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Remember when you were little and dreamed of what you wanted to be when you were big? I wanted to work on a horse farm. Then I wanted to be a vet. Then I wanted to make greeting cards. Then I wanted to be a mom. That’s a lot of career vacillation before the age of 10! By the time I graduated from college, having essentially majored in “saving the world,” I was completely at sea. After I stepped away from a mildly satisfying career only to discover (the hard way) that being a stay-at-home mom wasn’t a good fit for me, I finally blundered into work that felt like it was meant to be mine.

Like it did for me, sometimes life itself provides the wake-up call that what you thought was your path may not have been spot on. Perhaps you find yourself suddenly facing a job search that you hadn’t planned on. Or perhaps that last promotion actually pulled you away from work you loved to do. Or maybe you find yourself with an empty nest and much freer days. Or perhaps your partner has changed jobs and you’ve had to relocate. Or maybe you simply feel a vague sense of unease or discontent which has you asking yourself, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

But, for most of us, it’s been years since we’ve paused to reflect on our path in life. It’s been way too long since we’ve touched base with our priorities – what really matters to us, what makes us happy, what deserves the investment of our time and talents. For the most part this isn’t because we’re not thoughtful, reflective people. It’s simply because life moves fast. To keep up, so do we. More often than not, we spend our days scurrying from item to item on our “To-Do List” with little regard for the bigger picture of our goals, our hopes and dreams or our values.

It’s easy to get off course when we’re chronically on high-speed auto-pilot. When we do drift, we may not even know we’ve gotten lost. We might just feel a general sense of discontent, or a little disinterested or depressed. We could even wake up one morning feeling slightly inauthentic, as if we’re living someone else’s life.

When we finally notice them, the cause(s) for our discontent may be unclear. What is clear, however, is that “the shine is off the (metaphorical) apple.” And when that is the case, the best thing to do is take a (metaphorical) bite to see if there’s anything inside worth eating.

The following exercise (borrowed from In Transition by Mary Lindsay Burton and Richard A. Wedemeyer) can help you take that exploratory bite.

Rank the following eighteen items from most important to least. The first six items will be your “Essentials” – things that you consider to be profoundly important and that you will hold onto at all costs. Items 7-12 will be your “Nice to Haves” – things that are important, but that you would let go if push came to shove. Your final six items will be your “Non-Essentials” – things you are willing to forego. There can be no “ties.” All items must have their own spot on your list.

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Health and fitness
  • Income
  • Independence
  • Influence and power
  • Making use of talents
  • Personal growth
  • Positive impact on society
  • Prestige and status
  • Professional growth
  • Security
  • Spirituality/faith
  • Spouse/partner
  • Stimulating/rewarding work
  • Time for leisure and relaxation
  • Wealth/savings
  • Where you live

As hard as that was to do (and, trust me, you’re not alone, it is hard), this next step is harder. Take another look at the list of eighteen items. Then take an honest look at the way you’re living your life right now (not tomorrow, not next week, and certainly not in some far-off idealized future). Rank the eighteen items again, this time based on the way you’re investing your time, talent and resources right now. The first items are receiving the greatest investment. The last items, the least.

Now, in the most eye-opening part of the exercise, compare your two lists. Are there differences or inconsistencies between them? It is here that you may discover that your priorities have gotten a little tangled, or where you might have drifted off course as you zipped through life.

With a spirit of curiosity and adventure, ask yourself what could change in your life to allow you to live in synch with your priorities. If you can align the activities that fill your days more closely with what you hold valuable and dear, with what inspires you, with what lights you up, you will feel more contented, more fulfilled, more satisfied and more peaceful  at the end of each day.

Do not fret. You do not have to start anew. Tiny changes can make gigantic differences. Just an hour each week to worship, or practice yoga, or take a class with your partner or volunteer at your local homeless shelter (or to do whatever is calling to your heart) can be enough to change the whole tenor of your life. The key is to make these little tweaks with keen awareness of your big picture.

Go ahead. Be courageous and ask yourself: “What matters to me? What do I want to be when I grow up?”