How to work out what to do with your life
There comes a time in everyone’s life where the answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” becomes more complicated, and the answer “space fireman” doesn’t quite cut it anymore.
Most students leaving high school don’t know exactly what they’re passionate about and what they want to do as a career, much less what to do in order to get there. Fortunately, and contrary to popular belief, it’s okay to not have it all figured out by the time you finish year 13.
Choosing your future career and planning your degree is a very real adult thing to do, and this reality can be scary. However make no assumption that the second you leave secondary school, you need to pick what you want to do for the rest of your life. You don’t.
The United States Bureau of Labour Studies estimates that today, from the time young people start chasing their dream career, they will have 12-15 different jobs and completely change careers 5 times.
But all of this doesn’t mean you can throw thinking about your future away with your NCEA Level 2 past papers. If you really want to be successful and, most importantly, happy in whichever field you choose, you’re going to have to think ahead.
Thankfully, there’s some clever things you can do to make walking the path to proper adulthood much easier.
Forget your passion.
Noun: an intense desire or enthusiasm for something.
There’s a common myth in career-talk that everyone has one sole passion – that one day Hagrid will turn up at your door and say, “you’re a corporate lawyer” and suddenly it will all make sense.
Unfortunately, in the muggle world, things aren’t so easy.
Luckily, though, it’s okay not to know the one exact thing you want to spend the rest of your life doing.
More than that, it’s good not to know.
The truth is, everyone has a range of talents, interests, hobbies and specialities that they’ll use in various scenarios and jobs throughout their life.
“The best thing you can do right now is to experiment with what you enjoy and are good at, and figure out what skills you have gained from your experiences. Eventually, somewhere down the line, you’ll stumble upon a vocation that is engaging and enjoyable enough to fuel a desire to succeed in that field.”
So the moral of the story is: don’t stress if you don’t know your passion. Lots of people don’t. More than that, excluding opportunities because you haven’t discovered that “passion” yet can mean missing out on lots of cool experiences. Own your uncertainty – use it to your advantage to open as many doors as you can!
Passion is not a plan; it’s a feeling, and feelings change. Otherwise, we’d have a lot of fourty-year-olds still wanting to be space firemen.
You don’t design your life, then live it – you design your life by living it and messing up along the way. To quote Scott Adams, because it’s a good quote:
“I failed my way to success. Success fuelled passion more than passion fuelled success.”
Think like a designer.
“The notion that you need to have a passion and follow it is a destructive idea.” – Bill Burnett, Professor of Design at Stanford University.
The most popular class at Stanford University is one called “Designing Your Life”, a course on how to use design skills and strategies to answer the question that most graduates grapple with: “What am I going to with myself now?”
Basically, you’re not supposed to have it figured out.
One of most anxiety-inducing meta-narratives out there is that there’s one optimal path for you to take, and if you choose wrong, you’ve blown it.
The reality is much more relieving. There are lots of right answers. Nothing is a mistake. Your entire future and happiness isn’t dependent on this one plan working out. Failure is critical to working out what you want and what you don’t.
The point is: life is messy and changes with circumstance, action, and opportunity. It’s fluid.
“Thinking like a designer” is about treating life in a more improvisational way, rather than focusing on plans and statistics. It’s experiential, and accepts failure as part of the process: more than that, it values failure. When you’ve got that down, decision-making isn’t so hard after all.
Borrowing from designers is the concept of prototyping: trying a lot of stuff out, even if you don’t know what the grand answer is. Doing your own research, finding real-life examples, experiencing some avenues for yourself is going to paint the biggest picture.
Testing the waters before diving in is better than hitting your head at the bottom, or worse – not getting in at all. Because pools can be really fun. So are pool metaphors.
Stop trying to think your way into the future. Instead, be open to trying out new and old things, skills, opportunities and experiences. Break down the system to it’s basic parts – as a designer would. Figure out what you enjoy, and draft some plans to put that enjoyment into action.
To put the “Think Like a Designer” philosophy to work, try out the Odyssey Plan.
The Odyssey Plan is an assignment where students plan out the next five years of their lives in 3 radically different ways. The activity is designed to help students imagine the multiplicity of their options, unlock the imagination and eliminate the power of the
1. List three different five-year plans. The first is the one you’re heading towards, or that you’re most “likely” to do. The second life is the one you’d create if the first life suddenly disappeared. The third life is the one you would live with no qualms about money, image or preconceived ideas about what you’re “meant” to be doing.
2. Give each plan a six-word title. Now write down three questions about each life-plan, addressing your anxieties about it.
