How to Focus When You Have Too Many Career Aspirations

Iris Cai
Career Relaunch
Published in
8 min readOct 19, 2020
Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

Career reinvention can be hard if you are a curious person with many interests. It can be worse if you have a diverse background and can likely excel in quite a few of the paths that interest you as long as you put in the hard work, deliberate practice and are a good relationship builder. But how do you prioritize your efforts in this journey, especially when you already have a day job that consumes you? How do you ensure that the hours you put in when exploring one path doesn’t go to waste when you are equally interested in the others?

As a multi-time career changer, I am no stranger to this feeling. Sometimes it can feel like there are cobwebs in my head when there are just too many things pulling me in different directions. If having too many ideas also overwhelms and confuses you, try the following four steps to help you find clarity.

1. Say “yes!” to the mess

Overwhelm, or any negative emotions caused by stress, is not conducive to clear prioritization. Therefore, before you start prioritizing, reframe your thinking to change how you feel.

Consider saying “yes” to that messy feeling. Accept this situation as something that is good.

Why? Instead of wandering in life directionless and feeling apathetic, you have ideas probably because you are curious and are open to new experiences. Psychologists found that openness to experience is one of the key ingredients to fostering creativity. It increases one’s ability to recognize new patterns and links among unrelated information. So recognize yourself for a moment. What you have been experiencing is just a temporary byproduct of being a creative person.

In addition, remember that having many ideas means you are more likely to land on a great, rather than a mediocre idea. The Originals discusses psychologist Dean Simonton’s finding that creative people don’t necessarily produce better ideas. They simply make more of them. Picasso’s entire body of work consists of over 17,800 pieces of ceramics, paintings, sculptures, drawings and countless rugs and prints. Only a small number of them gave him his acclaim as an art icon.

Lastly, keep in mind that meaningful career reinvention is often a marathon rather than a sprint. According to the “fast and slow brain” theory (as in Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize laureate), our brain is a “dual processor”! Our fast brain generates new ideas while the slow brain is more deliberate and is responsible for exploring them and determining their uses and applications. Let’s trust the process of the slow brain, be patient and go through the “idea sorting” process one step at a time.

2. Reverse engineer your career options

A couple of years ago I wrote about how to use mind mapping to brainstorm and find inspiration for one’s career, a divergent thinking stage.

This time around, we are looking at the convergent stage where you have narrowed down your options to only a couple.

One go-to method I commonly use with clients is reverse engineering your career options, and guess what? With mind maps again.

Cory’s story

A former client (let’s call him Cory) gave me permission to use his story to illustrate how to do this. So let’s meet Cory.

Cory has been teaching at a high school for 7 years. He loves education but also wants to experience other careers without abandoning his teaching experience. After lots of research, he finally narrowed down to three options: 1. Consulting for educational institutions on social-emotional learning; 2. Working on an educational technology (edtech) product; 3. Working as a trainer for a training company.

Here are the steps you can follow:

  1. Draw three circles on a big piece of paper, one for each career option written inside. Leave lots of space in between.
Mind map with three career options

2. Start with the first circle and start drawing branches outward to brainstorm things you could do to help you pivot into that career based on your research. Be as specific as you can and have as many “layers” as possible.

Mind map with one career option expanded

Trust your intuition in this step. Use your “fast brain”.

In Cory’s case, he knows that to be able to consult other schools on their social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum, he needs to demonstrate that his experience building such curricula has been successful. He also thinks of other things he needs to do, such as becoming more of an expert on SEL through writing blog posts, which are captured in other circles.

3. Once you are done with brainstorming on one career option, move on to the other ones. Below is a simplified example of what it looks like. Your real life example should have way more “bubbles” than this!

Mind map with multiple career options expanded — a big brainstorming phase!

Note that sometimes you may feel a bit stuck because you run out of ideas. This is where you can take a break so that you can come back another time with fresh perspectives.

Sometimes being stuck also means you haven’t learned enough about that career option, and it’s time to interview more people in that field, read job postings and professional articles in those areas.

4. Now that you have quite some action items, it is time to identify the next right thing to focus your energy on. How do you prioritize?

3. “Marie Kondo” your to-do list

Ever heard of Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidying expert who is most well-known for her rule of keeping only items that spark joy in you? It turns out that a few of her six basic rules of tidying your home apply to your to-do list as well.

  • Imagine your ideal work and life styles. Marie suggests that you imagine what kind of house you want to live in and how you would like to live in it. Once you have made your future career options more specific with mind mapping, you can more easily visualize and feel what it is like to really be in each of those roles. In this step, Cody feels that a more flexible style is what he prefers, which helps him narrow down the types of organizations he’d like to work for.
  • Find something you can start doing easily. Marie recommends that we start tidying things that are easier to decide on as early wins can keep us motivated. Similarly, working on small and pivotal projects can boost your motivation. You can even create such opportunities in your current job. Cory has already built an SEL curriculum for his students, but he never thought about measuring its effectiveness. In order to reach his goal of demonstrating his expertise, one easy thing he can do is to measure the curriculum’s success so he can have tangible results to show others.
  • Go with what energizes you. Marie believes that it is important to consult our feelings when making decisions. Career reinvention takes up lots of energy so we need to learn how to manage your energy effectively so you don’t get depleted in the process. The tip above is about minimizing the energy you invest to activate your plan. This one is about seeking activities that give you energy. Consider compiling a life energy list, as suggested in The Next Right Thing: Reflect on things you’ve done in life that made you feel alive and incorporate those things into how you carve out your new path. If writing is not your thing while talking is, start a YouTube channel or join someone’s podcast as a guest to establish your credibility.
  • Find 1–2 action items that would pivot you into multiple options. Look at your mind map and identify things you can do that could benefit all three options and draw lines to link them together (see the green lines below). For Cory, building and demonstrating his expertise in SEL seems to be the one thing that he can focus on first: He can accomplish that by reading, writing and building an SEL curriculum, all of which can pave a path towards all three career options!
Mind map where you pick the best course of action that would allow you to accomplish multiple career goals.

4. Plan for obstacles

Career reinvention can be a long process. Knowing the potential obstacles and having a plan to overcome them is key to your success.

Question your negative thoughts

As you explore a new domain, challenges may discourage you and cause negative thoughts such as “This is not for me”, “I suck at this”. This is where you want to notice thinking patterns that don’t serve you. Unhelpful thinking styles have powerful impacts on how we feel and can often lead to depression and anxiety. Here is a quick tip sheet you can use to practice harnessing your unhelpful thinking styles and become more resilient during your transition.

Find your tribe

Having a community is more important than ever when you are navigating a major change. Make a point to connect with people who support you regularly to share your challenges and triumphs. They can be those who are already in the field you want to get into, someone who has navigated their own career change successfully, or a coach. These people can offer you solutions, point out your blind spots (e.g. your strengths or your unhelpful thinking), and help you see the big picture (e.g. reminding you of what is important).

Wrapping up

I hope this article offers new ideas and perspectives as you explore new terrains of your work life. Career reinvention can be confusing and demotivating. Trust that you are not alone. With the right tools and support, you will find the fulfilling career you deserve! For books that have inspired me on career reinvention, check out

Get in touch if you’d like support on finding inspiration, meaning and focus in your career journey.

Storyteller, changemaker, leadership and flourishing coach with a master in positive psychology, I write about innovative and research-backed ways to help people live more fulfilling and balanced lives. Connect with me here or via LinkedIn.

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Iris Cai
Career Relaunch

Changemaker, storyteller, & positive psychology nerd, I write about innovative and research-backed ways to help people live more fulfilling and balanced lives.