Q: I formerly worked as a social worker and have three children. I chose to stay home with my children after my second son was born. I enjoyed staying home and felt it was the right choice for my family. As my children got older, I was active as a volunteer in the community and with PTA. Now my youngest son is 11, and I'm ready to go back to work, but I am unsure of what to do. I don't think I want to return to social work—it is very stressful and it's a job that is never done. I really don't know how to find my strengths and then also find a job that matches those strengths. I have become depressed and lonely staying home and really want to figure this out. How do I find a new career after staying home with kids for 14 years?
— Nicola, age 43
A: Nicola, start with a simple definition of what your strengths are: Your strengths are activities that make you feel strong. Easy, right? The challenge is to make sure that you pay attention to how it makes you feel to do various activities. You can make a point of paying close attention as you go through your normal day: Keep a notepad nearby at all times, and make an entry any time you find yourself feeling inquisitive, focused, invigorated by what you're doing.
You can also play archeologist with your own past. Think back to those times when you truly felt a sense of accomplishment, when you actually felt eager to tackle an item on your to-do list or when you were hungry to learn more about what you were doing. These activities are the starting point. It certainly sounds as though you have a wide range of experience to draw from, and while your future occupation may not be exactly what you have done in the past, you will probably find that some of the things you've done in the past are things you want to do more of in the future. If you feel that what you want to do may lie in a completely different direction, that's fine too. But you can't stop in defeat at the thought that you don't have the experience or education to do what you love. If you truly love doing something, then you have to act to make it a reality.