

Research we conducted this year showed that belief in the company or team’s mission is strongly correlated with employees’ well-being, and 66% of high-achieving teams say they understand why their work matters. In other words, planning your career in accordance with your values is about your team’s performance and the version of yourself you bring home to your family and friends. Make sure it’s your best self.

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