As the labor market slowly recovers from it's paycheck-killing slump, it's natural to hope for your next big break. But remember that when opportunity knocks you should open up cautiously. Beware of career opportunities that look like quick fixes because often they are really career derailments.

Figure out now what you want for your career so when opportunities pop up, you can judge them in the context of long-term goals you believe in. Managing a career is a difficult process — full of risks, disappointments, and feelings of hopelessness. People who stay on track are people who trust themselves to know what will make them happy and trust themselves to meet their goals.

Here are some examples of opportunities that derailed careers:

The family business derailment
Danny loved computers. He was an IT consultant for ten years and then he got a pink slip. He had never had to look for a job in a bad economy, so after he sent twenty resumes and heard back from no one, frustration and fear set in; Maybe he would never get a a job.

His dad, on the other hand, wanted to retire and sell his construction business. Danny saw a golden opportunity to avoid a prolonged job hunt, and he took over the family business. But Manny never wanted to run a construction company. He says he often finds himself fixing the company's computer network instead of building the company's client network. In hindsight, Danny says he could have suffered through a difficult job hunt and to remain in the IT. But at this point, he doesn't know if he has the heart to dump his dad's business.

The grad school derailment
As a college senior, my dad knew he wanted to be a history teacher, but he took the LSAT because his father wanted him to be a lawyer. My dad got a near-perfect score. So while he was applying to Harvard's graduate program in history, he filled out the application for law school, too. Harvard accepted him, but only for law. And my dad thought to himself, “Who passes up Harvard law?” So he went there, and he won a position at a top-tier law firm. But he never liked law and, frankly, he was never very good at it.

The gold rush derailment
Harry was an economic development wiz. He turned run-down cities into hipster destinations, and he had his eye on Los Angeles for his next big job. But then he saw people making millions of dollars on the Internet, and he wanted to make millions, too. So he dumped his government-pay-scale field for a dotcom. He hated his Internet company: Manic pace, pretentious twenty-somethings, and waffling management. He suffered though months and months with the hope of making millions, but the company went bankrupt. And then the economy tanked and most cities had some form of a hiring freeze. So the man who was a rising star in a field he loved became unemployed after spending a year doing something that made him miserable.

Each of these people knew what he wanted, but at a crucial point, diverged from the path he set out for himself. An opportunity is only as good as it's long-term effects on your life. Career focus will help you tell the difference between a good opportunity and a bad opportunity.

Career risks are good, but only in the context of career plans. So make a plan and then trust yourself to set goals and meet them. That way, when opportunity knocks, you won't budge for a quick fix or a big sellout — you'll focus on the path that is right for you.