Before I became a career coach, I lived something of a double life. During working hours, I was a successful executive at Meta (then Facebook), leading a team of creative strategists creating social campaigns for some of the world’s biggest brands. It was exciting being on the forefront of something so new—at the time, social media marketing was only just taking off—but it was also, in many ways, a little bit stultifying. Some people managers tolerate the people part as a side effect of the job. For me, in all the roles I’d held during my career, people management has always been the best part. I loved working with people, in work about people—digging into psychology and human experience.
This job, meanwhile, was all about metrics and faceless tech. Scrolling through an inbox endlessly filled with emails about product updates, features, and migrations, trying my best to care, it was hard not to feel like I was cosplaying as someone else.
And then, on the advice of a close friend, I just… stopped.
It was clear I wasn’t happy, she told me. I hadn’t seemed like myself for a while. She was right. I left—without another role lined up, without accepting any of the offers for similar positions that had come my way. I took months off to reflect and reach some sense of certainty about what should come next.
The time off was, indisputably, a privilege. The certainty doesn’t need to be—especially if we know where to look to find it. As someone who now makes a living guiding other people toward careers that feel more fulfilling and authentic to who they are, I consider my own experience a prime example of one of my most deeply held convictions: that while we typically rely on mentors and managers and others in our professional sphere to help us identify and reach our career goals, our greatest untapped professional superpower is the people in our personal life.
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The lines between our personal and professional selves are blurrier now, thanks in large part to the rise of remote work and growing demand for workplaces to support the caregivers they employ. More employees are feeling empowered to bring fuller versions of themselves to work, being more transparent about their mental health and caregiving needs, and prioritizing employers whose values align with their own. Many employers, for their part, are doing more to encourage employees sharing about their identities and taking a more holistic approach to supporting their workers’ well-being.
As a career coach, I help my clients further dismantle the barriers between their personal identities and professional ambitions. Together, we delve into their personal histories, uncover their core values, and gain clarity on their aspirations—a process that often feels like career-focused therapy. And like therapy, it requires deep introspection and honesty about who they are and what they want and need.
But introspection doesn’t give a complete picture. During significant career decisions, it’s invaluable to have an external perspective in the mix, too. That is precisely why I developed a tool that I call the braintrust exercise. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Identifying six people who span backgrounds, ages, and roles in your life, both professional and personal. This is your braintrust, and it could include, for example, a trusted colleague, a former manager, a mentor, a sibling, a close neighbor, and a lifelong friend.
Step 2: Once you have identified your braintrust, reach out to each person and ask them questions about yourself, based on what you want to uncover. Suppose, for instance, you want some clarity in identifying what would help you feel a sense of purpose. Some questions might include: What ideals do you see me striving toward? What problem in the world am I best suited to solve? If I could teach the world one thing, what would it be?
Or let’s say you want to work on your personal brand by gaining a better sense of how others perceive you. Questions I’ve counseled clients to ask their braintrust in that case include: What would you identify as my greatest and clearest strength? What do you gain from our interactions? What do you wish I would appreciate more about myself?
Step 3: Synthesize the answers. As each person in your braintrust knows you in different contexts, their responses will reflect their unique perspective. The true magic happens when you identify the common threads between the personal and professional connections. By gathering and connecting these insights, you can start to gain a deeper understanding of yourself and your path.
My clients often find the process daunting at first. They’re uncomfortable asking for help. They don’t want to be a burden. They think the people they reach out to will find the whole thing odd. In all the time I’ve been helping people through this exercise, though, I’ve never heard a client report back that their braintrust members have been anything but flattered and happy to help. That’s the other thing about turning to people close to you for this type of advice—even more than professional contacts, they’re rooting for your success and willing to help you find it.
The result is a whole new level of self-awareness. In my case, my personal network reminded me to listen to the type of person I knew I was: a creative person who loves connecting dots and finding patterns in human behavior, who feels best when helping other people make breakthroughs in work and in life—and, critically, someone with the skills to turn that understanding into a business. My friend knew these things because she knew me—who I was all the time, not just the person I was trying to be for a chunk of time Monday through Friday. And because she told me what I needed to hear, I can now start work each day with a profound sense of purpose.
So, as you navigate your own professional journey, remember that finding work in accordance with your true self is a team effort. Embrace the wisdom shared by those who know you best.
Debra Bednar-Clark is an executive coach and the founder of Blueprint.