If you have an idea of what you want to make and what you were put here to do, just go and do that… Sometimes it’s clear cut, sometimes it’s not. – Neil Gaiman
I get these questions from my readers a lot:
- What should I do with my life?
- I don’t really have any interests. I don’t know what to do.
- I’ve graduated now. What do I do next?
I’ve never been sure how to answer those questions because the right answer is, “I don’t know. It’s up to you.” Honestly, it’s your life… But that’s no help is it? So I did some research for some frameworks and principles you can use to figure out where you want to go in life.
Here’s what I found.
1. When in Doubt, Take a Step Towards Your Mountain.
As I was doing my research, I came across two commencement speeches that struck a chord with me:
They both talked about finding work that excites you, and Neil provided a helpful analogy called The Mountain. (No, this has nothing to do with Gregor Clegane from GoT.)
Here’s what he said: “Imagine what you want to be. That’s a distant mountain. Keep walking toward the mountain, and you’ll be alright.”
What he means by this is that you don’t have to have a cut-and-dried goal or dream in mind. And in the beginning, as long as you head in the general direction of where you want to go, you will be fine; the mountain will become more evident as you walk towards it – all you have to have in the beginning is a dream of who or what you want to become.
For example, let’s say you want to become rich. You’re not sure how you’re going to do it, or what you should do to get there, but you’re just sure you want to be a millionaire by the time you’re 25.
That’s fine. The important thing is to do what you can see right now, even if it doesn’t seem to scale. So what can you do today to be one step closer to having $1,000,000 in the bank?
You could start cutting unnecessary expenses and start saving more money; then you could also get a part-time job to make more money. You should also start reading books about business and personal finance to learn how to manage and grow the money you have.
As you do this, you’ll slowly pick up the skills and figure out what you need to do to get to $1,000,000:
- Maybe you’re very good with numbers and realized that, after reading books about investing, you have the brains to go into investment banking.
- Maybe you realize that you’re not an office-person (or you just hate school) so you start looking for startup opportunities to do.
- Maybe you don’t want to run a startup and have to manage people, but you still want to do your own thing – perfect, now you can start getting into freelancing then, eventually, consulting.
As you take small steps towards the mountain, the next step becomes clearer and clearer.
2. Fake It ’Til You Make It.
OK, knowing the fact there’s no one, clear-cut path can be daunting and scary. But see, that lack of certainty is a good thing – because then you don’t know what can and can’t be done.
Neil Gaiman put this nicely: “When you start out in a career in the arts, you have no idea what you are doing. You don’t know what’s possible and impossible. You can go beyond the impossible. There are no rules yet to stop you from doing anything.”
Too often, though, it is not other people that are keeping us from our goals.
Too often, we are our own worst enemy – beating ourselves down and scaring ourselves out of action with horrible scenarios. Here’s some simple advice from Neil for when you’re scared, don’t think you’re good enough or don’t know what to do: “Pretend to be someone who is, and just do what they would do.”
LOL. Easy to say, hard to do!
3. Focus on Creating What Excites You.
As we talked about in #1, you should take every opportunity that presents itself, as long as it leads you closer to your mountain. But keep this in mind: You can’t connect the dots moving forwards. You can only connect the dots looking backward.
This is why you don’t know what you want to do – because you can’t connect each opportunity to the next one after it. So it is healthy and totally OK not to know what you want. I mean, even Steve Jobs had no idea what he wanted to do with his life when he was in college! But here’s a mindset of his that helped guide him in the right direction:
Do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. You’ll know when you find out. Don’t settle. – Steve Jobs
Steve was definitely lucky here – he found what he wanted to do early on in his life when he started building computers with the Woz. But what about you?
Maybe you can’t code, build computers, persuade people or be an a**hole like he could.
Maybe you don’t see yourself as a creative, artsy person – so what can you make?
Here’s some unconventionally creative stuff you can try – and you probably already enjoy doing some of these every day:
- Writing and posting meaningful rants on Facebook regularly
- Posting progressively better photos to Instagram or VSCO
- Snapchatting and vlogging your fitness progress every week
- Re-imagining your favorite celebrities on Photoshop or Illustrator like this
- Sketching your favorite people, events, and places, like Humans of New York
- Live streaming and breaking down your strategy on Twitch
The first thought in your head is probably, Shut up. No way I can make a living on YouTube or re-designing Disney Princesses or Twitch!
