Grads: You Don’t Have to Have Your Life Figured Out

 It was 6 pm or thereabouts. When I stepped in the door though, something changed. I only made it to the living room. Still, in my smart-I-know-what-I’m-doing-trousers, I fell to the ground. I did something I hadn’t done in my adult life. I sobbed. I was flooded by feelings that I had kept, hidden. Hidden for years. Those feelings flooded through my body and expelled themselves as salty tears. It didn’t make much sense to me, everything on paper was perfectly positioned: There I was, marching down the path well-trodden with gusto. Hardworking, tick. Managing a team, tick. Building a network, tick. I was doing all the things a good grad should do. Yet there was one small problem. I was miserable.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone. New research shows that 75% of 25–33-year-old have experienced a quarter-life crisis, and question what hits the top stop for causation? The brilliant Oliver Burkeman tells you that you only have 4,000 weeks, it (rightly so) adds to the pressure. The research shows that when we are happier we work harder, and so the race is on. If you can only find a job that you love, one that makes you happy, you can optimize for productivity and fully utilize your 4,000 weeks. If only it was that simple, yet there is hope. Having gone from rock bottom to finding joy in my work, here is my recipe.

Pressure destroys creativity

Paralysis by analysis may well be a phrase you know, I know it because it describes the old me perfectly. It goes like this: when an individual is subjected to pressure or stress, which then triggers deep thinking instead of an automatic response, things are likely to go south quickly. Cognitive Scientist and author Sian Beilock calls this choking. Beilock writes: “Choking under pressure is a poor performance that occurs in response to perceived stress of a situation.” It’s that crippling fear you have when time stands still and you lose all sense of yourself and what value you can add to the world. Honestly, is there anything more high stress than trying to work out what you want to do with your life?

When it comes to careers, especially when you are right at the beginning of your journey, the stakes are high. Well, it feels that way, ironically, the stakes are probably as low as they’ll ever be, but try telling an ambitious 20-something that. You know choice matters. Whatever step you take, in whichever direction, is critical in helping you in ten years' time, isn’t it? The trouble with this way of thinking is it layers the pressure. Not only are you thinking about yourself in ten years' time, but you are also questioning every step you take minute by minute. It creates a melting pot. Analysis by paralysis on an epic scale. Instead of ‘having a go’, ‘seeing how you feel’, or ‘trying a career on for size’, everything gets amplified.

  • This isn’t a graduate job it’s the first step in the rest of your life.
  • This isn’t an internship, this is your future prospects.
  • This isn’t a job interview, it’s your future net worth.

The trouble though is this level of pressure clouds your judgment. How can you be expected to give a fair view of anything if you’re thinking about how this one decision could change your entire life? If you want to figure out what you want to do with your life, stop thinking about your life on a ten-year scale. Things aren’t that serious. Instead, opt for working out what you’d like to do for the next few months and go from there.

Establish experimentation as your ethos

There is something about telling people you’re not sure what you want to do with your life that feels, well, uncool. Admitting that to people all around you, who convincingly do know what they want to do with their life, well it’s just a double-whammy. I remember admitting this early on in my career, everyone looked at me with pity. I felt like an idiot. The truth is though, the majority of people feel exactly the same, they just won’t tell you that.

There is though, another way. In 2008, Eric Ries convinced the startup world that there was a new way to build a good business. He noticed that people spent an extraordinary amount of time building things only to finish and find out the customer didn’t want them. It cost money and more importantly time, and it usually meant the company went bust. He pioneered a new way of thinking, a new way to do business, it went like this: build a hypothesis, make something, put some measures around it, test and then learn from it. Simple. So simple it now seems absurd that this wasn’t the way everyone was doing business. All of a sudden startups were seeking feedback from their customers early, they were understanding what their customers actually wanted rather than making assumptions about it. That approach can be lifted and shifted from the startup world right into the world of work. It’s as simple as this:

  • Build a hypothesis around your assumptions — “I’ll love being a teacher”
  • Put some metrics around it — “If I find myself smiling 20 times today I’ll class that as a win.”
  • Test in the open — Go and teach a class about something you already know.
  • Learn — What did you like and what didn’t you like?

This model can be used as a framework to test your hypotheses of what you’ll like before committing to one single career. It feels time-consuming but nothing will consume your time more than staying put in a career you hate.

Fill your thinking time with doing

In 2011, Professor of Psychology, Iris Mauss, decided to ask a rather interesting question: Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? The paper posits a paradoxical idea, in that, perhaps those people who spend a hefty amount of their time thinking about happiness may well be inadvertently pushing themselves in the opposite direction. Amazingly he found that idea to be true.

When you are amidst the frustration of frantically trying to find a job you actually like, it’s hard to focus on anything else. You spend hours trying to understand your lack of happiness or you can just get busy getting stuck into the testing. I’d advise the latter. By spending time focused on the work you’ll find that you think less about optimizing for happiness. Happiness is one of those things that the more time you spend thinking about it, the further it feels away. Instead one of the best ways I’ve found to forget about it entirely is to get lost in the detail. To spend as much time as you can working on the thing you’re interested in. Convince your brain that you need to put as much effort as possible into this thing if you are going to get the right data for your testing. Getting lost in the process is one of the quickest ways to find happiness.

Pick the right metrics

A word of warning though, metrics matter. Concentrating on getting the metrics right is as important as the testing itself. Often society dictates said metrics, usually, the focus of any job squarely focuses on three items: salary status, and job title. Yet in the world we live in, there are other things, much more wholesome things, you should be mindful of, things like happiness, purpose, work-life balance, enjoyment, commuting time, and culture.

Who you surround yourself with is just as important as the job you are doing. Otherwise, you’ll score top marks for a job that doesn’t suit you and that will lead to total disaster later down the line. Instead, work out the things that matter to you. What are your non-negotiables at work, and what kind of life do you want to lead? Make those your metrics, go from there.

Joy comes from the depth

Yvon Chouinard is the founder of Patagonia. He’s famous for his quirky approach to business, one example of which is if the surf is up, he lets his people go surfing. Pretty cool ay? But I’m not talking about Chouinard because of his approach to work culture, I’m talking about him because of his approach to mastery. “I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach about an 80 percent proficiency level, to go beyond that requires an obsession that doesn’t appeal to me.”

At some point (and I hope that point is soon), you’ll be diving into whatever takes your fancy and testing to see if you like what you find. In the beginning, you’ll need to try lots of different pools to work out which one you like. Once you learn enough about yourself, you’ll be able to rule out the vast majority of jobs and be able to concentrate on a select few. Here is a word of warning though, throwing yourself into the job and testing is the first part of the equation. It’s the quick and dirty approach to getting down to the list of things that you probably want to do with your life. Then comes the hard bit — sticking with it. There is a great joy to be found in working up to your 80% proficiency. To get there though, might take years. So test in the first instance and when you find something you like, work your way up to 80%. Getting there will be a lot slower and it’ll take a lot more patience but in my experience, that’s where the greatest joy comes from.

☂️ Join the movement at Occupation Happy, we’re growing fast!

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