“It’s perhaps easier now than ever before to make a good living; it’s perhaps harder than ever before to stay calm, to be free of career anxiety.” — Alain de Botton
This uncontrollable, sinking knot we feel in our stomach comes from the gap between the lives we imagined for ourselves and the ones we end up living. In our search for stability and security, we are programmed to find answers through a career — one we often choose before we reach adulthood and know who we are and what the world has to offer.
Our families, schools, and media bombard us early on with the most frustrating of questions,
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It’s not about what we want to be when we grow up, but rather who we want to be.
So many of us feel stuck because we’ve been forced to define our future around a job description rather than an imaginative view of our emotional, creative, and spiritual self. Is it any wonder so many of us feel stifled by our jobs?
What if we did the opposite? What if we imagined our future self and asked, “Who do I want to be in 10, 20, 40 years? How do I want to develop as a person? What do I want to experience?”
Today, more than at any other time in history, we have an opportunity to seek out our true calling and unleash our unique potential into the world. And more than any other time in history, we’re being rushed to define ourselves by a career title, when that same title and even the industry face only slightly better than 60/40 odds of disappearing within a few decades.
But don’t abandon ship!
We know why we choose the wrong career, but we don’t need to quit today to build a new future for ourselves. Finding out who you want to be in the world is a journey that takes time and it may or may not be job-related (for example, raising a family or being in the service of others can be your purpose).
Here are several steps you can take to regain your perspective, build up your patience and begin the transformational journey of getting closer to living a life filled with purpose and meaning.
First, focus in on the question of who you want to be in the world. There are several ways to begin doing this:
Ayse Birsel developed a great method for identifying your values. Write the names of five people you admire onto a piece a paper. Then, put a list of their admirable qualities below each of their names. The curveball is the final step… erase their names and write yours. These are the values that are most important to you.
Grab the second piece of paper. Write the numbers 1 – 20 vertically down the side. Over the next 24 hours, jot down twenty experiences you want to have in the world over the next 10 years. Don’t be afraid to cheat! What we mean by this is grab ideas from other folks. Twenty is a lot. Maybe you know your first three – starting a family, writing a book, visiting Alaska. But maybe your friends have a few others – climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, for example. Having experiences to focus on will help you move in the direction of exploring who you want to be in this world.
Sometimes we’re too close to our anxious thoughts to see the best way forward. That’s why a practice called Reflective Best Self is a good next step. Developed by a diverse group of professors and organizational consultants, it’s a 360 degree view of you at your best — shining a light on your strengths.
Here’s the process:
Email five people from different parts of your life (work, friends, family, your runners’ club, etc). Ask them to describe a moment in your life when they saw you at your best, when you added the most value to a challenging situation, when your personal values were most engaged, etc.
After you get their responses, identify common themes you read throughout the different emails. Group them and interpret what they mean to you.
Compose your self-portrait. Develop a paragraph description of who you are at your best. Use the themes you identified. The goal is to create a powerful image of your previous contributions and a guide for your future actions. Begin your description with these words: “When I am at my best, I…”
Finally, for your practical self who needs to survive over the short-term at a job that isn’t a great fit, try to add at least 1 of these 6 “purpose sparks” to your work role:
Entrepreneurial activities — leading a project that drives you to adopt a mindset of a doer
Creative projects — unleashing your playful self will yield clues about what energizes you
Helping others — having an impact on colleagues or community will help you feel more purposeful
New and you — working on something outside the box, an emerging concept or idea, will help create a sense of meaning
Inspirational location — finding inspiration — even if merely moving from a cubicle view to a window view at work— can change your patterns of thought and teach you something new about yourself
Engaging with people more often — this helps us recognize the community we want, lack or enjoy, which is critical to a fulfilling life
These activities can help you unlock clues about your calling. For example, our purpose is only discovered by engaging with the world, so the more people you interact with directly, the more clues about your journey will emerge. At Project X, we curate a weekly list of 10 Purposeful jobs that meet these criteria.
Our educational and societal systems cannot keep pace with the rate of change in our world. Too many of us end up in the wrong career because we choose our path before we know who we are and base our decisions on outdated societal markers: prestige, income potential, stability, and external pressures from family and other circles.
The good news: it is possible to alter the course your life has taken so far. You can start by being aware of factors that have driven your career choices to date. Then, spend the time to ask yourself, “Who do I want to be in the world?”
Are You Thriving? Take the assessment here.