That’s right - “figure,” not “figured.” I've made a few noteworthy accomplishments in my career so far, but I'm still basically learning as I go, to be honest. Let’s get that straight in the first paragraph.
Sometimes it feels like the older I get, the more difficult questions I have to face. In particular, this one not-so-simple question:
“What should I do with my life?”
That question can be a real bitch. I’ll never forget my first existential panic attack – I was hanging at my best friend’s house during winter break freshman year, playing video games and being lazy, when all of life’s most difficult questions came out of fucking nowhere and drop-kicked me in the chest.
What’s the meaning of life?
What is the true nature of God and the Universe?
What is my reason for living?
Will I ever get to date a Texas cheerleader?
I actually called an ambulance to save me from what I thought was a heart attack (I ate a lot of greasy junk food back then. It made sense.). Fortunately the paramedics were cool about it, and we shared some laughs after I calmed down.
I’ll tell you something though – even with all these difficult questions I still face on a daily basis, I still manage to maintain a healthy level of optimism. This kind of uncertainty used to give me nasty anxiety, but nowadays I try to embrace it. It's oddly exciting not to know where I'll end up a year from now.
So as I was saying, career uncertainty can be pretty fun (when properly managed). Here’s a step by step framework of what I do to make the most out of a life of career uncertainty.
1. Re-frame the question
First of all, the question “what should I do with my life” is a really unfair question. Stated this way, the question implies that you only have ONE choice of career and that there’s no way to ever switch your path if your first choice wasn’t totally perfect. It also implies you can only have one career at a time and can't run any kind of side-hustle in your spare time.
That may have been the case for older generations, but for better or worse, that's not how life works any more. Your career path can (and probably should) change many times throughout your life. Hell, I’m only 27 and my “dream career” has already changed many times:
And even though I love my current day job and company, I still try to switch my focus every few quarters and make sure I'm always learning something new. When people ask me what I want to do with my life, my silly answer is usually “everything!” Silly question, silly answer. For me, a much better question is:
“What do I want to do with my year?”
Not your whole life, just the next three hundred and sixty five days. A simple word switch, and the question already feels a lot less scary to me. You could even change it to “six months” or even a single month, if that’s a better fit for your style.
In my experience, this question is much more practical. Think about it - life changes so quickly and unexpectedly these days, I’d be surprised if even the most successful people of the world have ever been able to stick to any kind of concrete “five year career plan”. In my experience, it has been much more effective to set goals in this sort-term manner. It’s less intimidating, more manageable, and less stressful when you deviate from your plan (and you probably will).
2. Learn random stuff and try everything
Let’s make it even simpler. If you have no idea where you want to take your career, or you’re considering a career change, a good question for you might be:
“What do I want to learn this year?”
Answer that question, and start studying and practicing. Don’t worry too much about “will this pay off in the future,” just have fun with it for now. Karate, programming, photography, graphic design, battle-rapping… it doesn’t matter what it is - if it interests you at all, give it a shot. You have nothing to lose by learning something new.
One of the greatest things about modern life is that you can learn just about anything on the internet for free. For no monies. Just go to Google and type in “how to juggle,” and five seconds later you’ll find a free how-to video. There’s no excuse anymore, you lazy mofo. (Side note - if you search online and can’t find any free materials for what you want to learn, please email me and I’ll try to help you find it.)
Here’s where it gets fun. If you spend enough time trying out random stuff, eventually something (or multiple things) will start to resonate with you. If you ever find yourself feeling completely immersed in whatever thing you’re learning, to the point where you sometimes lose track of time while doing it, you might have a winner. Keep doing that thing. And keep a list of everything that makes you feel this way, you’ll need that list later.
I know I said don’t worry about whether or not it will pay off, but yeah – learning interesting stuff and useful skills generally pays off in one way or another. If you get good enough at something, someone will eventually be willing to pay you to do it for them or teach them how to do it themselves. For example I learned ballroom dance in college just for the fun of it (and because there weren’t enough girls in my electrical engineering classes). I never expected to make money from it, but a few years later people were paying me pretty decent money to teach them how to dance. No degree or certifications necessary.
So get out there and learn some cool shit! It’s the first corner of my “Career Success Triangle."
3. Do useful things for other people
So after you’ve obtained some useful knowledge and/or skills, you’ll be ready to put those skills to work. Once you have an idea of what you want to do this year, and how your new skills come into play, then a more appropriate question might be:
“How can I be more useful to the people in my life this year?”
And “people” can be anyone – your boss, your coworkers, your family and friends, or people that visit your blog (sup homie, thanks for reading - hope you’re finding this article useful). If you have the skills and the time to be useful to someone in your life, offer to help! And by “useful” I mean:
It saves them time,
It makes or saves them more money, or
It makes them feel good
That’s really all it takes to be useful. Whether it’s fixing broken bones or telling knock-knock jokes, if you have some ability or knowledge to make someone’s life easier, to put some extra cash in their pockets, or simply put a smile on their face, you're in a good spot. Do this often enough, and you might find yourself with a much bigger circle of friends.
Here’s the catch though, and bear with me - you can’t ask for anything in return. Not at first.
