Why All Your Career Ideas Feel Uninspiring And Unreachable (And What To Do About It)

Image of a fish in a bowl

Newly Updated

Image: Ahmed Zayan

Struggling to find a career idea you're really excited about? Feeling like a stuck record, going over and over the same old ground? Natasha shares a simple metaphor to help you understand why you're not moving forward with your shift, and what you can do to open up fresh, exciting options.

Two young fish are swimming along in a fishbowl. After a while, they pass by an older fish swimming the other way. The old fish nods at them and says: "Morning, boys. How's the water?" The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

It's a cute, funny story, and it becomes incredibly powerful when you apply it to the question of finding work you love.

Why can't you figure out what your next career might be? You're spending so much time thinking about it, reading about it, looking around you for clues, but you don't seem to be getting any closer.

In fact, you almost seem to be turning circles inside your head – repeatedly going over old ground, considering and dismissing the same possibilities. You keep picking up the same ideas, bumping into the same obstacles and challenges, to the point where your life is feeling like a Groundhog Day parody.

And it's not just frustrating any more. It's actually getting kind of boring.

What you'd really love is a light-bulb moment – a flash of lightning or an "A-ha!" – where you see or realise something totally new and exciting. Or to see an old idea from a new angle – an angle that makes it fresh and interesting and viable.

So what does all this have to do with a story about fish?

Because when you really look at it, you and your life aren't so different from those fish and that water.

What's the water you’re swimming in?

Your understanding of the world – of what's possible and available to you – is directly correlated to the way you live your life, on a basic, minute-to-minute, experiential level.

The newspaper section you read first. The shops you go to. The people you talk to. The way you get to and from work. the things you do to relax. The websites you visit and magazines you read and choices you make at the supermarket.

These experiences, these monotonous, seemingly meaningless actions and choices – they shape who you are, what you believe, and what you know.

And, as a general rule, we slide into these routines and ways of being almost completely without thinking about them. Sure, maybe you made a conscious effort and a conscious decision to start going to the gym, or to spend more time with your kids. But, on the whole, a huge proportion of our lives operates on automatic pilot. Unchosen. Thoughtless. Intention free.

Once you've started reading a certain newspaper, you don't even think about picking up a different one at the kiosk. You watch whatever's on TV at the time you get back from work. You go to the same places, run through your usual routines, visit the same websites. Every now and again you do something different, but, on the whole, your life looks a certain way. It's familiar. You know it inside-out.

And then you realise: you want a career change. You want to do something you really, really love. And you have absolutely no idea what that might be.

You frantically scan your mind, looking for something that inspires you and that you could really enjoy doing every day, and you come up empty-handed. You look around you, at your life and your friends and the world you know, and there's nothing there that jumps out at you as being amazing enough to warrant packing in your familiar, secure position at work right now.

It can be a truly panic-inducing realisation: the moment you discover that you really, truly have no idea what would make you happy. But there's a good reason for it. It's not because there's something wrong with you. It's simply because, chances are, the career of your dreams can't be found within your life as it looks right now.

The life you live is the water you're swimming in

It forms your entire perception of the world. It's so all-encompassing, and so natural to you, that you don't realise it's completely specific and unique to you. You're so used to the way life looks – you're so accustomed to the water – that you don't even know it's there. And it's limited, just like a fishbowl. The boundaries of your experiences form the walls of your fishbowl.

A useful way to think about this is to imagine that there are a few different types of knowledge:

1. The things you know

I'm 5'4" tall. When I let go of this ball, it will fall to the ground. There's a career out there called Hairdressing.

These are your old familiar favourites in the fishbowl. The water, the little ceramic pirate ship, the career ideas you've considered and dismissed and then considered again. The things your friends do for work that you know you're not interested in. The things you know about your industry, how to find job opportunities, what to say at an interview.

And, of course, your good old limiting beliefs hang out here, too ("I know I don't have enough money to make a career change." "I'm sure I'll have to retrain to go after that opportunity." "I'm just not talented enough to make a move into a whole new industry without taking a huge pay cut").

2. The things you know you don't know

I don't know what qualifications you need to be a hairdresser. I don't know the name of that woman sitting over there.

They're all there, in the water too, because they're still contained in your life as you know it. That closed treasure chest and string of plastic seaweed. How to make your CV stand out. Your psychometric profile in that latest personality test. Whether or not you'd be well-suited to a job as a dentist.

You don't know these things, but if you wanted to find out about them, you could, because you know they're there as things that you don't know. This is the kind of knowledge that most career changers focus on. It's the reason that so many of us spend hours 'researching' our career changes online – because we think that if there's more water in the bowl, we'll be able to swim further.

But you're still inside the bowl. Swimming further, in more knowledgeable waters, but still inside the same old fishbowl.

So let's pause and just examine these two for a moment.

What this all means is that when you consider what career might be right for you, you're devastatingly limited in your choices. You can't be what you can't see, so you can only choose from the careers that you know are out there: the ones that are floating around in the water of your bowl. It doesn't matter how perfect a career it could be for you – you're never going to find it in that bowl of yours.

Because if it was in there, you'd have found it by now.

Lisa is an architect. When she joined us on a recent Career Change Launch Pad, she told us:

"I felt like a stuck record, just going round and round inside my head for months at a time, trying to come up with new ideas. It drove me nuts – it seemed like every career path I could think of was one that I'd already thought about and dismissed. Over and over again, I couldn't break out of the cycle."

