There’s a lot of pressure to set career goals, and much time, energy and tears go into figuring out a career path. Yet for many people, some time along the way, the painful discovery that they are unhappy or unfulfilled in their jobs leads to either to depression or to drastic career changes that often do not provide the longed-for fulfillment down the road.

Why do we so often make the wrong career choices, or find that the choice that was right a few years ago no longer fits?  More importantly, how can we set career goals that will stay fresh and relevant even as we continue to grow and change?

Careers are elastic

One reason people often find themselves dissatisfied with their career choices is that they are focused on choosing a specific career title. Should I be a computer programmer, a journalist, a psychologist? When the choices we make are focused on the career titles out there, we end up looking at the issue through a very narrow prism.

These days, pathways between fields and careers are open and full of people developing in new directions. Even within each field, it is rare today to find someone who has been in the same position at the same company for over a decade, or even more than five years.

This reality can feel frighteningly unstable, but it has its perks, and a central one is the realization that you do not need to lock yourself into a single professional career path.

Your passion, your values or your skill set are not always the answer

The oft-repeated career mantra, “Follow your passion” is to some extent to blame for widespread career dissatisfaction. The demand that your career embody your deepest passion is a tall order; and even in those cases where people find work in areas they feel very passionate about, they are often surprised to discover that passion does not always translate into professional fulfillment.

Some people are convinced that to feel fulfilled at work they must be involved in a cause that reflects their values, while for others, finding ways to apply a skill set they have acquired, either through academic training or experience, plays a central role in career decisions.

Passion, values and skill set are all significant parts of the puzzle; yet I do not advise basing your career goals on a specific skill set, a central value, or even a specific passion.

Focus on the constants

The secret to setting career goals that will not get stale is to base them on the things about you that will remain constant over time: specifically, your personality, your natural talents, and the types of tasks that generate a sense of fulfillment in you.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean that you should not choose and pursue a specific career path. What I mean is that the motivating factors behind every career step you take should be whether this step is in keeping with your character, your innate talents, and the kind of tasks you truly enjoy.

This type of career goal setting will not narrow your choice down to one career direction. If done right, it will actually expand your career vistas, and open up a variety of possibilities. This type of thinking will also help ensure that when new opportunities arise, including new professional possibilities that either did not exist or were not on your radar at an earlier stage, you will be able to use your career goals to decide what steps to take next.

Case in point

Ever since she was a child, Rachel always thought that she would be a vet. The reasons for her career choice were that she loved animals (passion), knew a lot about them (skill set) and wanted to heal them (value). Her surroundings (parents, teachers, peers, and eventually professors) all applauded her choice, and Rachel went full speed ahead to achieve her career goal of becoming a vet.

Although Rachel thoroughly enjoyed her training, when she finally established herself as a vet, she discovered some uncomfortable facts about her chosen career path. She found that her job required that she interact with as many people as animals, many of them in a state of distress about the health of their pet. Although Rachel enjoyed the company of animals, she found the need to console, support or deal with anger from pet owners to be a tremendous drain on her energy.

She also discovered that the brief interaction with animals that her tasks as a vet afforded her made the connection too brief to be meaningful for her. Lastly, she realized that she enjoyed spending time with healthy animals far more than with sick or injured ones — and the only animals she saw were, of course, sick or injured.

What happened? A career that seemed a perfect match for Rachel had turned into a job she dreaded.

Personality, talents and fulfilling tasks

Let’s take a step back in time, and see what might have happened if Rachel had considered personality, talent and fulfilling tasks in her career choice.

In an honest analysis of her character, Rachel may have discovered that she is more of an introvert, that she is intellectually curious, and that she is an independent thinker. In considering her natural talents, she may have noted that she is a great observer with keen attention to detail, and that she has the ability to focus on one topic for long periods of time without becoming bored or distracted. In thinking of what tasks she found most fulfilling, Rachel may have realized that she enjoyed tasks that brought her into physical contact with the natural world (plants, animals, earth, sea), and that she enjoyed reading scientific materials and writing down her ideas and thoughts coherently.

What career goals would make sense for Rachel? Based on this analysis, she would probably conclude that her career goals are to find an occupation that would not demand a great deal of human interaction, would allow her to continue to study and grow intellectually, and would offer opportunities to exercise independent thought. She would probably choose to seek a career path that would value her ability to focus on details, and would bring her into regular contact with the natural world, with research and writing as a central element of her activities.

Opening up a variety of career vistas

What career direction would have been the right one for Rachel? The truth is that this type of self-analysis could open up a variety of fields and directions, from marine biology to animal research to archeology to organic farming.

When you define your career goals based on these criteria, it becomes much easier psychologically to make career changes as well. If Rachel spent twenty fulfilling years as a marine biologist and then decided to found an organic farm, it would not negate her professional past; it would simply be another vista to fulfill her potential.

The three areas that remain constant, and can guarantee that we will find our jobs meaningful and fulfilling, are our personalities, our natural talents, and the types of tasks we enjoy. Focusing on these elements when setting career goals can make our path much smoother, while keeping many vistas open for career development and change over time.