1. Don’t limit your thinking

You probably already have some idea of the job you want, in the field you want. Put that notion aside for a time and let your thoughts range a bit wider. Start out by recognizing that no choice is stupid or wrong, and seek out every possible source of information about jobs, the credentials and skills they require, and the actual work they entail.Forget about whatever training and skills you’ve already acquired, your existing habits of mind, the expectations of parents or friends. Even set aside (for a while) your current goals. Look at all the possibilities the world offers you. One basic truth to bear in mind throughout the process of finding your career path is that you only have one life, and that the career you choose will play a central role in how that life turns out – in terms of happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment. At this stage, t’s worth casting your net as wide as you can, however hard it is to pull in.

So start off without any boundaries; put aside issues of training, time, money. Remember: your values, interests and personality are harder to change than your skill-set. And are they things you want to change? If your goal is the best career for you, the best career you can hope to have, then these things should direct you.

2. Career tests are your friends

Don’t hesitate to take all the personality and assessment tests you can find. These probably aren’t going to provide any shocking new revelations, but they can open up other possibilities, or just confirm and clarify what you already know. And they’ll help you look at your personality and abilities in ways that can guide you in choosing a career, and the training it requires. They let you plug your self-understanding into a huge network of existing knowledge about the relationship between individual traits and careers; a clearer understanding of yourself makes for a more knowledgeable choice of career.

3. Aim high

Of course it’s important to know your limits – But don’t rule out anything that nature hasn’t definitively ruled our for you. Above all, don’t let a lack of confidence prevent you thinking big and aiming high. Getting to where we want to go, career-wise, is a long, hard process for all of us; once you’ve decided where you want to go, based on a clear assessment of your goals and strengths, you can get there with enough motivation and perseverance.

4. Don’t close doors behind you during the process of exploration

Look at all the alternative ways of getting to the jobs you might want – different schools, different on the job education paths. Look at each one of them objectively, and define their advantages and disadvantages from the perspective of your own needs and demands: in terms of time, of how they’re organized (fast and concentrated, extended enough to let you keep a part-time job?), where on the career trajectory they’ll land you. Education is expensive and takes time, it lets you land further along on most career paths than work and promotion do.

Select and prioritize your education desires in order of preference. Identify several options, ranging from the most ambitious to the easiest. Keep those options open as long as you need to.

5. Don’t limit yourself to thinking about specific jobs

That is: think about the fields / sectors you want to work in as well. A career and a job are not the same thing, and it’s very hard, especially if you’re still in school or heading back to school, to know exactly which job(s) you’ll end up in. Entering into a career, you’re defining a range of possibilities for yourself rather than a particular job. So it makes sense to start with broad ideas of the sort of field your interested in.

Think about the sorts of activities you most like – creative, caring, social, adventurous, academic, hands on, techy, etc.. And think about sectors of the economy that interest you: health, transport, industry, film and television….. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to narrow your scope to a particular job or set of jobs as you learn more. And chances are you won’t stay in that job for the whole of your career.

6. What you hate is as important as what you love

There are two ways of looking at the important question of what you hate. The first involves recognizing what it is you hate. Numbers? Selling? Being stuck indoors? Being stuck outdoors? Team work or working alone? Responsibility or a lack of responsibility? New things and uncertainty? The same old thing every day?

The second involves having a clear idea of everything that the field you’re interested in involves. Some of this will be obvious (being a lifeguard involves water, being a doctor involves seeing blood….) but some of it might not. You might find yourself with limited options going forward in a field (see section 5) if you set your sights on a particular job without realizing that an open career path will be difficult if you’re going to have to rule out jobs that involve numbers, or selling, or being stuck indoors, etc..

7. Think about how you learn, and how much education you want to get

How many years are you prepared to spend in education? And what sort of education do you want? Will you be more comfortable in a tightly-organized technical course at a college, or autonomous and self-directed at a university? How quickly do you want to get into the job market full time?

Generally, the longer you study within a particular field, the broader the choice of jobs you’ll have within that field and the faster you can get ahead. If all the self-reflection you can muster doesn’t reveal your ideal career, you can still start off on a more general course of study that will stand you in good stead – helping you clarify your goals and racking up credits that can eventually be useful. As you study, you can specialize and choose a field within your course of studies that interests you.

8. Search out opinions and advice

As you reflect on your future, no amount of outside information and advice is too much. Get it everywhere you can, and have questions for anyone you think might have something to offer: go to websites, visit schools, talk to guidance counselors, alumni, teachers, parents, professionals, relatives, people on the bus, people in the field you want to enter…. Ask how they got to where they are, tell them your story and your decisions so far.

The responses you get, and the information you have to take on board, will be rich and deep and probably a bit contradictory. Everyone who’s arrived somewhere (we all do) will have arrived there on the basis of their own plan, or lack of a plan – but always on the basis of their own decisions. Listen to everyone, and encourage them to talk; read everything, and take it on board; look around you, and see how people have ended up where they are. It will all be useful. In the end, though, the decision is yours alone.

9. Take a close look at the job market

The job market is changing, faster and faster. Jobs that millions of people did a generation ago are disappearing. Do you want to spend years training for a job that might not exist in a decade, or in a sector where you’ll be competing for a shrinking number of opportunities, against people with more experience? Perhaps you do – if you love the field enough. But be aware of the realities before you launch yourself into a shrinking sector. Searching for economists’ analyses can help you here, as can reading about the nature of labor market change in general.

So find out which sectors are growing, and – more important – hiring. “Jobless growth” is very much a reality in some sectors of the economy. You can search on job websites to see the range of jobs and salaries in a given field, and the experience and education expected, but remember: this might be encouraging, but it will only be relevant to your future if the market holds steady – if that sector’s balance of supply and demand remains on an even keel. It’s great to see the high salary offered for a job you expect to be doing in ten years, but ask yourself: will that job be there in ten years? Will shrinking opportunities in that sector mean that even people with a decade’s experience will be after it as well?

That sounds discouraging, but remember: this project of reflection and discovery is about you, and about the full range of your prospects. There will be other sectors and other careers that can offer much the same rewards as the one you initially set your heart on, however you define those rewards.

10. Form a clear plan of action

The end result of all this reflection should be a clear plan of action, formed in the light of a clear understanding of who you are, what you want to do with your life, the corner of the job market that you’re committing yourself to entering, and the education or training involved in entering it. If your project stalls part-way through (because you need to leave education to work, because of family reasons, because you’ve changed your mind, etc.) it isn’t the end of the world.

These roadblocks are a part of everyone’s life and career, and a clear sense of where your going can only help you navigate them. The one thing that will serve you best – whether your plans move forward in fits and starts and with shifts of direction, or whether they sail straight to their best possible result – is making sure that your understanding of what’s ahead of you and how to get there is as clear and objective as possible.