2. A pause for self-reflection

2. A pause for self-reflection

Whilst it can be tempting to get straight into the job search, now is a good time to reflect on what you want from your next job. We’ve collated some resources to help you…


An excerpt from James Reed’s latest book, Life’s Work – 12 Proven Ways to Fast Track your Career (published Jan 2020)

Chapter 2: Look in the Mirror

Working in the recruitment business, I talk to people about their careers almost daily. It’s rare that I come across someone who says that they knew exactly what they wanted to do when they left school, and is on the same trajectory decades later. Life isn’t like that, and it would probably be boring if it was. As one of the top professors at Harvard Business School, Lynda Applegate, once said to me, ‘Straight roads aren’t as interesting as winding ones.’

The people I do more commonly meet, though, are those who started off on the wrong career footing for one simple reason: they didn’t think about what would fulfil them in their work. This led them to make the wrong decisions, such as taking a job their parents wanted them to do, or a role that was well paid but that they didn’t enjoy. I don’t want you to make the same mistake, which is why we’re starting off with a process of self-reflection. A little self-knowledge and awareness will take you a long way, so carrying out a personal audit is an excellent place to begin. After all, when you decide upon your life’s work you first need to know what fires you up.

This applies wherever you are in life. A friend’s son came to see me recently because he was at a crossroads in his career and unsure what to do next.

I could see his confidence was at a low ebb, as is often the case in these circumstances. If you’ve been in his shoes you’ll know what I mean. You might have lost your job, felt disappointed that your previous role wasn’t what you expected, or maybe your organisation changed in a way that didn’t suit you.

I suggested to this young man that he was at a ‘look in the mirror’ moment, and that doing what I’m about to describe to you might help him decide on his next steps.

I’d suggest that, unlike this man, you don’t leave looking in the mirror until you’re forced into it, because it’s much easier to carry out a self-evaluation when you’re in a positive frame of mind. And you can do it as often as you like — most of the elements are relevant whatever your age or stage. When you’re thinking about what you want to do with your time on earth, there’s no rule that says you can only do this introspection in your twenties.

I appreciate that, if you’re like a lot of people, you might run from the idea of carrying out a self-analysis. Apart from anything else it sounds self-obsessed, doesn’t it? I understand, but the word ‘self’ has an undeservedly bad press in my opinion. What I’m talking about here is self-focused leadership, not in a ‘look at me, aren’t I amazing’ way but in a constructively self-critical way. This is the best form of criticism, because when you do it to yourself it’s a lot more palatable than when someone else does it for you. Whenever I talk about this in front of groups and ask people, ‘Who likes to be criticised?’ no-one ever raises their hand. But when you open yourself up to some gentle evaluation by you, it can be different.

Mirror, mirror on the wall . . .

Let’s take a look at what this ‘look in the mirror’ thing is all about. I’m going to lead you through a four-step process for gaining an understanding of who you are. I know that you might be tempted to skip this because it sounds strange and involves a deliberate effort to do something practical. But all this means is that, if you’re one of the few who do go through it, you’ll have an edge over all the other people who don’t. At the least you’ll begin to have an understanding of yourself that will stand you in good stead for the future, and at the most you’ll find it life-changing. With this kind of upside, I’d say that it’s worth half an hour of your time.

Step 1: find a mirror

You’re going to carry out this exercise looking in an actual mirror. Please find one and take a long look at yourself for 10 minutes — this is who you are, literally. In a world in which attention spans are increasingly short this may feel like a tough exercise, but the more you look the more you’ll see. This isn’t about judging the size of your nose or working out if you’re attractive enough, although those thoughts may cross your mind. It’s about seeing beyond that into your soul and appreciating who you really are. When you’ve done this write down what came to mind.

Many years ago I did this exercise as part of a group mindfulness session, in which we had to study ourselves in detail. I gazed at the lines in my face, my eyes, and everything about my appearance. Although I started off feeling as if it was almost impossible to do, I relaxed into it and found myself appreciating myself more and more because I realised that — just like you — I have something special. I’m the only one of me there is, which makes me unique. You’re the only one of ‘you’ there is, which makes you unique. Distinctiveness is of great value.

Step 2: identify your passions

Now you’ll start to work out what you love and hate in life, both in terms of what you do and who you do it with. This is important, because your emotions and enthusiasms create the energy that will drive your future success. To help you I’ve created a list of questions. Your answers to these questions will give you new ideas and inspiration. You can also ask others close to you to offer suggestions — it’s always helpful to gain extra input.

  • What are you good at? You can think about what people tell you you’re good at, as well as what you think yourself.
  • What fascinates you? Think about the topics and ideas you feel compelled to spend time investigating.
  • What do you put off doing? What tasks and chores do you dread?
  • What annoys you when you see it done badly? It’s obvious to you, but perhaps not to everyone else.
  • If you were given a day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?
  • What kinds of people do you enjoy spending time with?
  • The most important thing is to be honest with yourself. If your ideal day consists of baking cakes and chatting with friends, that’s fine — don’t feel you have to come up with something that might sound worthy for the sake of it. No-one will see these answers apart from you, and if the responses are genuine they’ll be starting to give you clues about what to do with your remaining time, which is the rest of your life.

Now you’re going to come up with a list of five things you love to do and five you hate, using the insights you’ve gained from the exercise above (and anything else that comes to mind). They can be anything in your family, social, and work life. For instance, you might love country walks, reading books, filing paperwork, cooking, and researching holidays, and you might hate crowded shops, loud music, working for overbearing bosses, people who talk too much, and fiddling with numbers.

