3 Traps Guaranteed to Make You Stuck in Your Career

07/19/2016 12:16 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2017

As a student, I did everything right to land a job in financial services.

High GPA...check.

Leadership roles on campus...check.

Polished resume...check.

Networking pitch...check.

Mastery of interviewing techniques...check.

Jobs came easily through referrals by professors, peers, and career services.

I was hitting all the markers of success.

Yet, by my mid-twenties I felt unfulfilled in my career and like a stranger to myself.

While I was progressing quickly, speed became irrelevant once it dawned on me that I was going the wrong way.

What made it even more scary was my confusion about what to do next.

The best resume writing tips and interviewing tactics weren't useful because I had overlooked two of the most crucial components of career planning -- self-awareness and self-inquiry.

In all of my years of schooling, these skills were somehow excluded from the curriculum. I had to learn them the painful way a few years into my career in order to create a path that's meaningful to me.

As a coach, I see students and professionals falling into the same traps I did. In this article, I offer questions designed to avoid three common ones by bringing more self-awareness and inquiry to the career planning process.

Trap #1: Getting Caught in Herd Mentality
On the first day at my internship with a big bank in my junior year of university, I threw up. A sense of dread had overcome me once I realized the huge gap between my values and interests and the career I had chosen.

I knew it wasn't where I wanted to be, but I was convinced this was what I was supposed to do because everyone else around me was pursuing corporate internships. It was also what my professors and mentors were advising me to do.

Without a doubt, society and the people you associate with are going to influence your beliefs and actions. Many students in business school, for example, target a career in management consulting or on Wall Street because that's all the rage on campus.

While this might be right for some students, what many fail to realize is that even if their peers are finding jobs in their respective fields and appear to be making progress, it doesn't mean that they know what they're doing.

Over the course of my career, I've learned the hard way that making choices based on what seems to work for others doesn't necessarily result in fulfillment for me.

In fact, the price for blindly following the pack is usually a loss of individualism and lack of meaning -- not to mention the time and effort expended.

Instead of imitating others, find or create your own path by asking these questions:

  1. What do I really want and why is that important to me beyond extrinsic rewards?
  2. What career options would allow me to feel most alive and make the impact I want?
  3. What would I choose if other people's expectations didn't matter?

Trap #2: Not Defining Personal Success
As a student, it never occurred to me that I had the power to choose my definition of success. I defaulted to society's two most celebrated indicators of success as my goalpost -- wealth and status.

Though my career provided opportunities to rapidly progress with raises and bonuses, fulfillment was fleeting.

According to Forbes, this is not uncommon -- the majority of Americans are unhappy at work.

No one actively sets out to be part of that statistic. So, how do you avoid it?

I know firsthand that the most advanced job search strategies will not get you to your dream career if you're approaching the process from a state of fear instead of enthusiasm.

This is why I like to have clients and students vividly paint the picture of a successful career and get in touch with their passion and hunger in that space.

As a result of this exercise, my new measurements of success in my work are fun, creativity, impact, and growth. When these are absent, I know I need to make an adjustment in what I'm doing.

A personal definition of success paves the way for choices which are congruent with a big picture that's compelling and meaningful to you. You become clear about where you're headed and are more likely to say no to opportunities which get in the way of your vision.

Here are some questions to create your own definition that gets you excited:

  1. What does career success look like for me in terms of the experiences and impact I'm having?
  2. What needs to be present for me to know that I'm successful?
  3. If I were on my ideal career path, what would my day-to-day experience be like?

Trap #3: Playing Not to Lose
As an undergrad, I had three offers from big banks and a well-known consulting firm upon graduation.

I accepted one, but it didn't turn out to be the career dream I had hoped for.

I found myself in a job that was a terrible fit and felt completely clueless about my next move because I had opted for convenience over compatibility and long-term fulfillment -- getting hired by a company recruiting on campus, requiring minimal effort and self-reflection.

Too often I see students accepting the first opportunity presented to them to avoid what they believe or have been told is the worst possible outcome -- graduating without a job.

They play not to lose.

As a result, they're likely to choose jobs solely based on what's in demand. They memorize answers to all the possible job interview questions and perform the role they believe is needed to land an offer, sometimes compromising their personality to be the consummate professional.

These tactics might produce results in the short-term and result in a temporary high, but they're not enough to sustain long-term satisfaction.

The alternative?

Play to win: making choices in the pursuit of fulfillment as opposed to the avoidance of pain.

When it comes to their career, people who play to win trust their intuition over the good opinions of others, think creatively, take risks, and find joy in their work because they're intrinsically motivated. They're not afraid to be themselves, even when that means foregoing lucrative opportunities which are not right for them.

This is far more liberating and expansive than leveraging fear to fill a void and force an outcome.

Shift your focus with these questions:

  1. What's the best scenario I could imagine for my career if there was nothing to be afraid of?
  2. What would I choose to pursue if I knew I couldn't lose?
  3. What could I do differently so that I'm playing to win?

Do any of these traps ring true for you?

The great news is that they need not be a career death sentence.

Though it took me years to figure this out, it's not time nor experience that's required to make the change. It's a mindset shift. That can happen in an instant once you understand what's driving your decisions.

By being more aware and deliberate in your inquiry, starting with the questions above, you can make new choices to find your way out.

Tanuja Ramchal coaches graduate students at the Zicklin School of Business to achieve career success by helping them to develop an authentic brand. Having transitioned from a decade-long career in financial services where she's held various leadership roles, Tanuja also works with exceptional individuals to create more freedom, fun, and fulfillment in their life and work. Click here to get her free guide to help you do the same.