How to craft your dream job

Career coach Ashley Stahl shares her wisdom on finding professional fulfillment.

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Key takeaways

  • Career guru Ashley Stahl worked tirelessly to land her dream job, only to realize one day that her dream job wasn’t actually a good fit.
  • Stahl says that following your passion can lead you astray when it comes to your career. Instead, pay more attention to your unique skills and values.
  • To find your perfect career, you may just need to craft it yourself.

Ashley Stahl knows what it's like to spend years carefully crafting a career trajectory, only to see those plans go up in smoke in an instant.

Stahl came of age in the post-9/11 era, and felt deeply moved to support US national security efforts. After graduating from the University of Redlands in 2009 with a triple major in Government, History, and French, she worked relentlessly to get a job in the field. Eventually, she landed one—securing a post at the Pentagon helping prepare civilian contractors for service overseas.

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But one day, while working on a military base in the Midwest, everything changed. One of the contractors asked Stahl to hold his loaded gun as he headed to the restroom. She had never held a firearm, and it sent chills of unease through her body.

Stahl realized the feeling was familiar: It was the disquiet she had tried to ignore a few years earlier, as she pursued her job at the Pentagon. "My intuition would kind of pipe in and tell me that it wasn't actually the path for me, but there was something in me that wanted to experience it," Stahl says.

Suddenly, it was clear that Stahl was in the wrong place. "Our bodies are so intelligent," she said. "In that moment, holding that gun, I just remember thinking, 'I am way too sensitive to be here.'"

Charting a new path

Stahl realized that even though she had the skills for national security, her values didn't align with her job. Meanwhile, the amount of work she'd put into landing her Pentagon position—including tireless networking—had given her a wealth of experience and insight into the job-hunt process, as had her informal side-gig helping friends work through their own career questions.

Eventually, Stahl found clarity: She had a gift for helping people create careers that they thrived in. So she took a risk, and left the national security world to become a full-time career coach. Success followed, and she then wrote a bestselling book, You Turn: Get Unstuck, Discover Your Direction, and Design Your Dream Career.

Today, the career Stahl has built for herself honors who she is at a deep level—and that's a goal she'd like more people to set for themselves.

Why you shouldn't always follow your passion

Stahl disagrees with the conventional wisdom that people should follow their passions. "I love cupcakes, but I would be a horrible baker," she says. Chasing a passion can take people off course and actually detract from the thing they love.

Instead of focusing on passion, Stahl advises people to think about their skills and values. Your skills will help determine what you can do—such as being a singer, a writer, or a coach—while your values will help determine how you should put those skills to use.

In Stahl's case, helping coach people toward great careers was a way of matching the management skills she honed at the Pentagon to her own personal values.

Writing your own job description

Stahl has noticed that right now, employers are very focused on retaining talented employees. That's created an opportunity for employees who are itching for something different to try defining a role—perhaps even within their current company—that's meaningful to them and aligns with their skills and values.

"Consider this concept of job crafting," Stahl says. "It's all about turning a bland job into a grand job." Self-advocacy can make all the difference in job satisfaction, she says. "Don't be victimized by your career. Really step up and take ownership of where you want it to go."

Stahl also says it can be OK to have to take a step back in your career—even if you're mid-career—if doing so can help you find the right path.

"Backing up does not have to mean backing down," says Stahl. "It's never too late to become who you want to be."

Leaping to your next career lily pad

Stahl refers to career fulfillment as 3 states, which she thinks of as lily pads. The first, and most common, is when people feel stuck in their career, but aren't ready to change it.

The second state, which Stahl aims to guide clients to, is knowing your skills. Once you identify your talents and the types of situations in which you naturally excel, you'll likely find yourself more fulfilled by your work. After all, it feels good to be good at something.

Stahl describes the third lily pad as a state of flow and synchronicity, in which your work aligns with your life's purpose. Although this third state can be more elusive to reach, Stahl says, she feels she experienced it when she was writing her book. She took a skill she was already excelling at, and which was fulfilling her sense of purpose, and brought it to the next level. It was her own way of job crafting, she says.

Keeping the happy switch on

Most people will spend about one-third of their life at work: some 90,000 hours, on average, according to Stahl. That's why it's critical to find a career that you connect with, she says. Ideally, your work allows you to contribute to the world, to use your skills, and to express yourself.

Says Stahl, "If you're unhappy from 9 to 5, it's hard to turn on the happy switch from 5 to 9."

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