What do you want to do with your life? It’s a question almost everyone asks themselves. It’s also a question I don’t believe you should bother asking in the first place.
“I don’t know what I want to do in life, all I know is that it isn’t this.”
That was the sentiment a friend reflected to me. She’s in her mid-twenties, smart, savvy and hard working. But she is still stuck working jobs that don’t hover much beyond minimum wage. Every year, she tells me, that she applies for Universities, but never goes through with it. Why? Because she can’t answer that question.
I worry a lot of people fall into the same trap. The trap of believing that they need to make big life decisions before they can start doing anything. The trap that you need to be born with a passion. And the lie that being able to combine your interests with a profession is easy.
When people ask me what I’m going to be doing in five or ten years, I usually tell them I’m going to be an entrepreneur. “Oh. What’s your business going to be?” I have reason to believe this internet business could be it. Between revenues and freelance work I’m expecting to make about ten thousand dollars this year. Concentrated effort for the next four or five years could definitely make this a livable income.
But I don’t usually say that. Because it isn’t the point. In all honesty, I have no idea where I am going to be in a decade. My track record shows that my passions have evolved considerably, even over the last couple years.
Ben Casnocha, the 19-year old CEO of Comcate, shows how his passion didn’t start with a flash of insight, in the book My Start Up Life:
“It didn’t start with a dream. It didn’t start with in a garage. It didn’t even start with an innovative epiphany, which are perhaps entrepreneurs’ most overplayed recollections.” He continues, relating the story of Jerry Kaplan’s epiphany moment in Kaplan’s book, Start Up. To which Ben adds, “I wish my epiphany were as primal. It wasn’t, and most aren’t.” [emphasis mine]
As Ben shares his story of being a teenage CEO, it becomes clear that his passion evolved. There were interests in entrepreneurship and making a difference. But from these interests, he made smaller steps, each building a passion. I don’t believe his journey ever started with deciding what he wanted to do with his life.
Replace Decision with Curiosity
Instead of making definite decisions about a career path, I believe you should get curious. Get curious about the way the world works. Notice your own interests and find small ways you can exercise passion in something. Even if you can’t find a way to make money off of it yet.
The bridge from passion to money-maker can’t be made hastily. Interests often get discarded because they cannot be immediately relayed into a source of income. And therefore aren’t as important as work that does.
Blogging is a great example. I know many bloggers who want to go pro. They want to take the interest they have and turn it into a passionate source of income. But blogging isn’t easy. Even the most rapid successes I’ve seen, took over a year before the author could claim blogging as more than a hobby. And those were due to writing talent, luck and an incredible amount of work.
Patience is a necessary ingredient in evolving a passion. But even more, you need to be open to other possibilities.
Interest to Income Isn’t a Straight Path
80% of new businesses fail in the first five years. But more interesting, is that of the 20% that succeeded, most didn’t do so in the way they had expected to.
Before setting up his immensely popular website, Steve Pavlina believed he would make most his revenue through products and workshops. But close to five years later, he makes all of it from advertising and affiliate sales. A revenue prospect he downplayed when making his business plan.
Similarly, I don’t believe that most people’s passions follow a straight path. Scott Adams began with a degree in economics and a position in a bank and now he is the successful cartoonist who created Dilbert.
Seven Steps to Evolving a Passion… and Making it Work
Step One – Gather Sparks of Curiosity
Don’t have an inferno of passion driving your actions yet? Don’t worry about it. Most people I know don’t. And if you are under thirty, you are probably in the overwhelming majority.
The first steps is to simply invest your energy into whims. Those little sparks of interest where you don’t know enough to make them a passion. Ben Casnocha calls this seeking randomness. For me, it has been a process of finding my intuition and using it to make small investments in things that are potentially interesting.
This means reading different books, taking on different activities and meeting different people. Broad associations gives a lot of chances to stumble on a passion that can work.
Step Two: Fan the Flames of Interest
After exposing yourself to a lot of randomness, you need to cultivate the successes. Build upon the little sparks of interest that come by your life. If you read a book about physics and like the subject, try taking a physics class. If you enjoy some basic programming try a small software project.
Step Three: Cut Out Distractions
Cultivating whims and exploring new passions requires time. One of the reasons I’ve placed such an emphasis on productivity with myself, is that without it I couldn’t explore these options.
If your interests are genuine and worth exploring, it shouldn’t be too difficult to eliminate the non-essentials. Distractions such as television, excess internet usage and video games only take a bit of conditioning to free up. The hard part is reallocating time you don’t believe is yours.
Step Four: Living Minimally
If you already have a job you aren’t passionate about, work only as much as you need to keep going. Valid passions need time to grow into income generating skills.
I don’t suggest becoming a starving artist and racking up huge debts. But avoid expanding your life to fit a bigger and bigger paycheck if you aren’t living your passion. Otherwise you simply trap yourself into a life that is comfortable, but otherwise dead.
Leo Babauta, author of ZenHabits is a great example of this. With six kids, freelancing work and another job to help support his family he found ways to cut expenses and focus on his passion. His website has quickly grown to become incredibly popular, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a stable source of income for him in a few years. Live minimally, and avoid getting trapped into a comfortable, but unsatisfying, life.
Step Five: Make a Passion that Creates Value
If you have a skill that creates social value, you can make money through almost any medium. Monetizing a passion takes skill, as any entrepreneur can tell you, but without providing legitimate value it is impossible.
You need to transform your developing passions into a skill that can fill human needs. Some passions are easy to translate. An interest in computers could allow you to become a software designer. Others are more difficult. A passion for poetry, may be more difficult to meet a specific human need.
Step Six: Find a Way to Monetize That Value
Once you have the ability to create social value, you need to turn that into a repeatable process for gaining income. This could be in the form of a job. As a programmer you could get hired by Google. Or, it could lead to becoming a freelancer or an entrepreneur.
Monetizing value isn’t easy. It requires that you learn how to market, sell yourself, and find ways to connect human needs. Whether you intend to work in a job or own a business makes no difference. You are the CEO of your life, so you need to know how to connect your passions with serving other people.
Step Seven: Go Back to Step One
Describing this process in steps is misleading. It implies that there is a destination. There is no destination. The process of following whims, cultivating passions, turning them into valuable skills and then finally earning revenue from them is lifelong. I have some passions that are in steps one and two. This blog is in the midst of step six. In ten years I may have gone through them all with a completely different passion.
Not all your passions will or can finish the sixth step. But as persistent as the myth you need to decide what you want to do with your life, is the myth you can only have one passion. I’m at a point where cultivating passions has meant I have too many options. Too many possible paths that could lead to enjoyable and fulfilling careers. Don’t obsess over one failed attempt.
What do you want to do with your life?
Your life doesn’t need to go through a predictable story arc. It doesn’t have to start with a dream, follow through hard work and end up in a nice home with four bedrooms. Instead it can twist and travel. You don’t have to know the final answer, you just need to act on the next step.
This article is also available in Italian, thanks to Paolo Marintano!