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What should I do with my life
I wrote this letter to my nieces in an attempt to offer them advice on what to do with their lives. -Ron
Discovering what you want to do in life in as never ending process.
When I was a senior in high school family members would ask me “So what do you want to study in college?” Chances are good that you too will get asked this question often. Adults use it as a conversation starter. It is safer than asking “What do you want to do with your life?” mostly because adults can’t answer that question themselves...
If you are like I was at that age, you really don’t have enough experience to know what options are available. Besides chasing girls, my main interests were cars and video games. Naturally money was important so I looked for the highest paid job title related to either of those subjects. I came up with engineer (build cars) and computer programmer (build games). My school counselor convinced me that engineering had a brighter future and that engineers made more money, so I decided engineering was the way to go. (In retrospect computer science had a much brighter future than she knew.)
The whole process is the result of some simple factors. Everyone told me to get an education, to do something that I like, and to get a good job so that I wouldn’t have to worry about money. Combine that with my limited experience and I essentially just picked between the options that I knew about that sounded close to something I liked. Does this thought process sound familiar? It should. It is the same process in which millions of people ended up in their current career.
The problem is that it doesn’t help you to figure out what to do with your life. It gets you a job title. Once you graduate from college and get a job in your field and you will become your job title. At parties people will ask “So what do you do?” to which you will reply “I’m an engineer” or “I’m a biologist”, as if that explained everything. It explains nothing. It gives you a title but no real answers. You are still going to have a nagging feeling of unsatisfaction. Many start trying to fill up their lives with stuff to quench this feeling. (Cars, boats, houses, electronic equipment, etc.)
The first 10 years after college are the years most people REALLY start trying to figure out what to do with their lives. There is no class in school that teaches you to do what you love. That first 10 years after college become your classroom. Our entire educational system is designed to make employees. Employees are meant to be a cog in the machine. A job title is really all you need to be a cog. It isn’t surprising that this turns out to be somewhat unsatisfying if you are the employee.
It is not uncommon for people spend their 20’s bouncing around to different companies trying to find a good fit. Others find a great fit only to wake up 5-10 years later and realize that they really don’t like what they are doing. Either way, both groups face common pitfalls in their search for something more meaningful.
One pitfall is ever increasing commitments that constrain their ability to explore. Marriage, kids and a big house all increase the complexity of life. If you want to spend 6 months backpacking around Europe, probably the best time to do that is right after college before you have made too many commitments. At no other time in your life will you be as free to explore. Another pitfall is the lure of money, power and fame. I didn’t know anyone in high school, including myself, that wasn’t influenced by the siren song of money, power and fame. When my counselor said that engineers make more money than programmers that was all I needed to influence me. It also didn’t hurt that being an engineer seemed more prestigious as well.
So what is the lesson in all of this information?
I encourage you to NOT just pick a job title as your major and then think that once you have the degree the next step in life will be obvious. If you do, you will end up just like all the other 20 year olds bouncing around asking “Now what?”
I also want to point out to you that you should never pursue money, power and fame as a goal. As a goal they are a sticky trap. As a tool to help you achieve other goals they can be quite useful. Letting money, power and fame influence your decisions is like letting what kind of word processor you are going to use influence the kind of book that you are planning to write. Many fine books have been written long before the invention of the word processor. It is easy to get so caught up in the pursuit of the perfect tool (money, power, really great word processors) that you lose site of the original goal. That is the sticky trap. If you happen to have lots of money, that’s great! Use it. Just don’t let not having money become an excuse for not pursuing your goal.
Besides money, power and fame are all things that exist outside of you. Nothing that exists outside of you will ever make you happy. Happiness comes from within you. Happiness ONLY exists inside of you. No amount of external things will change that.
So what should you do?
Step1. Always go towards love.
Figuring out what to do with your life is a journey of self exploration. It is learning about your likes and dislikes. It is discovering what makes you enthusiastic, what makes you come alive. Always move towards things you love doing. This shouldn’t take much thought. You should already have an idea of some of the things that you enjoy. I've heard it said that the opposite of happiness isn't sadness. It is boredom. You should easily be able to think of several things, right now, that make you come alive. That's what I mean by go towards love. If you could do anything today, what would you do?
The acid test for determining if you are moving towards love: Would you do it for free and without recognition?
Step2. Create a project for yourself.
Creating a project is a way of exploring areas of interest. If I could go back in time and talk to High-School-Ron, I would encourage him to make some video games or create a small engineering project. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. The project should stretch you a little but only just. I would tell High-School-Ron to start by making a simple but interesting game, maybe tic-tac-toe with an interesting twist. It should be something that interests you and sounds fun. Make sure your project has a definite goal (make a game), a deadline (before the end of the month) and that it stretches you just a little.
Step 3. Evaluate your project results.
If you completed the project make a mental note of what you liked and disliked. If the project blew up in your face, make a note of what went wrong. Either way, pick another project and start again. Hopefully much smarter than you were before.
Step 4. Always make sure you are producing.
This is a rule that I got from an entrepreneur named Paul Graham. There are plenty of people in the world who plan to write a book someday. They are working at other jobs telling themselves that someday they are going to be a novelist. But are they actually writing? After all that is what writers do. Most of them are not. They are using the hazy vision of the novel that they will someday write as an excuse for not actually producing anything right now. They are kidding themselves. If I could go back and talk to High-School-Ron who wanted to make video games, I would tell him “Start making them now! Today! If you don’t have something to show for it (no matter how flawed) at the end of the month you either bit off too much or you are kidding yourself about wanting to do it.” It is how you keep yourself honest.
I believe that figuring out what to do with your life is to find the intersection of passion, talent and the right environment. By following the steps above your passions and talents should become obvious to you. I also believe that you will naturally migrate towards a favorable environment.
So there you have it. The very best advice I have to offer you in on how to figure out what to do with your life. It is all condensed into four steps. I don't know of any better way to figure out what you should be doing with your life. I always have some sort of project. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. ( One of them is this website )
I would love to hear about your new project. Think of one NOW. Today! It should be something fun. It should be something that you WANT to do.
If you love ice cream, then your project could be to make some ice cream before the end of the week. It could even be to make your own flavor of ice cream before the end of the week. Once you have a goal, then you start moving towards it. You Google how ice cream is made, then you buy the ingredients, then you make some, then you try making some with your own flavors. After that is done you pick another project and start again. Maybe for the next project you try to make a flavor that your friends like and you sell it to them.
Dream big. Rick Steves was a teacher that enjoyed traveling. He started writing guides about his travels. Now he is paid (and paid very well) to travel. It starts with doing what you are enthused about doing. I could come up with MANY more examples, but I think you get the picture.
P.S. By the way, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield sent off for a correspondence course in ice cream-making from Penn State in 1977. In 1978 they opened an ice cream shop in a renovated gas station in Burlington Vermont. As of 1999 they had sales of 51 million dollars. You would know them as “Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream.”