You have problems, I have advice. This advice isn’t sugar-coated – in fact, it’s sugar-free, and may even be a little bitter. Welcome to Tough Love.
via Paramount Pictures.
This week we have a trust fund baby who doesn’t know what to do with herself in terms of a career.
Keep in mind, I’m not a therapist or any other kind of health professional – just a guy who’s willing to tell it like it is. I simply want to give you the tools you need to enrich your damn lives. If for whatever reason you don’t like my advice, feel free to file a formal complaint here. Now then, let’s get on with it.
I’m a 30-year-old woman and I have no direction in life. I earned a BA in a “soft science” from a major university (graduated Magna Cum Laude) and was then accepted into a doctoral program. Something hit me, though, right before I was to move to the city where the doctoral program is: I really didn’t want to be involved in my field of study any more. So I called up admissions and relinquished my place, aaaand that’s where my career/life trajectory abruptly ended.
I have a sizable inheritance, which has made it possible for me to not be fully employed if I so choose, and I have so chosen for the past five years. Now I feel, despite my good brain and my general curiosity about life, the universe and everything, that I have no skills to offer, I’m way behind the curve as far as being a desirable new hire to anyone, and I basically have no desire to re-enter the professional world unless I can find a way to be curious for a living. I am a huge fan of science and I find wonder in everyday objects and cosmic concepts alike, but I also have an artistic side that keeps screaming to be trained and released. I have a longtime male partner and two sweet, dependent dogs that I enjoy caring for, and I love to cook and read and listen and learn new things. I’ve managed to turn all of those things into my daily routine, which is proving very comfortable, easy, and VERY hard to break out of.
But I want to be an astronomer (astronaut would be even better), a palaeontologist, a cultural anthropologist, a saddle maker, a climate scientist, a sculptor, a science writer, an entrepreneur, a… I want to do so many things! How can I get myself back on track, be productive, but do it on my terms, in a way that I feel like I’m doing something enjoyable and good for myself and won’t fall into the soul-crushing pit of Bad Job Hell? What can/should I do with myself? Should I go into writing or podcasting, or go for some higher education with no career goal in mind? My freedom to choose and unwillingness to jump into the daily fray is causing absolute paralysis. My once potential-brimming life is now grinding to a sad crawl and I feel helpless against my own inaction.
Lost in Thought
Hey Lost in Thought,
I get a lot of advice requests like yours. So much so that I’m starting to believe the normal state of a human being is to feel totally lost these days, especially people around your age. The people out there who have been dead set on doing just one thing for their whole lives and manage to stay laser-focused the whole time are the weirdos in my opinion. So don’t fret too much, Lost. You’re perfectly average.
What you’re missing is purpose. It’s what drives us to work instead of play, to create instead of destroy, to settle down and raise families instead of remaining independent, and what keeps us from blowing our brains out as soon as we hit a rough patch. Purpose gives us a feeling of contentedness, and that makes us happy. But purpose is not something you find, it’s something you create. This is how you start:
- Accept that you have no purpose. You are an animal living on a rock floating around a star in a massive galaxy drifting through a universe that doesn’t give a damn about you. You are nothing, and therefore have been assigned no purpose other than to live, procreate and die. It’s an absolute wonder we’ve even achieved the ability to think about how lost we feel. Dwell on that.
- Now that you have come to terms with the fact that you have no universe-designated purpose – take care not to slip into an existential crisis here – you can assign yourself one. After all, when nothing matters, you can choose what matters. To do this, all you have to do is look inside yourself and see what you truly give a crap about. It can be anything you like as long as you truly, deeply care for it. It can be broad, such as “to learn”, or “to tell stories”. Or it can be more specific, such as “bake exceptional cupcakes”, or “become a professional marathoner”. It doesn’t matter what it is. Nobody cares about it but you.
- Take that thing that you care about and figure out a way you can apply yourself to it within the confines of the real world. You say you want to be “curious”. That’s a good start, but you have to define ways to do it. It doesn’t matter what it ends up being as long as it’s something that pushes you to get out of bed in the morning and try. That, Lost in Thought, is your purpose, and it’s special because you just made it yourself.
You’ll never break out of your comfortable routine, Lost, until you commit to making the first move. Just take that big first step and disrupt that routine entirely. Before you do, though, you need to narrow things down. Warren Buffett has a great exercise for this:
- Write down your top 25 career goals on a single piece of paper.
- Circle only your top five options.
- Put the top five on one list and the remaining 20 on a second list.
Now, you might be thinking you’ve made a list of primary and secondary goals. The primary goals are what you focus on, and the secondary goals are only to be focused on when there’s time, right? Wrong! Throw that list of 20 secondary goals away. As Buffet puts it, those aren’t secondary goals; those are “avoid-at-all-costs” items. Those are the things that are distracting you, crippling you with choice paralysis, and keeping you from staying centred on your self-created purpose. If a goal isn’t in your top five, it isn’t contributing to your long term well-being.
If you’re left with art and saddle-making, give it a go. If you’re left with science and research, try to get a job in a lab, or dive back into academia and become a teacher. If your top goal is a podcast or writing, get to it. Just, whatever it is, make sure it lines up with your purpose, then make sacrifices and give it everything you can. Or don’t do anything, just sit on your money and squander the only opportunity you have to live the life you seek. Your choice.
That’s it for this week. I probably didn’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but sometimes what you need is some tough love. ‘Til next time, figure things out for yourself.