We often talk about “moving up the career ladder” – as if our careers only go in one direction. But it’s often not so clear. Sometimes our careers take unexpected turns. We may return to school partway through our career. We may experience an unexpected illness, move, or family need that causes a gap in our employment.

These events can be an opportunity to embrace the unexpected and use it as an opportunity to reflect on what you really want from your career. That was one of the key takeaways from the Intelligence and National Security Alliance’s (INSA) Mid-Career Reboot event this morning. Mid-career professionals gathered to hear from expert panelists and career coaches on how to make a career transition, bridge employment gaps, market their skills, and think critically about what kind of career they really want. ClearanceJobs own Senior Editor Lindy Kyzer had the pleasure of moderating the discussion.

If you’re established in your career and wondering if you’re headed in the right direction, here are six questions you need to ask yourself now.

1. What do I love doing in my work?

Before you ask anything else, you need to pinpoint what you do enjoy about your job. If you can’t isolate what you’re passionate about, you can’t begin to make meaningful steps towards adjusting your current role or seeking a new one. Especially by the mid-career point, we can fall into the trap of going through the motions of our jobs without thinking critically. Do we like getting to mentor younger employees? Do we like learning new coding languages? Solving problems? Serving the mission?

And if there’s nothing that easily comes to mind when looking at your current job, consider what would be your ideal. Also, it’s time to start looking for another job ASAP; you may be suffering from the mid-career slump.

2. If I were to make a career change, what would it be?

Deirdre Walsh, Chief Operating Officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), encouraged mid-career professionals to embrace the idea of a career lattice versus a career ladder. When people have reached this stage in their career, she says it’s time to “think a little more internally about what kind of skills you need for the career you want. You know yourself best; you need to be your own advocate.”

CIA vet and current director at Brunswick Group Preston Golson offered some practical advice. “Look at where you want to go in your career and the skills you want to collect. Take on stretch assignments that will let you grow those skills…. it’s not that I was unhappy with what I wanted to do, but that I was curious.”

3. What skills do I need to acquire to make this mid-career change?

For someone already established in their career, it can be both daunting and humbling to venture into something new. Kelly Brickley, Senior Director of Cyber Risk at Capital One recently made her transition from years in government to the private sector. She joked that before taking her position, she thought that “agile” was something her daughter did during gymnastics. Now she holds multiple cyber certifications. She reassures mid-career professionals to “know the skills you bring, but acknowledge what you need to learn.” This can take considerable humility – but may be in closer reach than you think.

4. What unique Skills and experience do I bring to the table? how can I market them well?

On the other hand, many of us have a tendency to undercut the skills that we do have. We have been doing our jobs for so long that we lose sight of how exceptional our experience is or how to translate it to a different position. Career coach Catherine Bingham of Collaborative Consulting says she sees this often with the professionals she coaches.

“People speak about these things that they have done and they have no idea about the significance of them or how they can be packaged into transferable competencies.” This is where having the input of someone you trust is essential. They can help you take a step back, assess your skills, and package them for the position you’re pursuing.

“Never underestimate the power of having a great thought partner,” says Bingham. “Whether that’s your manager, a mentor, a peer coach, or a professional coach – because having someone give you feedback is really critical at this particular time in your career.”

5. What are my non-negotiables?

Do you prefer a short commute? Large employer or small? Is there a minimum salary you could accept in order to meet your financial obligations? Do you need a flexible work schedule to care for children, a family member, or for your own health? Maybe you need a job that allows you to continue your education. Whatever your needs, make a clear list of what is not negotiable in whatever you pursue next.

6. How can my career and my personal life work together?

One attendee shared how she worked many years as a chief security advisor, traveling 70% of the time. Years ago, the sudden injury of her mother required her to leave her job to care for her. Unfortunately, this gap also caused her security clearance to lapse. Career coach Elise Yanker of Collaborative Consulting Inc. shared how she had to leave the workforce for a time due to illness. As Walsh pointed out, these are not career liabilities; these are our lives. “If there’s a gap in your resume, own it! Be confident and let interviewers know what you went through. Be upfront, because we welcome that approach.”

Our personal experiences can also be opportunities to relationship-build with others. Attending events like these and making those human connections is the best way to make that next step in your career. As Kyzer explained, “There is a human connection to every job that you get. Passion, pursuing [the job you want] – especially if you don’t have that security clearance, which is a barrier to entry – you’re not going to get your foot in the door if you don’t show a lot of passion and skills to back it up.”

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Caroline's background is in public policy, non-profit fundraising, and - oddly enough - park rangering. Though she once dreamed of serving America secretly in the CIA, she's grateful she's gotten to serve America publicly - both through the National Park Service and right here at ClearanceJobs.