Remember that you can’t connect the dots moving forward. This means that you don’t know how the current opportunities that you’re excited about can lead to the real deal. That’s part of the uncertainty – and part of the fun.
But again, if it takes you closer to your mountain, commit. As long as it excites you, do it. Then do it again. Then do it some more.
(And yes, you can make a living from Twitch and playing video games. I mean, look at PewDiePie.)
The things I did because I was excited have never let me down. And I have never regret doing them. – Neil Gaiman
4. Love the process. Trust the system.
This is going to sound crazy but hear me out: What you do doesn’t matter as much as how excited you are about it, and how committed you are to doing it well.
As Gary Vaynerchuk often says, you have to love the process – you have to enjoy the game itself, regardless of the outcome. The outcome is merely a result of how committed you are to play the game well and to trusting the process.
At 30, I was out. Everything I had worked for in my adult life was gone… But I still loved what I did. I’d been rejected but I was still in love. – Steve Jobs
If you want to have the kind of passion Steve had for Apple and his work, despite being fired, then you’ve got to love the process. There’s no way around it.
5. Create Lots of Small Things.
When we start out, we’re not that good yet. We still have to prove ourselves and build the competency to be great. But that’s OK.
As Napoleon Hill, the author of Think and Grow Rich – one of the most recommended business books of all time – says, “If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.”
In one of my favorite videos, Ira Glass talks about The Gap. Take a couple of minutes and watch the video below:
Apart from being the clothing store where I get most of my clothes (and that horrible space between my two front teeth when I was little), The Gap is the space between what you know is excellent work and the quality of your work right now.
And when you start out, that Gap can feel (and probably is) as wide as the distance from sea to shining sea… So how do you get from where you are, to where you want to be?
Here’s what Ira suggests: Do a lot of good-enough stuff.
Take lots of photos, shoot lots of films, bake lots of cookies, build lots of Powerpoints, perform lots of shows.
Again, at first, the objective quality of your work doesn’t matter as much as the volume of the work you do.
Anyway, let’s get real: Most of it will be bad! Some of it will be good… And a handful will be great. And only by going through the Bad and the Good will you ever produce Great. That’s how you can close The Gap.
Look, everyone struggles, makes mistakes and gets rejected. But it’s what you do with it – it’s when you fight your way through the pain and come out the other side – that makes you better than everyone else.
Oh, and when you start creating – whether that’s food, code, music, writing, sketches, pitch decks, speeches, wireframes, performances, footage or photographs – remember to do the stuff only you can do. It’s OK to steal and copy other people’s stuff at first – that’s how you learn and figure out what works and what doesn’t – but always be working towards infusing your work with you:
- Your experiences,
- Your tastes,
- Your sound,
- Your fingerprints.
6. Our Lives are Countdown Timers, Not Stopwatches.
As you keep creating and releasing bits and pieces of yourself out into the world, don’t be afraid of being too vulnerable or giving too much of yourself away.
If you feel like you’re a bit too authentic then you might actually be on the right path:
Live as only you can. The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked… Showing too much of yourself… That’s the moment that you might just be getting it right. – Neil Gaiman
As young people, we don’t have anything to lose if we fail – no dependents, no mortgages. This is the best time to pursue crazy things and do phenomenal work that may or may not work out.
Avoid the trap you something to lose. Your life is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
– Steve Jobs
Here’s something I call the Timer/Stopwatch Analogy that might help.
You know the difference between a timer and a stopwatch? Timers have a set time, and they count down, while stopwatches keep going up until you hit stop.
The thing is, regardless of what we want, ever since we were born, our timers have already started counting down to our last day.
On the one hand, that’s a sobering thought… But if you think about it, there’s no stronger motivation in the world than the constant reminder that our lives are more like timers than stopwatches – that we’re all on borrowed time.
For example, Steve Jobs would ask himself every day: If today is [my] last day, would I do what I’m about to do? If the answer was “No” too many days in a row, then he knew that something had to change – he wasn’t walking towards his mountain.
Never settle and never let the system suck your best out of you. Don’t ever tell yourself that you’ve arrived – there’s always more work and more growing to be done.
And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.
Stay hungry, stay foolish.
Make your art… [Then] Let go and enjoy the ride. – Neil Gaiman
Also published on Medium.