The new year is always a time for reflection on where we are and what we want — in our social lives, in our love lives, and, of course, in our careers. Last year saw the first wave of the “Great Resignation” gain speed, and from the looks of it, the rising tide of employees choosing something different for themselves will keep on rolling well into 2022. 

Many of us are considering riding this wave. Some of us even gave it a try already, and are wondering if we should have another go. But just like with any wave, this one has the potential to get us closer to our goals — or sweep us out to sea. How to decide whether we should “paddle, paddle, paddle!” to catch it, or to duck under and let it wash over us?

In my work at Lattice, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the forces motivating employees as they consider their career development and how their personal and working lives intersect. As the resignation zeitgeist adds new dimensions of urgency and intensity to these forces, I wanted to share a few considerations that I’d encourage anyone — not just those eyeing the surf for their next wave — to take time to think about.

Step 1: Take stock of yourself. 

What did you learn about yourself over the last couple of years? How should that knowledge be used to update your mental model of what brings you fulfillment and joy — and what doesn’t? What did you experience, whether in your working life or outside of it, that gave you confidence in what you already knew about yourself?

A colleague I recently talked to admitted to believing early on that they would derive a lot of satisfaction from achievement, and that rising through the ranks was a top motivator for them. Fast forward a few years, and they’ve noticed that they simply weren’t experiencing the energy jolt that they’d expected every time they knocked a goal out of the park. Rather, the jolt came increasingly from moments when they saw others achieve, especially if they had enabled that achievement in some way. It was time for them to adjust their mental model of who they are and what brings them joy.

And this colleague is not alone: How and where we find meaning within our working lives is shifting in major ways across the workforce. For one example: Six out of 10 workers now say they would rather work with leaders who help them find meaning in their jobs than receive a 5% pay increase.

So ask yourself: Who are you today? Who have you been? And how can you use these learnings to shape what will give your working life meaning?

Step 2: Describe where you thrive. 

Based on what you know about yourself, you’ll want to consider the external landscape of your working life. Ask yourself questions like: What is your ideal environment? Where do you thrive? What within an environment might prevent you from thriving?

Consider all aspects that are important to you — from strong leadership, to career opportunities, to goals alignment, to effective processes, to your relationships with peers and managers, to your commute, to everything in between.

In my coaching practice, this is what we would describe as your “home” — where you connect to the purpose of your organization, trust your leaders, feel like you can take risks, and are aligned to the values and culture of your working community.

For example, I’m a member of the Pride ERG at Lattice. As the company has grown in the last year, so has membership in this group. I’ve lost track of the number of times that a new member has come to me and said that having a safe space like ours made them feel like they truly belonged.

I feel that way, too — I know that I can never work in an environment where there isn’t proactive love and space for folks that are underrepresented, mistreated, or oppressed. But I’ve only come to truly realize that in my time here — it never resonated quite like this before, as I wasn’t able to bring this insight from my everyday life and translate it into the world of work.

This sense of belonging is going to look different for everyone, but it’s a critical piece of the puzzle, especially in a time when the disruptions of COVID-19 has pushed many of us to deeper levels of introspection than ever before: Nearly two-thirds of US workers say the pandemic caused them to reflect on their life’s purpose, and 70% of employees still say that their sense of purpose is defined by their work.

So: What do you need to feel like you’ve found your “home” in the workplace?

Step 3: Assess your reality and identify the gaps. 

Now that you know what you need, use those same dimensions to look at your current situation with clear eyes. Once again, look at all aspects that are important to you, but consider now how you might prioritize them so that the must-haves are gathered at the top of the list. What gaps, if any, are you noticing between your ideal scenario, and the one you currently find yourself in?

A while back, I was in a situation that seemed pretty enviable from the outside: I was the master of my own domain, well-compensated, working on projects that I enjoyed and was good at. There was just one problem: the aspects of “home” that were highest on my prioritized list were things like camaraderie, collaboration, learning from others, and feeling like I was part of something greater than myself. It turned out that looking from the outside, and considering my situation from the perspective of how others might view it, was useless. I needed to consider the inside story — my reality — in order to identify what gaps were most important, and make a positive change.

What does your reality look like, and how does it line up with where you want to be? 

Step 4: Update your life’s design with intention. 

Let’s say you identified some significant gaps in Step 3, and you’re eyeing new opportunities to potentially fill them in. Is it time to catch that wave now? Well, maybe. But you need to be intentional about how you make changes because there’s a lot of risk involved -— and not every wave that comes your way is worth jumping on.

Perhaps you’ve identified that there are a few major gaps between your reality and your ideal “home.” But you’ve also identified that there are a few areas that don’t have a gap — your current situation is delivering on at least some of your must-haves. If that’s the case, you owe it to yourself to see whether you can close the ones that exist from where you are, lest you lose what you have.

Maybe you feel fulfilled by the focus and responsibilities of your current role, but you really thrive through collaboration and teamwork and are currently serving as an individual contributor on a smaller team. Before running for the exit, consider: Are there areas of unexplored cross-functional collaboration where you can shine? Are there other avenues outside your role where you can find connection and drive impact as part of a larger group, such as an ERG or a project task force?

However, if you’ve realized that your current situation isn’t right for you, and that the gaps are too much to overcome...That’s still not an ironclad reason to jump on the first wave that comes your way. In fact, it’s all the more reason to be thoughtful and deliberate about choosing your next move.

I connected recently with a colleague who, after a number of years building her career at one firm, got the urge to paddle into new territory. When a role came along that looked like the perfect fit for her next step —the right industry, the right job title to advance her career — she jumped at it, only to find that, while everything looked right on paper, the role wasn’t aligned with deeper priorities she needed to thrive. She ended up leaving quickly and learning some hard lessons about what she really needed in her next step. 

Next time you find yourself out in the surf, with big waves rolling in, take a deep breath and consider what it will mean to start paddling. Maybe this looks like asking tough questions in the interview process, seeking out current employees, or polling the people who know you best. I promise you won’t regret thinking through where you are and what you want before you start paddling.