The average American has been in his or her job only four years. The average American getting out of college today can expect to have five careers during his or her lifetime — that's not five jobs, but five separate careers! We will probably have 12 to 15 jobs in the course of those five careers.

Although there are plenty of personality tests and other exercises you can do, there are two exercises that are essential for making career decisions: The Seven Stories Exercise® and the Fifteen- or Forty-Year Vision®.

Starting Out in Your First Career

Young people often pick careers for the wrong reasons. I once met with a 30-year-old attorney who had excelled in law school and was now working for a prestigious law firm. But he derived no enjoyment from his work. He had gone into law because it was expected of him.

Young people tend to select careers they see around their neighborhoods or on television. Sometimes they are urged to go into the same fields as their parents or other relatives. However, you will be happier and more successful if you choose a field based on what you personally enjoy doing and also do well, and based on your interests, abilities and values.

To be successful and satisfied, you need to develop both self-awareness and an awareness of the world. For example, look at the display ads in the employment section of the newspaper. The huge variety of career positions is food for thought.

In addition to becoming aware of the outside world, young people need to figure out the things they enjoy doing and also do well, and the best exercise for doing this is the Seven Stories Exercise, which you will see below.

Remember, your 20s are a time for exploration. You are not committing to a lifetime career. You are simply picking out your first career. There will be more to come.

The Exercises for Young and Old Alike

The Seven Stories Exercise provides you with deep, rich information about what you need to have to be satisfied in a job. The Fifteen- or Forty-Year Vision exercise doesn't provide an exact blue-print, but having a vision of yourself in the future often gets rid of the clutter, and narrows your focus realistically.

The good news is that we all have the time. The Forty-Year Vision was developed to give you the perspective you need to dream big dreams. You do have the time to implement them. And 20 years from now, you will still be 20 years older — whether you decide to develop a plan and follow it or not. So why not get started?

What Successful People Do

When Steven Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers, was fired by John Sculley, the man he had brought in to run the company, he felt as though he had lost everything. Apple had been his life. Now he had lost not only his job, but his company. People no longer felt the need to return his phone calls. He did what a lot of us would do. He got depressed. But then:

Confused about what to do next . . . he [Jobs] put himself through an exercise that management psychologists employ with clients unsure about their life goals. It was a little thing, really. It was just a list. A list of all the things that mattered most to Jobs during his 10 years at Apple. "Three things jumped off that piece of paper, three things that were really important to me," says Jobs. — Michael Meyer, The Alexander Complex

The exercise Steven Jobs went through is essentially what you will do in the Seven Stories Exercise. The threads that ran through his stories formed the impetus for his next great drive: the formation of NeXT computers. If the Seven Stories exercise is good enough for Steven Jobs, maybe it's good enough for you.

"Successful managers," says Charles Garfield, head of Performance Services, Inc., in Berkeley, California, "go with their preferences." They search for work that is important to them, and when they find it they pursue it with a passion.

Lester Korn, Chairman of Korn, Ferry, notes in his book The Success Profile: "Few executives know, or can know, exactly what they aspire to until they have been in the work force for a couple of years. It takes that long to learn enough about yourself to know what you can do well and what will make you happy. The trick is to merge the two into a goal, then set off in pursuit of it."

These exercises will help you decide what you want to do in your next job as well as in the long run. You will become clearer about the experiences you have enjoyed most and may like to repeat. In addition, you will look farther ahead (through your Fifteen- and Forty-Year Vision) to see if some driving dream may influence what you will want to do in the short term. I did my Forty-Year Vision about fifteen years ago, and the vision I had of my future still drives me today.

The Seven Stories Exercise

This exercise is an opportunity to examine the most satisfying experiences of your life and to discover those skills you will want to use as you go forward. Think about the times when you feel you did something particularly well that you also enjoyed doing. It doesn't matter what other people thought, whether or not you were paid, or when in your life the experiences took place. All that matters is that you felt happy about doing whatever it was, thought you did it well, and experienced a sense of accomplishment.

This exercise usually takes a few days to complete. Most people carry around a piece of paper to jot down ideas as they think of them.

Briefly outline at least 20 work/personal/life experiences that you enjoyed doing and also did well, no matter how trivial it may seem. Think of concrete examples, situations and tasks, not generalized skills or abilities. It may be helpful if you say to yourself, "There was the time when I . . . "

Choose your top seven experiences — those you enjoyed the most and did the best. Then rank them, and describe what you did. Be specific. Notice the role you played and your relationship with others, the subject matter, the skills you used, and so on. Use a separate sheet of paper for each.

Now look for the threads that run through them so that you will know the things you do well that also give you satisfaction. For example, if many of your accomplishments have to do with trees (or music, or budgets, or mechanics), maybe that's an indicator of something that makes you happy. If you are always a leader, or always thinking up new ideas, or always coming up with marketing plans, those could be hints.

The Fifteen and Forty-Year Visions®

This exercise takes only one hour to do. The hard part is simply putting pen to paper and starting to write — anything. You'd be surprised by what comes out, and you can always change it later. Do at least a Fifteen-Year Vision.

Write down, in the present tense, the way your life is right now, and the way you see yourself five years from now and 15 years from now, using the questions below. Don't think too hard. See where you wind up. You have plenty of time to get things done.

• What is your life like right now? (Say anything you want about your life.)
• Who are your friends? What do they do for a living?
• What is your relationship with your family, however you define "family"?
• Are you married? Single? Children? (List ages.)
• Where are you living? What does it look like?
• What are your hobbies and interests?
• What do you do for exercise?
• How is your health?
• How do you take care of your spiritual needs?
• What kind of work or work-substitute are you doing?
• What else would you like to note about your life right now?

The 15-year mark proves to be the most important for most people. It's far enough away from the present to allow you to dream. We know that engaging in the Fifteen-Year Vision (at least) has energized many people to turn their lives in exciting new directions.

You Write the Story

Setting goals will make a difference in your life, and this makes sense. Every day we make dozens of choices. People with dreams — written plans — make choices that advance them in the right direction. People without written dreams also make choices — but their choices are strictly present — oriented with little thought of the future. When you are aware of your current situation, and you also know where you want to go, a natural tension leads you forward faster.

When you are trying to decide on your next move, think of how that step will position you for the one after that.

You can take control and impose your own terms upon life. You can get started now.

Kate Wendleton is the president of The Five O'Clock Club, a national career coaching and outplacement organization. • www.fiveoclockclub.com