So how do I begin to figure out what I want?
First, let’s start with the premise that everyone has a different cognitive/intellectual style. Some want a process with clear steps to run through (ie: “5 steps to clarity”). Others don’t want to be given such specific direction, but rather are looking for some high level advice. To each their own. I’ll try to be at least a little helpful regardless of style.
I think of this process as finding or discovering your calling. As I mentioned in my earlier post on traps we fall into, we can easily fall into a variety of positions that have little to do with our own dreams and desires.
Let’s assume I’ve determined to begin to really dig into what I want. How do I even break the problem down?
Step 1 – Think (What does that little voice inside your head say?)
The first thing I would suggest is to take some time to actually think. This sounds obvious, but how much do you actually explore your wants? I find that most people I counsel tend to have surface goals that are “clear” to them. But they can’t often articulate a deeper connection. Their explanation of their goal doesn’t resonate for them or to a listener.
I have a recent example that I think illustrates the point. A super talented student of mine didn’t feel like they were doing well in job interviews. They had been interviewing for what I refer to as “template” jobs. In a business school there are many well defined positions and companies are seeking relatively homogeneous candidates for them. Happily in this case, my student was able to self diagnose their lack of interest in positions. They really like something that isn’t “conventional” for MBAs from my program. This student is now off on an off-roading expedition to find a better fit.
So take the time to listen to yourself. For me this means quiet, uninterrupted time away from everyone. Often this takes place at a coffee shop with headphones on listening to music. Other times it’s the wandering of my mind while I’m exercising. It’s challenging. Even when exercising, so many of us put on podcasts etc. I am definitely not thinking about deeper issues when I have the PTI podcast on.
So consciously create a useful place for you to think. But what should I think about?
I propose a few high level questions:
1 – What do you like to do?
This question is about what activities or types of things do you like to do. It’s NOT about what you aspire to BE etc. Take a little time and reflect on where you get energy. Do you like puzzles, talking to people, organizing things at church? Don’t edit yourself. If “talking to people” is what you like, then write it down or put it in your mental file. The point is to come up with a list of more than a few things you genuinely like spending time on.
Asked differently, it’s what do you do for free in your personal time?
2 – What are you (demonstrably) good at? (note: these are NOT the same question!)
We all have skills and talents. What are they? Write them down. There are assessments that can help you with both this and determining what you like. I am not a big believer in putting too much weight on them (the are indicative, not deterministic), but there’s nothing wrong with using them to help articulate ideas if you are struggling. Here’s a definition of MBTI which will tell you something about your preferences and here’s a strength’s finder tool from the author of the popular Now, Discover Your Strengths.
After coming to some of your own conclusions, go talk to others you work with and/or who know you well and ask their opinion of what you are good at and write that list down.
If those lists are the same, great. You’re done. In my experience, you’ll find some major gaps. These differences are a source for reflection. “I thought I was great at X and my co- workers didn’t list it. But they did list Y which I hadn’t thought of as a strength.” This can be a major source of insight and open up career avenues you hadn’t perhaps considered.
Many of us are intensely self-critical and so undervalue some subtle strengths we have. Conversely we can overvalue something we are proud of that others don’t appreciate. It’s only an actual/useful strength (in my opinion) if it’s valued by others. Then there’s a “market” for it.
3 – What do you value in life?
Values are different. Is family most important to you? Career progression? Travel? Faith?
Whatever it is, write it down. The list may be long. The longer it is, the more you’ll have to decide about relative priorities at your current life state. For example, I have always valued family but it takes on a different meaning after you have your children. As former boss once told me “you can have it all in life, just not usually at the same time.”
Step 2 – Get feedback (Have others tell you what they hear)
Synthesize what you have thought about and try to organize your thinking enough to have a conversation about it with a small group of friends and mentors. (I discuss the concept of a “personal board of directors” in a prior post.) This type of feedback is invaluable. Others can often see patterns or inconsistencies in your thinking that are invisible to you.
Talk to a diverse group. For example, I get really different feedback from my minister than a former boss who runs a large business. Both are important. Neither is “better” than the other. I wouldn’t want only one of their perspectives.
I’d use this opportunity to reach out to old friends who’ve known you for awhile, as well as a chance to find a few new mentors. Most people will be willing to listen to you over coffee when you have a good set of questions and a sense of what you are exploring.
Definitely avoid seeking out people to whine or complain about things. We all need to vent sometimes, but separate it from your exploration. When exploring, stay positive and focused on where you are trying to go. In this case the destination isn’t necessarily a “job”, but rather clarity and some self-awareness.
One of the hidden benefits of going out to others is that they will have all sorts of ideas that never occurred to you. These can be tremendously valuable when you are in the right mental place to receive the input.
For example, I have a friend who was debating whether to leave their job at a very prestigious firm. As we chatted over coffee, I threw out a few ideas for how I saw them and their skill set and all the people I thought would be fascinated by them. We also talked about ways to make different personal economic models work. In the end, that sparked a whole different thought process than the track they were on and they resigned. They have several different business ideas going now and are thrilled with their prospects and freedom.
The point is to let yourself be open to others’ ideas. Some may be perfect, some irrelevant. They are still worth hearing.
Step 3 – Brainstorm list potential options (Develop a concrete list of possibilities)
Having looked inside and looked outside, what seems interesting? Develop a list of potential ideas. I don’t have any more advice than simple to put it down in print and don’t edit yourself. I think getting too specific or critiquing too severely too early takes interesting options off the table unnecessarily. You may have interesting interconnections between likes and skills that play out in unpredictable ways.
These numbered steps are artificially clear and linear. Recognize that there is a continuous feedback loop in them. I don’t actually think about it this way. For me it’s much more organic. But each of these steps is definitely a part of the process, in whatever order you choose to do them.
Next post will be about taking action on the list of ideas you develop.