Think about it. Would you pay a guy good money to fix your car when all he’s done is watch some how-to videos on YouTube? Probably not. But if a guy was referred to you by your friends after he fixed all of their cars, now you're much more likely to open your wallet. I bet you wouldn’t even consider that he definitely sucked at fixing cars at one point in his life, and that’s the truth most people forget. For a long period of time, that guy spent hours and hours per week fixing cars mostly for free, slowly improving his skills. No luck there, just dedication to his craft.
If you want to build a new career, this is what it takes. You have to be willing to do it for free, and do it WELL, in order to build your reputation and credibility as someone who deserves good money for his time.
When you get to a point where you have a steady stream of people approaching you for help, THEN you can start charging a premium (or applying for better jobs and promotions). And if you’re patient enough to earn this reputation the right way, they’ll be glad to pay you for your time.
Sound like a lot of work? Well it is, and it can suck. It’s the not-so-fun second corner of my triangle:
Fortunately, the third corner fixes that not-so-fun problem. In fact, it’s literally -
4. Make it fun!
It feels weird that I need to include this step, but I meet a fair amount of people these days that seem to be afraid of having fun and trying new things. It’s as if they think people will judge them for smiling and expressing authentic excitement about something. I don’t get it. All they have to do is ask themselves:
“How can I have the most fun possible this year?”
Enjoy yourself. Go hiking. Go out dancing. Do whatever brings you joy. Take some time to stop and smell the cupcakes.
Learning new things and doing useful work for other people all week is exhausting. It’s important to take some time for yourself so you can recharge your batteries – physically and mentally. That’s why they call it “recreation.” You are “re-creating” yourself so you can get back to work and be productive when you’re ready.
Let me be clear though - I’m not saying that having fun has to be separate from learning and working. I actually believe it should be the exact opposite. If you can learn how to find joy in learning and working for others (and you can), it will do wonders for your focus and willpower, boosting your performance and allowing you to accomplish your goals in record time.
Remember that list I told you to keep earlier? Of subjects you enjoy so much that you lose yourself in them? That is how you learn how to find work that brings you joy. Keep that list, and do some research to see what possible careers involve the most subjects on that list. For example ballroom dancing was one of those items on my list, and when I started teaching for money, my paying customers knew I was in it for more than a paycheck. They could see how genuinely happy I was to be dancing, and I think that’s where most of my credibility came from. Giving people advice and business development were also on my list, and now my day job is in business consulting. It takes some dedication, but this method has really done wonders for me as I've made big career decisions over the past several years.
This is how I can embrace uncertainty so confidently. The future of my career may be uncertain, but I know what brings me joy in my work. As long as I maintain a decent reputation and do my best work, I expect that the joy I take in my work will bring me plenty of new opportunities.
Speaking of maintaining a good reputation, there’s one more vital part of the triangle.
5. Network, network, network.
Yes, three “networks” because networking is an integral part of all corners of the triangle and is important enough to have its own section.
Learning, working, and having fun will make you a very intelligent and capable person over time. Combine that newfound strength with a strong network of friends and business connections, and you’ll find yourself with a never-ending stream of opportunities to show the world what you’re made of.
Success = Preparation + Opportunity
When I taught dance, my friends were my biggest source of referrals. I got my current day job because of an old college friend who made the necessary introductions. If you ask me, submitting blind job applications is a sucker’s game. The real opportunities come from long-standing friendships and business relationships.
So how do you build such a network? Easy.
Think back to your school years. How did you make friends in school? By sharing some experiences together (classes, extracurricular activities, etc.), and by having similar interests. There is no reason you can’t recreate that dynamic in adult life, especially after you’ve made a habit of the Career Success Triangle.
For example in the first corner - when you’re ready to learn something new, see if you can learn it in a group classroom setting or with some friends. Introduce yourself to your classmates, make some small talk, and see what you have in common.
Doing useful things for other people works too. Do useful things for people when you can, and some of them will want to spend more time with you as a new friend.
Then after you make some new acquaintances from the first two corners of the triangle, you can turn those acquaintances into authentic friends simply by inviting them out to whatever fun stuff you might be doing that week. Here are some of my favorite things to organize for my friends:
Board Game Nights
Going out dancing
Camping Trips / Weekend Getaways
Pick something to do, figure out when everyone is free, then invite your new friends out for a good time. If you take all the planning work out of it, people will appreciate it. Do this often enough, and people will start to seek you out for a good time when Friday afternoon hits.
Also - another one of the best things you can do to strengthen your network is to help others build THEIR networks. Any time you have two friends who you think would get along, introduce them! Everyone likes making new connections, and everyone appreciates the person who helps them do that. You can easily be that person, and there’s no reason not to.
Bottom line - just be nice to people and have fun with it. As I once saw on a random sign at a music festival,
Your vibe attracts your tribe.
So try to put out a fun, generous vibe when you're interacting with others, and other like-minded individuals will find you eventually. Have faith my friend!
So in conclusion,
That’s about it. Any time I’m feeling a little anxious about my career (often), I consult my little triangle to make sure I'm still on a positive, balanced path. If that's true, then I just keep doing whatever I can to be useful to those around me. Get yourself on a positive path, and just keep swimming.
One final thought to wrap things up:
The opposite of success is not failure, its apathy and inaction (not doing shit).