3. Rank each life plan on whether it’s financially possible, how much you would like it, how confident you are in it, and how well it fits your values.
Here’s what one of the three options for the Odyssey Plan might look like:
6 word title: Fulfilling Expectations: Becoming a Corporate Lawyer
1. Do I want to spend 5 years at University?
2. Will I find corporate law fulfilling?
3. Do I want to move to Wellington?
Overall rating: 17/40
Do things you like now, connect the dots later on
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs was a pretty cool dude, and accordingly, he delivered a pretty cool commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005. In it, he talked about connecting the dots: trusting that you know where you are going and that the work you are doing will be valuable to your future. More than that, you can only connect the dots after you’ve gotten there.
How taking calligraphy classes and trusting his gut helped Steve Jobs win at life
Before Michael Fassbender played him in a movie, and before Ashton Kutcher played him in a worse movie, and before he even founded the first United States company to be valued at over $700 billion, Steve Jobs dropped out of university after six months.
In his Stanford speech, Steve talks about how he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life and no idea how college was going to help him figure it out. He also says that dropping out was one of the best decisions he ever made, because he could stop taking the required classes that bored him, and drop in on the ones that actually looked interesting. By doing this, what he did by following his “curiosity and intuition” turned out to be instrumental to his success in his life and career.
One of the classes he “dropped in on” was one on calligraphy, after seeing beautifully handwritten posters around campus. In that course, he learnt typefaces, letter spacing, and how to make writing an artform. Looking forward from that point, it didn’t look like this would have any practical benefit to his chosen career path.
But, 10 years later, Steve Jobs designed the first computer with beautiful typography, which was one of the reasons why Apple dominated the tech game. If he hadn’t dropped in on that random calligraphy course in university, it’s likely that computers wouldn’t have the perfect fonts and typography that they do.
“Of course, it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backward 10 years later.”
Use planned Happenstance
“Predictions are very difficult, especially when they are about the future.” – Niels Bohr
And now, on to “planned happenstance”, and how it can help you prepare yourself for your future and a career that you love. What is planned happenstance, you ask? Good question!
So, you’re following everything so far. You’ve taken a breather from the pressure of trying to think of your “passion” and exactly how you’re going to make money off of it, and are instead focusing on experiences and study that you enjoy and are good at. You’ve reflected on problems like a designer would, prototyping experiences and removing anchor problems. You’ve stopped trying to connect the dots and are trusting your gut.
For the five-year planners among us, the “correct” answer might be to prepare a plan that’s linear, logical, comprehensive, strict, and lots of other impressive-sounding adjectives. But what if there’s another way? One that’s more flexible, and perhaps even more effective? One that ties into not knowing how all the dots will connect in the future?
Professor John Krumboltz of Stanford University certainly thinks so. As we learnt in the introduction, people can change their career path quite a lot, because life is like a box of chocolates and is full of unexpected chocolates that can shape our future; some good, some not-so-good (looking at you, cherry ripes).
Professor Krumboltz noticed that successful people often stress how important it is to remain focused while always remaining open to the unplanned and unexpected.
Basically, planned happenstance involves working with some vague ideas and doing positive things in the general direction that you want to go in, while still having confidence that by applying yourself and keeping an open mind, good things will happen.
Even if you don’t know exactly where your actions will lead (which is the case for most of us unable to connect the dots right now), being proactive will serve you well in succeeding at whatever life ends up throwing you. Planned happenstance is especially relevant for careers where people create their own luck, like film, music, and art, but is present in everyone’s career paths.
So, how do we plan for happenstance? Rather than stressing out over following a plan to the T, have a go at working on four attitudes to take when thinking about your future:
Noun: a strong desire to know or learn something.
Following your curiosity will inevitably lead you to doing what interests you, and learning more about what does and doesn’t. Curiosity killed the cat, but it also helped it identify its interests.
Noun: the fact of continuing in an opinion or course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.
Persistence pays off. Be proactive and keep taking action. Continue to learn, develop skills, remain open, and follow up on random opportunities and events. Don’t give up if something is hard. Keep going.
Noun: willingness to change or compromise.
Something we could all learn from the Royal New Zealand Ballet, along with how to pull off tights. Expect the unexpected – be prepared for chance opportunities and new experiences.
Noun: hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something.
