Like many women, I was told I could become whatever I wanted to be when I grew up. Before the age of ten, I cycled through dreams of acting, singing, and becoming a veterinary pharmacist (true story).
Trying to find my passion was a near-obsession that followed me into adulthood. As I struggled to find what my best skills were, all along I ignored what was naturally good at. I let my work get in the way of self-reflection, and forgot that my knack for empathy, love of writing and an incurable curiosity about human behavior are a key tenet of who I am.
They say hindsight is 20/20, so today I clearly see how these strengths shaped my career. Yet, for a long time, I searched for my passion as if it was a lost treasure chest that required a map to find.
Ultimately, self-reflection is about asking yourself some key questions about how your past experiences, struggles and triumphs have shaped you.
This is not a new idea. For decades, psychologists have known that humans are more motivated by personal, meaningful goals than by external rewards such as money or status. Put simply: when you love what you do, it shows. You’re lit up by your passion, you put in extra effort, you’re a source of great ideas. Others envy your confidence.
Self-reflection is an important part of any career. It requires learning about yourself on a regular basis.
So how do you get started? The first step is to simply explore your whims — those little sparks of interest you’re not sure what to make of yet.
To help you figure out what you find meaningful and inspiring in your life, try this exercise. For each of the prompts below, write for a minimum of five minutes. Don't censor yourself. Write freely. Jot down whatever comes to mind, no matter how silly it seems. Ready?
Name the top 3 peak experiences in your life. What do they have in common? What does this tell you about yourself?
What did you dream of becoming when you were a kid?
What are your strengths and values?
If money weren’t a problem, what would you spend your every day doing?
What would you do if you knew you could not fail?
What’s your favorite way to spend your free time?
What have you done in your life that you are especially proud of?
What activity are you doing when it feels like time just flies by?
What times do you feel the most alive?
What kind of impact do you want to have?
What kind of professional and personal breakthroughs do you want to experience?
What are things (a language, a sport) you want to learn?
How do you envision you will leave your goals or legacy on people’s lives?
What are you excited, happy, and enjoying most in your life right now?
These powerful questions can help you strip away limiting beliefs to find your true calling — work you find deeply meaningful. That doesn't mean it'll be easy, but it will be rewarding.
There isn't a direct route to finding your passion; it's something that unfolds over time and is discovered through life experiences. Your "dream job" isn't an exact destination, either. It's constantly evolving. The ideal career when you're in your early 30s may eventually become a poor fit by the time you turn 40.
So what do you do if you have no idea what your passion or life calling is?
First, don't panic. Finding your purpose isn't something that happens overnight. It's a messy, iterative undertaking that requires time, patience and a healthy dose of self-reflection. You'll get there, but you have to start by taking small steps.
Once it becomes a habit of mind, the process gets easier. Here are some of the most common forms of self-reflection that you may already practice:
This practice has a lot of well-known benefits. By clearing your conscious mind, you get in touch with your subconscious mind. It's a process of critical reflection where your feelings are brought to the front of your prefrontal cortex. Once you're done meditating, you'll feel like you have a stronger self-monitoring scale that will help you through the rest of your day. It's no wonder why meditation is something we should set aside time for every workday.
You don't have to set out to write an essay every morning. Just writing a sentence or two makes this reflective practice worthwhile. Every few weeks, find the time to read through your past entries from your reflection journal. While it may not detail every situation you've faced recently, you'll find that it does an excellent job providing an "empathy map" — a list of what matters to you most.
Regardless of the medium you choose, making art is a calming process that allows you to explore your thought, strength and weakness. It's not your kill or ability that's important, it's the action of doing the work. Pick something that interests you, whether it's an adult coloring book, knitting or scrapbooking, and pursue it. You'll be surprised at what you learn about yourself as you focus your thoughts on a singular, creative pursuit.
At the end of the day, self-reflection isn't enough. You have to take consistent action to make your thoughts and dreams a reality. But when you take the time to look inward and reflect, you may be surprised by what you find. Your passion might have been waiting there all along, just waiting for you to light the spark.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. Her clients include CEOs and C-level executives at top Fortune 500 companies such as Google and HP, as well as media personalities, startup founders, and entrepreneurs across industries. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. Get free tools to grow your career confidence at melodywilding.com. A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.