THE BLOG
12/02/2014 05:55 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2015

The One Question to Ask When Starting or Changing Careers

I studied Art History in college. It was January of my sophomore year and I had to choose a major. Up to that point, I hadn't really liked or more accurately, felt genuinely interested in anything. There'd been the sociology and psychology lectures, the African history symposium, French, classic literature and a number of political science classes.

Nothing had really sparked my curiosity until I'd signed up for a class on Cubism the previous semester. It was a small group, maybe ten or twelve students sitting around a large table. We delved into the roots of Cubism, the birth of modern art, looking through a historical lens, a painting lens and discovering how the writers, thinkers and visual artists all influenced one another. I was rapt. I felt alive. This was fascinating.

But soon a new anxiety arose, what was I going to do with an Art History major?

Over the next two years, I threw myself into art and even lived in Florence, Italy for six months, visiting many of the buildings, paintings and sculptures I'd only viewed as slides. But in the back of my head was this nagging feeling. Something was amiss.

As I paid more attention to that voice, I realized that I felt distinctly torn. On the one hand, I loved art. I loved how it represented humanity, our struggles and our history. I loved how it reflected society or asked us to think more deeply about our beliefs and assumptions.

On the other hand, I felt compelled to be useful, to do something "needed." Art is needed but in my 20-year-old mind, it felt like a secondary need and I was being drawn to fill a primary one, like protecting the environment, working for Oxfam or at a homeless shelter.

Even after all that internal strife, I was nowhere near choosing a career when I was about to graduate from college. I dreaded the "What are your career plans? What do you want to do (for the rest of your life)?" questions and purposefully avoided my parents' friends and anyone I thought might ask me those.

Just thinking about graduating and having to answer them stressed me out. I honestly had no idea. I didn't really know what I loved, was passionate about or even liked. I did like art but my interest in it had begun to wane. All I knew was that I felt the need to be helpful. I'd read that quotation about being part of the solution and I wanted to be that but didn't know what form it would take.

Life kept moving and I stumbled along, eventually finding my way. It took about two years of trying different jobs but I did end up being useful -- I became a teacher. Turned out, I really liked it.

When people asked me how that happened, how I chose teaching, I'd often say that I fell into it. Back in college if you'd predicted my future and told me I was going to be a teacher, I would have laughed in your face and adamantly denied it. I hated public speaking and teaching definitely wasn't cool.

Since beginning teaching over two decades ago, I've also worked as an educational consultant, a public relations writer, founded a school (and done the thousands of jobs associated with that) and more recently, become a writer, life coach and psychotherapist.

I wish that, back when I was 20, I'd known to reframe the career question, the one that stressed me out. The daunting, overwhelming question, "What do you want to do (for the rest of your life)?"

The reframe not only makes it doable to answer, it's also a lot more accurate especially in today's world.

Because here's the truth: That question, "What do you want to do (for the rest of your life)?" is no longer applicable. Just as college students overwhelmingly change majors, most of us will have multiple jobs too. I certainly have.

So, the revised question to ask is this: "What do you want to do for the next THREE years?" Doesn't that feel so much better? Isn't it more manageable and actually kind of exhilarating?

If you find yourself in this predicament because your impending graduation is hanging like a black cloud over you or you're simply ready for a new opportunity, a change from your existing job, ask yourself this question. Allow yourself to really delve into it.

What would be exciting to do for the next three years?

What is your heart yearning for?

What skills would be thrilling to acquire?

Where do you feel life is leading you?

Tap into that internal knowing and unlock the answer. Then, let me know what is says!

Shakti Sutriasa is the Founder of DecideDifferently.com, a personal development company committed to empowering people to live more connected and fulfilled lives through coaching, counseling and workshops. Her unique approach combines modern psychology and spirituality to support people who are seeking positive change and self-transformation. Shakti is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and has an MA in Education. Learn more at DecideDifferently.com.