Even your ideas on how to go about searching for a new career, there they are, within the realms of your current reality, limiting the possibilities that are available to you. You look at job sites, you hope that something exciting will show up, you send in your CV and covering letter, and you wait. What else could you do? That's the way the world works, right?

Here's Lisa again: "Job hunting felt like a dirty addiction; I was sneaking around on my lunch breaks at work, deleting my browsing history, looking at job sites, hoping for a job ad to show up and change everything for me. But it never did."

And there you go, round and round the fishbowl, wondering why you feel so trapped, wondering why you can't find the work of your dreams.

If you can't find your ideal inside that fishbowl, inside your current experience and perceptions of the world, inside the things you know and the things that you know you don't know, then the key must lie outside the fishbowl – in the third category of knowledge:

3. The things you don't even know you don't know

They're so far outside of your experience and perception of life, you don't even know that you don't know them. (For me, my current career fell into this category for a good proportion of my career change journey. I didn't even know that "online career coach" was something that existed as a concept. I didn't know that I didn't know about it.)

So, if they're totally invisible to you – if you don't even know that you don't know them – how do you access those things?

If there's one thing that will guarantee you fresh ideas, new possibilities and unexpected opportunities, it's getting out of your current reality.

Change the water you're swimming in

"If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've always got." – Anonymous

You're going to need to start experiencing things that are totally new, totally foreign, and utterly extraordinary to you, in order to start bringing them into your bowl.

And the beautiful part about this is that it only takes a few little pushes to set the process in motion.

A few micro shifts in your lifestyle can spark major shifts and light-bulb moments.

Remember our architect, Lisa, who spent months circling inside her fishbowl?

Early on in our Career Change Launch Pad, she challenged herself to do one thing each week that she'd never done before – and not only that, but something that she'd never even thought about doing before.

On her first week, she took herself to a pottery class. She had virtually no interest in ceramics at all, and certainly didn't consider it a potential career path for the future. But she'd never done it before, it was outside her comfort zone, and she figured it might be fun to make a bowl for her mother.

At the class, she got chatting to the instructor about different kinds of clay, and another of the participants mentioned something she knew about working with clay. It turned out that this participant knew a lot about working with clay in other capacities – she was a herbalist and used clays as part of her work making natural skincare products.

The more Lisa heard her classmate talk about natural medicines, the more she felt herself getting excited. Lisa had suffered from psoriasis for her entire life, and exchanged contact details with her classmate in the hope that they could meet up for a coffee and talk further.

Now, Lisa's not about to become a herbalist. But her conversation with this woman did spark an interest in nature that she hadn't felt since she was a kid, so for her next excursion outside her fishbowl, she found herself volunteering for an afternoon at a city farm, helping them build and care for their new permaculture garden. She's now gone part-time at her architecture firm and is spending the rest of the time working with an eco-building project, designing cob structures for community projects.

"I still don't know exactly where I'm headed in terms of my long-term career path, but I'm so much closer to loving what I do than I ever got before I started my weekly experiments.

"Just that one conversation at the pottery studio has launched me into this whole new world of permaculture, gardening, alternative medicines, and healthy eating. I've never learned so much so fast, and been so engaged in something new before. I may not have the specific job title yet, but for the first time in my whole career change, I know for sure that I'm on the right path.

"And what's really amazing is how much I found out I was wrong about before. I thought I knew how moving into a new field would have to work: retraining, quitting my job to make a big leap, spending loads of my savings… But since I've started opening up my world, I've found out so many different perspectives on how to make things happen.

"I dread to think where I'd be right now if I'd just stayed in my old routines, searching job sites, talking to recruitment agents who could only see where my CV could take me… All I had to do was try something new, and so many possibilities opened up."

If you've been spending a long time, like Lisa, trying to figure out what you want to do and coming up empty-handed, it might be time to take a good, hard look at the water you've been swimming in. Is it stale and familiar? Are you spending most of your time trying to turn the things you know you don't know into the things you do know – adding more water to the bowl?

When was the last time you swam in brand-new waters?

Five ideas to get you started

  1. Head over to Meetup.com and open up a category that interests you. Go to an event within that category before the week is out.

  2. Take a leaf out of Lisa's book and do something you've never done before, once a week for a month

  3. Ask a friend if you can work-shadow them for an afternoon, or interview them about their life and why they do the things they do

  4. Choose someone you know who lives in a way that inspires you (maybe they're a health food nut or they're a serial, no-holds-barred dating demon, or they take loads of awesome classes), and ask them to write a schedule of what they do each day on an average week. Live like them for at least three days.

  5. Spend a day (or a week, or a month) playing the role of "My Crazy Alter-Ego". Give your alter-ego a name, and do everything you can to embody them. Say yes to the things you'd normally say no to. Get outside when you'd normally be inside. Wear the clothes you keep at the back of your closet because 'they're just a bit out-there'. Cycle instead of driving to work, get on a train to a location you know nothing about, or book yourself onto a workshop that you'd never normally consider.

Are you just doing laps of the fishbowl? And, if so, what could you do to change your conception of what's possible? Let me know in the comments below!

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is head coach, writer, and experience designer for Careershifters. When she's not working, you'll find her listening to neuroscience podcasts, learning pottery, and dreaming up her next adventure.