What should you do with your life?
I’ve asked, and been asked, this question often. And while I can’t give a decisive formula for answering it, I have made one realization: most of the standard advice is terrible.
Whether it’s multiple-choice personality quizzes that tell you to be a farmer, security guard or laboratory assistant (regardless of whether you have any interest in those things) or platitudes to “be practical” or “follow your heart”, most advice is too simplistic to be useful.
However, amongst all the oversimplifications and Myers-Briggs tests, I have been given a few gems. I’ve been lucky enough to get paid to do what I love (writing) so I thought I’d share the best advice I’ve read, been told or synthesized that helped me reach that point, in the hopes you might too.
Passions are Built, Not Discovered
Don’t expect inspiration to hit you across the face. If you want to walk the delicate balance between doing something you love and being paid well for it, you need to be remarkably good at something society cares about.
My rough formula is: Passion = Skill + Interest
Being really good at something you hate, won’t make you love it. But being really good at something you’re curious about, can. Instead of staring at your navel, trying to discover your passions, go out in the world and start creating them.
Doing What You Love is a Long-Term Project
What could you become exceptional at in the next decade? Malcolm Gladwell suggests that 10,000 hours (or about a decade of sustained practice) is what it takes to become world-class at any skill.
Viewing the search for work you’re passionate about as a painstaking quest to master a skill changes you’re approach. Suddenly the boring class you need to take before becoming a surgeon, or the failed ventures before becoming a successful entrepreneur, aren’t signs of defeat but necessary steps foward.
Get-rich-quick schemes don’t work. I’d argue that find-fulfilling-career schemes without a long-term focus don’t work either.
School Still Matters (And *Gasp* Sometimes Getting a Job Does Too)
The world still pays attention to credentials. That may dishearten the rebel geniuses or lone entrepreneurs that dislike how much say academic or corporate systems have over what they should do with their life, but it doesn’t make it untrue.
I’d argue that, for 95% of people, the way to beat the system and live a fantastic, unconventional life isn’t to reject the system. Universities may be slow an inefficient, but a degree is often a necessary first step in many fields. Getting a job may not have the same glamor as self-employment, but it can give you insights into the industry and skills needed to make your escape.
For the 5% of people who can successfully bootstrap themselves while being a jobless dropout, you’re probably already way too smart to need any of my advice. For the rest, school and jobs can be a launching pad for bigger opportunities.
Don’t Be Afraid to Create Things that Don’t Pay Well
I’ve noticed that a well-paid passion tends to be uncovered in one of two ways: either you find paid work, and become so good at it that you enjoy it and can dictate the terms of how you work; or you find unpaid work you enjoy, and become so good at it that you can get paid well.
Many people I know (including myself) used the latter route. I poured thousands of hours into writing, long before I made anything more than a little extra pocket change. Now, after almost 5 years, I’m able to make a livable income and I expect that to grow with time.
The best advice I ever received was to not be afraid to invest yourself in projects without an immediate payoff. Even if you aren’t planning to start a business–self-running a charity, designing a computer game or completing a novel builds skills you can apply to later pursuits.
Find Someone Who Makes Money Doing What they Love and Listen to Them
When I was growing up, I’d often hear from family, teachers or news reports about how unlikely it was to succeed as an entrepreneur. I didn’t know anyone who was either a professional writer or who successfully ran a business.
I hadn’t realized that I was asking the wrong people. Instead of reading failure statistics or listening to advice from people who had never ran a business in their lives, I should have started talking to people who were successful and knew how to make money in the field I was passionate about.
The biggest change in my success didn’t come from my own ideas, or even my own willpower and determination. It came from finding people who had achieved what I wanted and listening to them speak. Not just the specifics of their advice, but their entire attitude and perspective were wired differently than the people I knew who were struggling.
I believe this lesson applies beyond just people who want to start their own business. If you want to figure out how to find a job you love, you need to stop asking advice from people who hate theirs.
People who have found their passion and get paid for it think differently than people who find themselves stuck in the grind, and at least some of that is the secret to their discovery.