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Spring Cleaning of the Soul: A Strategic Process for Planning Your Career

04/14/2015 05:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

If you're like most Americans, you're likely to spend more time planning your next vacation or upcoming party than you are plotting out your life.

While it may sound crazy, it's true. People will spend months -- sometimes longer -- immersing themselves in their wedding plans, perusing bridal magazines, following wedding-related sites on social media, attending tastings, doing whatever in their power to plan the "perfect event."

If only people put that much energy into strategically planning their career.

Sure, some people who work in corporate America set their sights on climbing the executive ladder, rung by rung, systematically chasing one carrot after the next, but the majority of us leave our careers mostly up to chance.

In the midst of what appeared to be an incredibly successful career spanning 25 years in the business world, a new client (we'll call her "Carol") came to see me. She couldn't understand why she felt constantly stressed -- and that something was missing, despite her tangible achievements. A nagging internal voice prompted Carol to question why she chose this career path over others. And, more importantly, was it the right path? If not, could she find the strength to veer from it?

Carol's predicament is not unique. Stress and inertia often go hand in hand, particularly in today's corporate environment. Most people become comfortable in their lives and their jobs.

Change is hard., but worth it. I know, because I've been there.

My Story: The Birth of Jody Michael Associates

One Friday afternoon in early June, I was riding the train home from my job as a trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. It was one of the first glorious days of summer; the sun was shining and the weekend had officially begun.

By all accounts, it was a "feel-good" day. Except I didn't feel good.

To the outside observer, I had no reason not to feel good. My career was on target; I had achieved a high level of success in an exciting, competitive industry. My personal life was where I wanted it to be; I owned my own home, and was involved in a satisfying, loving relationship. Nothing was lacking! And yet, I still felt an underlying, deep discontent.

I decided to tackle this conundrum head on. I knew it was more than a mood or a phase, and wanted to get to the bottom of what was causing my despair.

The next morning, I arrived at Starbucks, pad of paper in hand, ready to get to work as soon as the doors opened and the barista served me my first cup of coffee. Okay, I asked myself, so what's not working? I began making a list of the things I didn't like about my life. What was I tolerating that I considered "not ideal"?

1. Waking up to an alarm.

2. Working five days a week.

I quickly realized how silly my list was sounding right off the bat. Retirement -- and moving to Fiji to play beach volleyball all day -- was not an option. I'd have to come up with a more realistic list.

I tore off the sheet of paper and started a new list. This time, I tried to think of all the things -- big and small -- that I had started (or meant to start) but hadn't completed, as well as things that really bothered me. I called them "tolerations," things I was tolerating in my life, but only barely so. The list flowed like a waterfall. It was an eclectic list that included minutiae like "resole black loafers" to weightier exasperations, such as "can't stand office politics."

Needless to say, I left Starbucks more depressed than when I arrived. I was overwhelmed. My list included 232 tolerations.

On Monday morning, I called in sick. It wasn't much of a stretch.

I spent the week knocking out over 100 tolerations -- taking care of as many things on the list as I could. Shoes resoled, thank you note to Aunt Mary in the mail, bookshelf cleaned. At the end of the week, I felt lighter, as if I had done a "spring cleaning of the soul." At the same time, I knew I had taken care of the easy stuff, leaving the heavier lifting still in need of attention. After continuing to sift through the list in the weeks to follow, it became clear that the list included over 20 items specifically targeted at my career.

That was the lightbulb moment: I knew then that I was not in the right career.

When I gave serious thought to what was the right career, I knew -- right then and there -- that I would need to create my own company in order to work the hours of my choosing, surrounded by people I wanted to be around; avoid the type of office politics that drove me crazy; and, most importantly, engage in the work I knew I would find most meaningful.

I took an introspective, proactive, committed approach to figuring out what I wanted to be "when I grew up" -- and to making that want a reality.

Jody Michael Associates was born three years later.

Peeling the Onion

Living in a state of quiet discontent or despair has a way of catching up with you sooner or later. Life is too short to be unhappy.

Water turns to steam at 212 degrees, often called the transformative moment. It's when the magic happens. Unfortunately, many people wait for external factors to drive them to change. Whether they lose their job or are otherwise forced to make a move, many people reach a point of transformation out of need.

When you feel a strong internal nudge, follow it. And dig deeper. Get to the core. By peeling the onion, removing the top, superficial layers, you'll get a much clearer vision of what's really driving the emptiness or despair that may be manifesting itself as stress.

Ask anyone who has spent the time, the money and the resources to discover the right career and they will tell you: It's worth it. Living an authentic life where your career aligns with your best self brings a sense of meaning and joy that is beyond measure.

Jody Michael is CEO and founder of Jody Michael Associates, a Chicago-based company that specializes in executive coaching, career coaching and organizational consulting. She is a Master Certified Coach, Board Certified Coach, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and University of Chicago-trained psychotherapist with over 15 years of corporate experience in the finance industry and more than 20 years of experience coaching individuals, teams and organizations.