Getting un-stuck

When I first started this blog, I was soo ready.  I had hundreds of ideas I wanted to communicate, and I just needed somewhere to put them.  For the first week or so, I wrote a lot.  Or at least, it *felt* like a lot, for a number-crunchy non-writer like me.  I wrote what was on my mind.  I wrote posts inspired by feedback I had gotten from people who read my earlier posts.  I had never counted writing as one of my strengths, yet people were saying positive things about what I had written.

And then it occurred to me:

Crap.  People are actually reading what I’m writing. What should I write next?  Should I finish the networking series?  Should I continue to write about self-exploration?  Should I write things that will be useful to the undergrads I’m speaking to next week, or should I write something for my friend who’s going on a sabbatical?  Who should I write for, and when?

So, you’ve probably noticed (or maybe not, because who’s really waiting for my next post) that I haven’t written anything new for more than a week.    Here’s the advice I had a hard time putting into practice:

There are two types of thinking: divergent thinking and convergent thinking. Both are useful in creativity and problem solving, but you must keep them separate.

Continue reading

Networking: Getting started (Part negative-1)

Hold up, wait a minute.  Let me put some (context?) in it.

I need to back things up a little bit.  Before you do an informational interview, even before you reach out to to your network to ask for contacts, it helps to spend some time really thinking about what is it that you really want.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a teacher. I loved learning, I loved the way knowing stuff made me feel, and I wanted to help others feel that way, too.  In kindergarten, I decided I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher.  In the first grade, I wanted to be a first grade teacher.  And so it went.  Until one of my teachers found out I wanted to grow up to be a teacher just like her, and she told me “That’s a waste of your brain.”

I think I went home and cried that day.  But she was my teacher, someone I idolized and trusted, and being a child at the time, I listened to her.  So, I tried thinking about what else I could be.  I was pretty good at math and science, and my science teacher always had engineering posters up in her classroom, so I decided I’d do that.

I did end up studying engineering in college, although a part of me still longed to do something in education. Senior year, I seriously considered applying to get my master’s degree in Education, but everyone else in my major was going through recruiting, and management consulting seemed to be the primo gig.  I eventually chose to apply for the types of jobs my classmates were applying for, and landed a position at a niche consulting firm.

Within a year at my first job, I knew I wanted to leave.  I was so unhappy, I left without another job prospect in hand.  Luckily, after a short period of time, I found a job in the marketing division of a packaged foods company.  Things were good for a while.  I was good at my job, and it was interesting work.  But the industry I worked in pretty much required an MBA for management level positions, so all of my colleagues suggested I apply to business school.

Applying to business school requires a ton of introspection, as you’re asked to recount your life story (past, present, and future) and explain how their particular school fits into your plan.  You also have to be able to answer incredibly open-ended questions, like “What matters to you most, and why?” I spent months looking back at my past and trying to decipher my recent choices in life.  I asked friends for help, had numerous conversations with people, and filled an entire notebook with my thoughts and hypotheses.  It was during that process that I realized that at the core of me, I wanted to do work that helped enable people to succeed.  And so, I told business schools that I wanted to pursue a career in public education.

Looking back, I spent a whole lot of time doing things that other people thought would be good for me.  Now, for the first time in my life, I am doing exactly what I want to be doing. The reason I was able to get here is because I have a clear idea of what I want, and I am not afraid to go after it.

I promise I’ll eventually return to the networking series, and tell you how to start networking and conduct informational interviews and hold a wine glass, plate of hors d’oeuvres, and napkin in one hand while keeping the other free for shaking hands.  I just wanted to pause and bring it back to the key idea at the center of this blog.

What do I do with my life?

Do something that nurtures your passions, lets you do what you’re good at, and keeps you true to your values.  But first, take some time to figure out what those things are.

Yet, I also know that I may not want to do this forever.  My skills and life-stage will evolve, at which point I may need to serve my core passions and values in a different way, with a different job.  I currently work for a network of public charter schools, helping them figure out how to run their operations in the most efficient way possible, so that we can dedicate more of every dollar we receive to our kids and their classrooms.  I recently told my supervisor that five-years from now, I hope to be a part-time mom with her own full-service children’s party planning business.  In ten years, I would love to be a full-time life coach.  All of these things integrate elements of what I am passionate about, what I am good at, and what I value.

What were you doing when time just flew by?

In the past year, I’ve made a habit of asking folks who seem to be contemplating their future:

What were you doing when time flew?  What were you doing last when you completely lost track of time, and when you finally did check the time, wish you had more to keeping doing what you were doing? 

I first encountered this set of questions in Professor Randy Haykin‘s class, Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.  He was introducing us to the concept of flow, that sweet spot when we have the highest potential for creativity.

I like asking this set of questions because it feels easier to answer than the “What do I do with my life” question.  That’s because when time is flying, when you are in the flow, you are so fully immersed in what you are doing that you are unfettered by the usual thoughts and constructs that keep you unhappy.  (This is the exact same feeling described in my previous post here, except that it’s being prompted by something you’re doing instead of something external to you.)  And somehow by simply recalling that moment, you experience freedom from the pressing thoughts of shoulds, coulds, and imaginary boundaries that prevent you from answering the “life” question.

