Personal finance

Are you in the right career? Ask yourself these questions

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Dorie Clark, author of “The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World.”

We spend our days replying to emails, going to meetings, checking off to-do lists and, as our careers zip by, sometimes we wonder if we picked the right profession, or if our lives wouldn’t have been better spent doing something else. Rather than take the time to answer these big questions, though, we focus on today’s or this week’s tasks.

In the new book, “The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World,” published by Harvard Business Review this fall, author and professor Dorie Clark makes the case for another way. She argues that many of us need to think more deeply, and be more proactive, about where we’re headed.

Some people are on paths that will lead to unfulfillment and regret if they don’t do so, Clark says, while others keep turning around before they can make the inroads they’d like.

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CNBC interviewed Clark this week about the messy work of creating and maintaining a career. The exchange has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Annie Nova: You write that our psychology makes us think too much in the short-term. How so?

Dorie Clark: Oftentimes when we’re faced with a situation where we’re not sure what to do, either because it’s tactically complex — “How do I raise sales by 20% next year?” — or existentially complex — “Should I actually be in this job or doing something else?” — it’s far easier for us to just put our heads down and keep working at the same things we’ve been doing rather than to step back and ask uncomfortable questions.

AN: We seem to really want to avoid the existential questions.

DC: In modern Western society, work has become the locus of meaning for many people. If we start to become concerned that we’re on the wrong path or that we’re not progressing as much as we’d like, that can be extremely uncomfortable.

Dorie Clark

AN: But what are the consequences of not doing this reflecting?

DC: If we’re smart enough and motivated enough, we will hit our targets, but it can become uncomfortable and even tragic if it turns out belatedly that our targets were the wrong ones all along.

AN: Yikes. How can we try to find out sooner rather than later if our targets are wrong?

DC: The first question to really analyze is whether the goal is intrinsic or extrinsic. Are you pursuing this goal because it’s something that matters to you or are you performing a script that you’ve internalized based on what society thinks is a good idea, or what the people around you think is a good idea?

AN: If they find they’re following a script, how can people pivot to goals that are more self-determined?

DC: The societal narrative is that everyone has to find their passion. But that framing can be paralyzing. It’s a lot easier to have the space to discover what you enjoy and what you’re good at if you instead focus on answering the question: “What do you find interesting?” Overall, we need to hold things more lightly while we’re in discovery phase.

AN: For those who are confident about their ambitions, but are doubting themselves or struggling, what’s your advice?

DC: Again, if we stare too hard at the totality of the task, whether it’s writing a book or getting promoted to senior vice president, it may feel overwhelming. But if we’re able to move forward in very small ways every day, that activity will compound, and the sense of momentum will keep us motivated. I also like to ask myself on a regular basis: “What is something I can do today that will make tomorrow easier or better?”

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