Once you’ve done it you’ll be starting to build a picture of what makes you tick. Have you unearthed anything you wouldn’t have expected?

Step 3: work out your values

Values are like invisible but indestructible threads, pulling us in specific directions but without us knowing. It’s important to lift the veil on our values, because if we’re not conscious of what those threads are we may find ourselves taking wrong turns in life. There’s nothing worse than ending up in a job that conflicts with your values because it gives you an uneasy feeling from the word go. There’s that nagging sensation that something’s not right, and it can lead to internal conflict.

Given that values are invisible, how do we identify them? Luckily they have a habit of revealing themselves in what we choose to do and how we think. Try answering these questions to uncover yours.

  • What’s the main reason that you work, apart from the money?
  • If you were king or queen for a day and could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
  • What three qualities would you love everyone to benefit from? For instance good health, fulfilment, and freedom.

Hopefully this has sparked some thoughts about what’s especially important to you, and the helpful thing is that our values rarely change as the years go by because they often have their roots in our childhood. The way we express them might fluctuate, but their nature is pretty constant. To round off this step, use the inspiration you’ve gained from the earlier exercises to list your top three values. Bear in mind that there are many you could consider to be important, but only a small number you would feel personally committed to putting into practice. As an example, when I did this exercise I realised that mine were honesty, kindness, and persistence.

Step 4: pinpoint your purpose

Your passions and values all come together to form your overarching purpose. This isn’t just for your career, it’s for your whole life, so it’s worth spending some time reflecting on what it could be. For instance, if you’ve identified that you love sports and socialising, and feel that continuous self-improvement is one of your key values, your purpose might be ‘bringing people together through sport’ or ‘harnessing sport for positive social change’. Or if you have a passion for books, hate loud people, and are committed to the idea of equality for all, your purpose might be ‘everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy reading.’

At this point you may be wondering if this is all a bit pie in the sky. ‘Come on,’ you may be thinking. ‘We can’t all spend our careers saving lives and creating world peace. Be practical.’ I understand that. Sometimes you’ll be in a position where you have to go after a job because it’s what you need right now, whether it serves your higher purpose or not. But you should always be looking to move your career in the direction you feel most strongly about. If you can’t find some fulfilment in the ultimate purpose of what you do, you won’t commit to it heart and soul. And when you’re not fully dedicated, you won’t do as well at it. We can all tell the difference between a person who’s just treading water and someone who’s up for swimming the English Channel because they’re driven to succeed.

It’s for this reason that most successful organisations have a clearly defined purpose. IKEA’s is ‘to create a better everyday life for the many people’, BUPA’s is ‘longer, healthier, happier lives’, and Nike’s is ‘to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world. If you have a body, you are an athlete.’ I don’t know about you, but I feel uplifted just reading those.

How about more examples, this time from successful individuals? Sir Richard Branson says his purpose is ‘to have fun in my journey through life and to learn from my mistakes.’ Oprah Winfrey’s is ‘to be a teacher, and to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.’ These people have achieved more than many of us will do in a lifetime, and how they’ve done it is to be clear on what they’re about. You can also see how their passions and values shine through, with Branson’s emphasis on fun and acceptance, and Oprah’s on teaching and encouragement. Inspiring stuff.

I was once asked, ‘What’s your family’s purpose?’ I have to admit that at the time this stumped me. ‘Good question, I’ll get back to you on that one,’ was my reply.  But it got me thinking, and we discussed it as a family. We agreed that we felt strongly about wanting to build businesses that would be of benefit to society, and that we enjoyed connecting people to each other for good. You can see how this works well for an entrepreneurial family, and having this clarity about what we do is helpful when it comes to making business and career decisions. When you’re at a crossroads, or any decision point, you can ask yourself, ‘Is this option supportive of my overarching purpose?’ Many alternatives will drop away, which makes your path so much more clear.

What next?

I’d encourage you to spend quite a bit of time on this process before you turn the page. After you’ve done so, it’s possible you might have come to the conclusion that the career you’ve set your heart on isn’t the right one for you. Or it may have left you feeling unsure of what road to take now that you’ve had new insights about yourself. This can be unsettling, but it’s better to know this now than in five years’ time when you’re feeling inexplicably miserable in your job. Your passions, values, and purpose are your compass points in life, guiding you to the best decisions at the appropriate times, so your career choices must dovetail with them.

When you look in the mirror you’re saying, ‘Who am I? Who do I want to be? And how am I going to become that person?’ These are big questions and you won’t know all the answers yet, but you’ve made a start. Learning what you’re ‘about’ is a deep and open-ended exploration that you can engage in at any age or stage of life, and I suggest you re-visit it on a regular basis.

Once, when watching Match of the Day, I was inspired by ex-footballer Alan Shearer who said that the Manchester United players needed to take a long, hard look in the mirror every morning and ask themselves the following question: ‘How am I going to give my best today?’ And in the evening they should do the same, but with a different question: ‘Did I deliver for the team?’ It’s worth noting that in the weeks following the match they changed coach and then went on to win an unprecedented eight games in a row. You may not be a million-pound striker, but you can still tap into your own spirit and your own life force by using this power of reflection.

What we covered

  • Self-reflection is the vital first step in planning your career, because it’s only through self-knowledge that you’ll be able to make the right decisions.
  • First, look in a physical mirror and learn to appreciate yourself.
  • Second, identify your loves and hates, which provide the power source for your progress.
  • Third, work out your values, which give you fulfilment in your work.
  • Fourth, pinpoint your purpose, which will steer you in the right direction.

And just asking . . .

  • What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about yourself through doing this exercise?
  • What changes might you make to your plans, now that you know more about yourself?