This crucial question again !
Indeed, the direction of our pursuit — especially if requiring both focus and balance, as well as excellence — remains the great imponderable, and is ultimately a very personal decision. It can also take several goals.
Po Bronson’s thoughtful 2003 book What Should I Do With My Life ? can perhaps shell light on such dilemmas. The book is the “true story of people who answered the ultimate question” narrated by a man that threw in a career as a bond salesmen to become the chronicler (for Wired magazine and others) of the burgeoning 1990s Silicon Valley of his adopted San Francisco Bay area. Finding himself at a career crossroads, Bronson decided to look for guidance and courage from others that had “unearthed their true calling”. “Those who broke away from the chorus to learn the sound of their own voice” as Bronson elegantly puts it.
In each of the 50 or so case studies — from young and old, disadvantaged and advantaged, local or global, Bronson describes messy and complicated modern lives : the antithesis of the happily ever after predestination that peppers many of the “how I made it” biographies of the famous. To outsiders, the books reads like a compendium of fellow strugglers — for the most part finding, or at least groping towards, an answer.
There’s always something nagging away at our conscience suggests Bronson. Something that says, if I could do something, this would be it. It’s an incessant voice, though one we must listen to. Of course, we need to rationalize it by calculating how we can turn such dreams into a practical path — perhaps with milestones along the way. But it’s a voice that won’t go away and nor should it.
Yet there’s no comforting ‘cure-all’ he concludes, though most of his interviewees possess a deep integrity, a higher calling and a desire to “make a difference” — many via entrepreneurialism in one form or another. Nonetheless, Bronson makes it abundantly clear from the outset : “It’s not easy / It’s not supposed to be easy / Most people make mistakes / Most people have to learn the hardest lessons more than once”.
“Don’t look for a story just like yours” he concludes. “There’s no story just like yours. Open your filter and you will recognize that all stories are unique and all stories are worthy. Your story is unique. Find your story”.
The key need : be incremental
This isn’t an insistence on becoming a tree-hugging do-gooder, in fact, it’s the opposite. This is about you pursuing your goals to help satisfy your calling. Make no mistake, it’s a selfish act. Many of Bronson’s interviewees go on to pursue highly-profitable entreprises — some having rejected lucrative mainstream careers, other have reject dead-end jobs to do something more philanthropic. Some spurn big things for small, while others swap small things for big. Each time, however, they’re moving towards something that inspires them into becoming their best selves. And this usually involves adding positively to their chosen field whether through innovation, by pushing the boundaries of their art, or by “giving back” in some way or other. In short, they are being incremental — adding to the sum spirit of the world in some way.
From little acorns
Are there any rules for finding our thing ? From reading Krznaric Dweck, Bronson and many others — and from his own experiences and observations, Robert Kelsey, author of The Outsider Edge, offers a guide to people struggling to find that little acorn.
1. It will be an acorn. No great oak will present itself, so we must find the right acorn. Of course, there are lots of acorns, so picking the one can be tricky. As Bronson says, “Usually, all we get is a glimmer. A story we read or someone we briefly met. A curiosity. A meek voice inside, whispering. It’s up to us to hammer out the rest”.
2. Look for excellence. The pursuit of excellence is a key need for any outsider, especially those wishing to reject some seemingly predetermined path. So the acorn to pick is the one giving us the best hope of achieving excellence. Certainly, linguists pursuing goals involving mathematics will increase their doubts regarding what’s achievable beyond the mediocre, making failures more likely.
3. It’s unlikely to be your first acorn. Just about every outsider story I’ve ever read or heard involves some form of change of direction, if not several. My father assumed my destiny was in the building industry : a non-future I spent four years pursuing through work and college before realizing it just wasn’t me — despite being told many times it was my only chance for professional attainment.
4. Pursue what excites. We tend to enjoy things we’re good at and what we’re good at tends to excite us. Yet we could be good at a range of things, so we must therefore look for excitement. What makes the pulse quicken, the pace accelerate and the hairs on our arms stand up ? That’s what we’ll return to again and again, so that’s where we belong.
5. Expect to struggle. Innate talent is a myth. Excellence only comes to those that struggle. Of course, the struggle’s not the point. We’re not here to be miserable or stressed or tired. But at least the we know we’re pushing ourselves through the inevitable “wilderness years” before our excellence is recognized (though we must never think ourselves “full” in terms of talent).
6. Avoid wasteful hedonism. Lost and especially disadvantaged outsiders from pursue hedonistic goals as a way of numbing the pain or denying their anger. This is, of course, wasteful — as I know from my own party-going indulgences during low points in my career. Yet, even here, a growth mindset can open your eyes to the opportunities. I have friends that are now successful DJs, while others are nightclub promoters — including one on behalf of an innovative charity — and another who started a magazine for dance music DJs : all from pursuing their love of nightlife.
7. Avoid shallow objectives. This is not a call for worthy pursuits. Yet if our goals are shallow they won’t motivate us and we’re more likely to fail. If we want to be “rich” or “famous” then we’re, in fact, not pursuing goals at all : we’re trying to overcome our insecurities about being poor and / or unknown. In fact, the pursuit of wealth or celebrity for its own sake will only exacerbate our insecurities, because there will always be someone richer or more famous.
8. Think long term. Many people fail after achieving their short term goals because they’ve not considered “what’s next ?” Far better to pursue a longer timeframe — perhaps 10 years — which gives us enough time to not only find our higher calling but to acquire the required skills as well as make significant headway. It may not be enough to turn our acorn into a majestic oak But it’s certainly long enough to see the future tree in prospect.
9. It’s the direction that matters. Sorry to switch metaphors but, if this timeframe’s 10 years, the destination may be no more than a hazy shape in the distance. Fine : establishing the destination is only vital for setting the compass and calculating some milestones along the way (that confirm the direction). And such well-directed endeavours should not only continually excite us — giving us that feeling of arrival as we reach each milestone — they’ll improve our judgement as decisions are a lot easier when assessing what supports our journey, and what doesn’t.
10. Innovate. And, finally, there’s the hallmark of the successful outsider — what sets apart the Bowies, the Emins and the Edisons from the rest of the pack. We must innovate. Excellence isn’t enough. What’s important is using that talent to change things. This doesn’t have to be huge, but it has to be significant enough to be self-conforming. In any pursuit, there’s the next undiscovered — level. Make that your discovery. Indeed, that’s why the destination’s hazy : you’ve yet to invent it.