Finding your way

My last post talked about the exploration phase of figuring out what options are available vs. the selection phase when you choose what you’re going to do next. I mentioned the importance of paying attention in the exploration phase, to “be more critical in trying to tease apart the common patterns that make one option sing to you when another doesn’t”. So what do I mean by that?

When I was first thinking about leaving my physics PhD program, I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was talking to a friend about the possibility of taking a few months off to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. He said that was the stupidest idea he’d ever heard of, and explained that I’d never figure out what I wanted to do by thinking about it; I’d only figure it out by trying things and seeing what worked for me and what didn’t. Thinking about a job wouldn’t tell me what it was actually like; only doing it would give me that information. I thought that was wise advice, and I’ve followed that philosophy ever since.

My next big realization in how to think about finding my path was several years later. I had dropped out of grad school to become a programmer because I was good at getting computers to do what I wanted. I had done that at a few different companies, but I was starting to hit my ceiling as a coder. I went out for a beer after work with my coworkers on a Friday evening, and was chatting with Brett, the lead software developer. Brett excitedly said to me “Eric, do you know what’s great?!” “No, Brett, what’s great?” “My fiancĂ© has to work until midnight tonight! That means I can go home and code for four more hours! Isn’t that awesome?” “Um, that’s great, Brett!”

I love telling this story because it’s such a great example of somebody doing the thing that he loves. Brett loved writing code so much that he was super excited to get to do more of it on a Friday night for fun, and his eyes were shining with that excitement. I, on the other hand, did not love writing code. I never programmed on my own time, and I didn’t have a hobby of learning the latest and greatest languages. I was never going to be able to keep up with somebody like Brett in terms of my professional development as a programmer because I just didn’t love the activity of programming the same way that he did.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious what excited me the same way that programming excited Brett. I was spending my nights and weekends reading sociology, speculating about management, and generally thinking about the question of how people work together. Or, as I put it in my purpose and meaning post, “helping people do something new”.

To help others figure out what similarly engages them, I will often ask people in career coaching conversations about their last several jobs, and what aspects of those jobs excited them and gave them energy, and what are the things that drained their energy. As we examine those two categories, we can start to draw connections and figure out the underlying patterns. We can also look at what they spend their free time doing – what would they do with a free Friday night like Brett? And then we can figure out what jobs might offer more of the aspects that energize them, and less of the aspects that drain them. We are looking for the activities that make their eyes light up.

And, as my friend noted, this search for a meaningful job is not solved by thinking about it, but instead by trying things out. That doesn’t necessarily mean trying different jobs, and immediately quitting them if they don’t feel right. As I mentioned in my small steps post, there are a number of possibilities to learn more about a job before doing it.

  • You could do an informational interview with people who have the job, as I did when thinking about getting into coaching.
  • You could try on aspects of the job in a volunteer capacity e.g. writing code for an open source project.
  • You could start attending talks and meetups for the community of people with those jobs.

Each of these will let you learn more about what being in that job would actually be like, and may even potentially make it easier to get hired into a similar job later by making connections or having volunteer experience.

Another thing to remember is that no job is perfect. Every job has sucky parts. The question is whether you enjoy the other aspects of your job enough to tolerate the aspects you don’t like. Thus, every job requires discipline, which one commenter described as the “ability to push through unpleasant, but necessary things to reach a goal”. But with some experimentation and research, you might be able to find the right balance of job attributes, where the great parts make your whole day, and the other parts are tolerable.

As you try different things in the exploration phase, you will start to see patterns of what aspects of a job are essential to your happiness in the job (what makes your eyes light up), and what aspects are so demoralizing that they are intolerable. As you get clearer on those patterns, you can use them as the requirements for selecting your next job, as described in my last post. And if you use a set of criteria that lead you into a job that isn’t a good fit, adjust the criteria and try again.

This post has primarily been about finding a job that suits you, but the same exploration process can apply to the other activities I discussed in my last post, such as dating or house hunting. Pay attention to what attributes make you light up, and what drain your energy, and start looking for patterns; I find journaling very helpful in starting to see those patterns. It was certainly eye-opening for me to start to figure out what I actually needed in a relationship vs. what I thought I needed, which changed my whole approach to dating last year. Once I had a better sense of the patterns, I could be more selective. Exploration, and then selection.

I’m curious if these last two posts make sense to anybody outside my own head. Please drop a comment or email if these ideas resonate with you. Thanks!

7 thoughts on “Finding your way

  1. The one phrase that I’ve heard that aligns with this is that when you’re faced with a multitude of options for things, find the pain that you are willing to endure, and go with that option. That is, there are plenty of great things about most options. But the ones you’re alright with are the ones whose pain, drudgery, difficulty, frustration, etc. are the ones you *can* endure. And you should pick those over the ones you can’t.

    1. I’m guessing you’re referring to Mark Manson asking What pain do you want in your life?, so leaving that link here. And, agreed that’s another way to look at this – I was looking at the positive side (what energizes you so much that you can plow through other obstacles?) vs. the negative side (what form of suffering do you embrace?) but both are valid ways to come at this question.

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