Ok, a couple of the instances when time flew were when I was making my Up Halloween costume and when I was creating clues for The Game.  But I didn’t go to business school to become a costume designer or clue writer.  How does this have anything to do with what I want to do as a career?

It might.  It might not.  But if you were so fully enjoying what you were doing that you lost track of time, it does point to a part of what to do with your life.

These things that I love doing don’t necessarily need to be how I make my living (although I am toying with the idea of being a full-service themed children’s birthday party planner, complete with invitations, decor, costume design, and cake decorating options).  I just need to make sure that I make time for them in my life.

Often our dilemma is that we think that by dedicating time to these pursuits that we love, we will have less time for the “more important” things in life, like work, our partner, our family, etc.  How could I possibly find the energy to do that on top of everything else I need to take care of?  That’s the magic of it.  It isn’t a zero-sum game.  In fact, dedicating time to these activities give us more energy at the end of the day, and re-energizes us for the other parts of our lives.

Think about it.  What do you LOVE doing?  What were you doing the last time you were really excited about what you were doing?  When were you last in your element or in the flow?  How did it feel?

Have you felt that way in the past week?  In the past month?  In the past year?

If not, I think you owe it to yourself to think about why not?

But I don’t know what I want to do

“But I don’t know what I want to do.”

A couple weekends ago I was at my favorite restaurant for Pad Kee Mao (Lucky House Thai in Berkeley, if you wanted to know), trying to help a young undergrad shake the stress of her summer internship search.  I was offering advice about how to conduct a networked job search, when she alerted me to her bigger dilemma.

“I don’t think I’m passionate about anything.”

Passion can be an intimidating word.  As I once wrote in a craigslist post, being passionate about something “doesn’t have to be big like raising money to help some endangered animal that’s too lazy to screw to save their species (sorry, once went on a trip to Hong Kong and saw a couple pandas that were exactly that), but it can be as small as driving around San Francisco for forty minutes looking for a 24-hour Jack-In-The-Box because two tacos and a chicken sandwich sound so good at 2am that you absolutely must find them.”

So, what do you want to do?  It may seem like a very very big, almost unaswerable question, but it’s possible to find an answer.  Notice I say ‘AN’ answer, and not ‘THE’ answer.  THE answer may not exist, because it will always be changing.  Besides, Type-A super-achiever folks are often too obsessed with finding “THE” answer when “AN” answer will do just fine.

Here is the first exercise I did when I didn’t know how to answer that question.

 You will need: a big piece of paper and either colored pens or a bunch of post-its.

The post-it mind map I created while preparing to apply to business school

Step 1.  Prepare to make a list. Actually, a mind map.  Even better than that, a mind map of post-its if you have them, so that you can rearrange items as you notice patterns.

Step 2.  Write down all the things you have done or been in life. What if you haven’t done anything?  Untrue.  Don’t limit yourself to defined extra-curriculars, jobs, achievements, or the kind of stuff that you’d put on your resume.  No one has to see this list but you.  One thing that could go on my list is “obsessive list-maker.” Just think about how you spend your time.  Try to aim for 30 – 50 things.

Step 3.  Look at the list/mind map as a whole.  What things did you enjoy?  What things were you good at? (Note: Enjoying something and being good at something are two totally different things.  In college I hated Investment Science, but for some reason I was also good at it.)  What things did you hate?  What motivated you to do the things you did?  What prompted you to stop doing the things you don’t do any more? Do you see any patterns?  If you’ve written your list on post-its, start grouping things that seem to be related/similar.  If all of your things are on a single piece of paper, connect similar things with lines, or color-code them using different colored pens.

Here is a picture of the “Stuff I’ve Done” mind map I created for my Personal Innovation Project during business school.

Step 4.  Look at the groupings, and pick out themes you feel are important to have in your life.  It may still be a jumble of words, but those themes should give you a good start in thinking about what types of things you would like to do in the future.

Step 5.  Translate the themes into sentences starting with the words “I want to…”

Voila.  You have a list of things you want.  It will likely need to go through some iterations of refinement, but this is a good start.  Stay tuned for more exercises that will help you think about what you want and how you can work these things into your life.

Coming soon!

I just started this blog yesterday, but I’ve been thinking about it for a couple years, so already have a bunch of ideas for post topics.  For now, the list includes:

Finding Direction: exercises in how to figure out what you want to do and how your interests can translate into making a living

Getting/Creating your dream job: leveraging the network you have, developing your network, conducting informational interviews, following-up, pitching your own internship

Succeeding at your first job/ internship (for recent college grads): managing upward, structuring effective communication, useful Excel tips, taking control of your own professional development

Personal development: dealing with the voice in your head, facing fears, managing stress, finding courage to do what you love

Keep checking back, and let me know what else you might find helpful!