To remove the blocks and the anchor problems, reframe your goals. “How can I?” sounds a lot better than “I can’t because…”
Planned happenstance works because it doesn’t believe that the future is completely predictable or controllable; external factors, chance events and encounters, and the generally unexpected dominate our lives and careers. We’re often unprepared for the unexpected because we focus too much on asking ourselves, “have I made a decision?” and “do I have a plan to get there?”. Planning is awesome to an extent, but relying on it too much could stop us realising more awesome opportunities, because life doesn’t always go as planned.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan
If you’ve picked up anything from this guide on how to go about post-college life and choosing a degree or career, it should be that mindset is key. It’s your mindset that determines whether you feel like a success or feel like a failure, but it’s surprising how much failing a lot now contributes to succeeding later in life. It’s all about how you frame it.
Earlier, we discussed how people often view famous celebrities and celebrated entrepreneurs as being especially gifted in succeeding.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth: they were just really, really, really cool with failing a lot. Steve Jobs dropped out of university; Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team; and how many Thomas Edison did it take to get the lightbulb to work? 1,000.
Failure is often the hardest for over-achievers, who feel like they need to be constantly succeeding in everything to be a success – but failing will often lead you to cooler doors.
So, opening your mind to the wonders of risking it and failing may lead you to discover an interest or, and I’ll say it, a passion that you never would have thought realistic.
J.K. Rowling failed a lot. Then she wrote the best-selling book series in history.
Some of you may be familiar with the author of Harry Potter, which involved a wizard or something.
J.K. Rowling says that her teenage years weren’t the best; in fact, her high school English teacher referred to her as “not exceptional”. Later, she sat the entrance exam for Oxford University, but didn’t get in. After graduating, the Hogwarts founder worked at the Chamber of Commerce, which is very non-magical.
It wasn’t really going to plan, until she had a random idea of a boy going to wizarding school on the train one day. While most of us wouldn’t immediately begin to write a novel about it, she did. She was curious, proactive, open-minded, and made her own luck. But she failed – a lot.
In a TED talk entitled ‘The fringe benefits of failure’, Rowling said that seven years after graduating, she thought of herself as a failure. She was diagnosed with depression, was “as poor as it was possible to be in Britain without being homeless”, and was on welfare benefits. She found that she was becoming more passionate about her writing, though, even though she didn’t “discover” it after leaving high school.
A year later, she finished Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and submitted it to twelve publishers … who all rejected it. A year after that, a publisher finally agreed to it, after giving it to his daughter who loved it (planned happenstance, anyone?).
Countless awards, money, fan mail, money, films, and broken sales records later, the rest is history.
And the Dean of Oxford and those twelve publishers are feeling pretty silly right now.
“Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
Failure and rejection sucks, that’s a fact. But if not achieving something or not getting to where your plan says you should be bothers you, it’s often a testament to your ambition, and that doesn’t suck. Remember when we talked about connecting the dots? A lot of those dots will be fails, but by being proactive, it’ll work out – Steve Jobs promises.
Good exam results are something to be proud of, but they’re not the be-and-end-all, and neither is having it all figured out today. So, think like a designer, stay positive, try your best at everything because you’ll make yourself better regardless, and fail a lot along the way.
Fear kills more dreams than failure ever will.
Hopefully, this has given you some insight into choosing your degree, or, perhaps more accurately, not choosing it.
Rather than worry about which boxes you tick next to “courses” or what you say to the careers counsellor when they ask you what you want to be when you grow up, keep an open mind. You don’t have to have a 5-year-plan in order to be successful; you’ve just got to work at something.
Don’t worry too much about “finding your passion” after leaving secondary school. Chances are, you don’t know what it is yet; or, if you do, you haven’t figured out how to pursue it. Try an Odyssey Plan! Do you like the look of the future better if you go to cooking school and become a celebrity chef, would you rather become Harvey Specter from Suits, or perhaps a cinematographer?
Think like a designer! Don’t just work hard, work smart. Try as much as possible, explore as many avenues and opportunities as you can, whether it be reading about a successful icon in a career that you’re interested in, or going to a random talk on something you haven’t considered yet.
Don’t try connect the dots before the picture’s been, well, pictured. There’s no way of knowing how the choices you make now will impact your future, good or bad. The best thing you can do now is try your best at things that engage or interest you, and reflect on the skills that you’ve still gained from the things that haven’t.
Plan for happenstance! Life has a funny way of influencing your career path more than a plan in a career’s office does. Be proactive, follow opportunities that interest you, and make decisions that lead you broadly to where you think you might want to end up, and you’ll be surprised (which is good).
Create your own luck. Magician Derren Brown has a documentary testing how people view their luck, similar to the study on the “luck lab”: in it, an “unlucky” guy named Wayne didn’t realise all the opportunities open to him – including a van that quite literally told him to call a number to get free money. Don’t be like Wayne.
Last, but not least: fail. A lot. You’ll grow, you’ll learn, and you’ll see where your ambition takes you. Good luck!