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.

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.